Can My 9-Month Old American Daughter Love Everton?

Originally published for Toffeeweb

Alba in her Everton sweater
Alba proudly representing her colors during a stroll at a local park

It wasn’t quite déjà vu or nostalgia, but as we sat there watching as Everton Ladies defeated Liverpool 1–0 in the Merseyside Derby this past November—Alba in her high chair beside the TV tossing Cheerios casually to the floor for the dog, me nearby working from the couch on my laptop—I remembered a similar afternoon more than a decade ago. 

I was in New Jersey at the kitchen table in my parent’s second-floor apartment watching as Everton lost 3–0 to Sporting Lisbon to tumble out of the 2009–10 Europa League. Like a boy newly in love, I was in my first full season as an Everton supporter. The optimism of youth had not yet been trampled by the cruelty of the world. Naively, I wished that God might indulge the virtuosity of my decision to support the Toffees with a championship trophy I could shove in the faces of my friends who had raised disbelieving eyebrows when I swore allegiance to a Premier League side not named Manchester United, Chelsea, or Arsenal.

I am an American-born son of Argentinian immigrants, and the first club to make a claim on my heart was neither English nor American. It was Rosario Central, a mid-table side founded in 1889 by Scottish railway workers, which last won the Argentine first division in 1987—the same year of Everton’s last league championship. My main purpose in watching European soccer leagues was to track Argentinians abroad. But by the late 2000s, when broadcasts of the Premier League and Champions League had expanded to Fox Sports and ESPN, more and more of my friends were claiming a club. They hung their crests on their dorm room walls. “How can you not have an EPL team?” they asked me. “Just pick one.” 

Alba and dad
Before Everton’s season opener against Tottenham Hotspur

 I was raised to be a localista—a supporter of your city or neighborhood team. It felt unnatural, in the way much of American sports fandom outside of college football feels unnatural. How could I support a team I wouldn’t likely see in person for years or even decades? Before I chose, I spent hours online researching, and even more in bed at night wondering which was the best fit, like the sweater you try on once and instinctively know it’ll be the first you turn to the next winter when the temperature drops. A plumber’s son from a gritty working-class city couldn’t support a soulless foreign-owned billionaire club, like the ones my college friends had chosen. I needed one that meant something to its people beyond championships—although I was an Atlantic Ocean away from experiencing any of it myself.

Eventually, Everton burrowed its way to my heart, where the club’s ownership stake only increased this past February with the arrival of my daughter. 

But, will she love the Blues as I do? 

Even before Alba was born, I purchased her more official club gear than I had for myself in a decade. I prayed that she would share my obsession. Her second day on earth, I held her in a hospital room in Knoxville, Tennessee—4,000 miles in a straight line from Liverpool—as we watched Everton’s men collapse to Arsenal. At home a week later, Everton drew 1–1 to Man United. After the match, I posted a picture of her in her blue Everton onesie to Instagram, denouncing the injustice: “What a way to start a Blues fan’s career.”

Everton Ladies—they would be the remedy. 

Though she cannot yet know it, Alba—whose grandfather had played in the youth sides of Newell’s Old Boys, the boyhood club of Lionel Messi and a brief late-career detour of Diego Maradona—is in line to inherit a tradition of infatuation that has afflicted those with Argentinian blood since football was first shipped overseas by the British in the mid-1800s. 

I did not grow up watching women’s soccer, or even watching women play soccer, besides the historic 1999 World Cup victory every American soccer fan can recall with only the mention of an image (Siri, search for “Brandi Chastain sports bra”). Since that victory, two professional women’s leagues have failed; a third, the National Women’s Soccer League, looks more promising, though it consists of 10 teams spread across a nation of 330 million—the closest of which is located in a different state a three-and-a-half hour drive from my city. While I spent five nights a week in college playing in a park behind my parent’s house with other immigrant kids from Mexico, Colombia, Poland, Egypt, Kenya, I cannot recall a single time a woman joined us. 

That changed when I arrived in Knoxville—a more traditionally American and less immigrant-dense city in the American South—where I joined mostly co-ed indoor leagues with women who had played college soccer and didn’t hesitate to slide through you from behind then call you a sissy if you complained. Five years ago, I met my wife on one of these fields. In a league game last year, while pregnant, she turned to a Mexican goalkeeper she swore had called her a puta (Spanish for bitch) throughout the first half. After scoring, she asked him “Who’s the puta now?”

Everton supporters at a bar
A Merseyside Derby spent with visiting Liverpudlians at Mr. Dennehy’s, an Everton supporter’s bar in New York City

I dream of Alba being a woman like this. 

