Monday, September 21, 2009

The Starting 11: An Interview with Jesse Nechodom (Part 1)

Site Note: This is the first in a series of interviews about the people and ideas that are shaping American soccer the Free Beer Movement has lined up. Our first interview is with an old friend of the Movement, Jesse Nechodom.
- Dan

Jesse Nechodom is probably one of the biggest sports fans I have ever met. In college we called him "SportsCenter Jesse" for his encyclopedic knowledge of sports; except soccer. For all of his expertise, he did not like soccer in the least and swore he never would. Despite my best, and probably annoying, efforts throughout our four years in college it seemed like a lost cause.

Three years ago he moved to Honduras (to teach at a private school) and with few other options he fell for soccer. Hard. When I moved down there (my wife and I decided to teach down there as well) for a year with him it was almost scary how into soccer he was compared when we went to college together.

For Jesse it was being surrounded by soccer (and a bit of beer as well, I think!) that brought him to the sport and left him with a lasting, lifelong impression of the passion and skill that is tied to soccer.

He is the model example of who the Free Beer Movement is targeting. Sports fans, under-exposed to a sport they probably would appreciate if they took the time.

The following are a series of questions I asked him to answer to flesh out his evolution as sports and soccer fan, how beer helped the conversion, and a few of his cooler soccer-related experiences.

1) Before becoming a soccer fan you were, shall we say, a bit of a fanatic about other sports. Can you tell me a little bit about who you are as a sports fan?

I’ve loved sports for as long as I can remember and that love started with football. I am from a small town just outside Green Bay, Wisconsin so I was born a Packer fan. Being tall I soon began playing basketball as well and was a kid who just wanted to play pretty much any sport that came along. I play golf, track, baseball, ultimate Frisbee, Frisbee golf, and even wrestled for short time in elementary school. I am still a rather avid fan of the major American sports including MLB, NFL, NBA, PGA, college basketball, and college football. In all sports I am very much a “homer” in supporting Wisconsin teams.

It always seemed natural to me to be a fan of the teams where you were from. The other thing in common with my sports fandom is that I became a fan of the sports I played therefore soccer and hockey were left off my list due to never having played them outside of gym class.

2) You moved to Honduras two years ago. The mainstream American sports that you followed were few and far between. Tell me about your evolution to becoming a soccer fan. What brought you to the sport?

The first time I went to a soccer game in Honduras it was, in true FBM style, because everyone decided to have some beers and go check out the local team. The atmosphere was fun, everyone continued drinking, and I enjoyed myself even though I don’t remember much about the game.

The next time I went to a game, it wasn’t as hard to convince me to go again because I had a good time at the first game. The second game I attended I do remember a bit more because I paid more attention. It was an early WC qualifier with Honduras hosting Puerto Rico and I had heard in advance about this guy David Suazo who was supposed to be pretty good and played in Italy so I paid attention to see what the fuss was all about. In watching Suazo it was immediately obvious that he was on a different level completely than anyone else out on the field and I watched more closely. What I began to notice is how the players worked off of each other and how spacing and cutting were important parts of the game… just like basketball.

A few years ago I watched some friends playing indoor soccer in Milwaukee and remember thinking the same thing that night as the spacing, cutting, and knowledge of where your teammates are reminded me of basketball. This began to open my mind to soccer. What sealed it for me was the chance to play the game a bit with some friends in a fun and not super competitive situation. The combination of beginning to see how the game worked with being able to play it (even though I’m terrible) hooked me and I’ve been working to make up for lost time in learning the game ever since.

3) What misconceptions about the sport have been cleared up since you started becoming a fan?

First, let’s state the stereotypes about soccer that the majority of the American public have: it’s boring because there’s not much scoring, soccer players are “wusses” who can’t take any contact, and it doesn’t take much talent because soccer is just a bunch of running. I’d say the first misconception was cleared up for me once I actually began to watch how people moved off the ball and set up the goals during games, but I really didn’t do this a ton until I had the chance to play the game myself a bit and actually realize what people do off the ball. Relating what you see on TV off the ball to what it’s actually like for you playing makes it much less boring. The lack of scoring makes goals that much more exciting as well which makes it worth it.

The “wusses” comment comes from what football players seem to think about soccer players because they don’t realize the amount of contact that happens in a game. I would say that from experience basketball is just as physical a sport as soccer is and nobody calls basketball players wusses. Part of this label comes from how people dive and fake injuries in soccer as well which goes against the ethos of sports like basketball and football where people are admired for playing through pain and being tough guys.

I must admit that I really can’t stand diving and faking injuries in soccer (as I’m sure most fans can’t) and people who make the argument that its part of the game actually make me like the game a bit less. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over that problem. Lastly all it takes to overcome the skill argument is playing against and being made a fool of by someone who actually does possess the skills you lack in the game to make you realize the skill that is involved. After this happens to you, you will recognize skill when watching a match where you didn’t see it before.

4) How does live soccer (national team games, atmosphere, etc) really make the sport?

In my experience, almost any sport is better when you see it live. This tends to apply extra for soccer because in much of the world the crowd is half the attraction. To some extent at the games I’ve attended in Honduras and 100% of the time at the games here in Paraguay the crowd sings, chants, jumps, and is generally much more interesting than a crowd at any other sporting event I’ve been to. Goal celebrations in particular are something to behold.

5) There’s no real middle ground when it comes to you and being a fan of sports. Tell me how becoming a soccer fan has translated into your support of the US National Team as well.

Well, I’d have to agree with you about there being no real middle ground with me and sports. I’m either borderline obsessive or not really interested at all in a sport. As evidence of my newfound borderline obsession with soccer, as I type these answers I’m watching the Manchester derby (WOW by the way) and during halftime flipped over to Cagliari – Inter so I don’t have any dead soccer air. Given my sports history as a “homer” it was only natural that I would have to become a fan of the National Team.

I started reading about the team a little and watching some games, the background stories of a few of the players made them even more interesting and I quickly grew attached (those players would be Dempsey given his lower class upbringing and Demerit since he went to high school 20 minutes from where I grew up and he is the ultimate sports Cinderella story). Luckily for me this newfound interest came in time for me to watch WC qualifiers and the Confed Cup which only solidified my status as a dedicated fan.

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"Anyone who tells me soccer is boring, I'm going to punch them in the face."
- Former Dallas Burn (aka FC Dallas) coach Dave Dir

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