When I learned we were having a girl, I searched online for information on Everton’s women’s team. I familiarized myself with their names and personalities. I had seen Izzy Christiansen against the US women in Nashville in March 2019 when the nations drew 2–2 in the SheBelieves Cup. I was grateful when Valérie Gauvin failed to score for France as the US eliminated the hosts en route to winning last year’s World Cup—which drew a record 1.12 billion viewers worldwide. Soon Alba was sitting beside me on the couch in her Everton jersey with a slobbery soccer ball moving from her hand to her mouth as we streamed Everton Ladies through the FA Player app (a godsend, particularly for the non-English who are trying to follow their teams abroad without navigating a labyrinth of illegal online streaming sites). I purchased my first-ever television—a 55-inch smart TV that towers above the previous 32-incher my parents had donated to me years earlier—and watched on NBC Sports as we lost the Women’s FA Cup Final to Manchester City. “You’ve gotta get used to this feeling,” I told Alba as she mumbled incoherently beside me, spit soaking her jersey like tears. “But we’re Evertonians. We’ll get them next time.”

My father-in-law has said he’s met no other person as single-minded in their dedication to the future they imagine for their child. I take it as a compliment, though beside it in my mind is the constant trickle of comments from others who hear, for example, how this daughter of mine may one day need to move to England if the Women’s Super League, as I predict, truly does overtake whatever professional American women’s league exists at the time, and ask: “What if she doesn’t even like soccer?” “Are you prepared for her to crush your dreams?”

Alba in her Everton oneside
Alba watching Everton vs. Man United in her second week of life.

No, I am not. Even at my most pessimistic, I cannot envision a future where this love for football, for Everton, does not ingrain itself somehow into Alba’s growing brain, eventually making its way to her heart. Once it’s there, how can she turn away? “And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell…” wrote the Apostle Paul in the Book of Acts two thousand years ago. Football fans know this biblical truth well. Ours is a faith that can never be stripped from us, no matter the despair or the heartbreak.

Maybe football isn’t life, as the character Danny Rojas repeats over and over on Ted Lasso (the AppleTV+ show that arose out of a joke about what would happen if an American football coach were to coach a Premier League team). But isn’t there something about football that is inseparable from life? Being an Everton supporter has taught me that longing for greener pastures might only lead to lament once I’ve arrived. It has taught me to be bold in enjoying the joys of life, for they may be fleeting. It has taught me that long-distance relationships can work, and that hope persists beyond crushing failure. 

I am glad for the way England has invested in women’s soccer. To have something else to hope in. I am excited every week to share videos in the “Everton That” GroupMe I share with six or seven other Knoxville-based Blues, of Alba watching beside me as Lucy Graham scores another goal (“She’s Scottish,” I tell Alba. “You’re named for Scotland.”). Already there are a few extra dollars in my savings account for the trip we’ll make to the United Kingdom in a post-COVID-19 world, enough to stop at both Goodison Park and Walton Hall Park for a weekend of games.

This past week, an American soccer player made history as the first woman to play in the upper echelons of college football. My wife, with Alba on her lap, and I, beside them on the couch, joined millions of American boys and girls, women and men, tuning in to watch Sarah Fuller make a kick. Representation matters. “I saw it, therefore I know it is now possible.” 

Maybe Alba will not be the next Alex Morgan—though I fully expect her to compete with Morgan’s daughter, Charlie, who is just two months younger than her, for our nation’s No. 10 jersey. Maybe she will not care as deeply as I do about whether Everton wins or loses. It’ll probably be healthier for her if she doesn’t. But I tell her every day, whether she hears me or not, that nothing will ever prevent her from becoming everything she desires. There is no dream too big. If that dream happens to coincide with being an Evertonian, an Everton Ladies player, all the better for us. I’ve already started saving for the trip to Liverpool.

My Hero, Batistuta

Batistuta

I was in eighth grade at PS 14. In Mrs. Squittieri’s history class we had been reading excerpts from The Odyssey and talking about heroes. I remember where I sat and the cover of the book of Greek mythologies we read from, which would become one of my childhood favorites. One day, in the way of all great teachers, she had connected the heroes of literature to the real-life heroes in our 13-year-old lives. I knew exactly who she was talking about.

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The Penalty Kick

The Penalty Kick

Jacob picked up the ball and walked it twelve paces to the spot in the dirt he had marked off with his foot. He dug the toe of his boot into the dirt and beat it down enough to fit the old ball so it wouldn’t move. He set it down and then lifted it a foot off the ground, spinning it carefully in his hands, before placing it firmly in the spot again. Jacob’s dad had taught him to always set the ball down this way: “Never let the referee do it for you. It’s your penalty kick—not theirs,” he had told him.

It was mid-July and the summer heat was stifling. For three weeks, Jacob had spent hours in the little park behind his parents’ house in New Jersey. During the day, he would take his old ball and hop the yellow brick wall at the end of their street, shortcutting his way to the soccer fields. He kicked the ball around until the floodlights came on. That was his sign for when the adults would come out to play and he knew he had to head home for dinner. After dinner, he’d sit on porch with his ball. He watched the older men walk down the dead-end street and hop the wall on their way to play soccer with their friends. They were mostly laborers from Mexico and Central America, and sometimes they wore jerseys familiar to Jacob from the television broadcasts of the professionals: the dark green of Mexico, luminescent yellow of Brazil, orange-red of Spain.

The sun was setting.

Continue reading “The Penalty Kick”