A View from Afar / Feature / World

Scenes from a soccer life in Italy, England, and Philly

Photo: Paul Rudderow

With Sunday’s European Championship final, I have to choose who to support: Italy, where I lived from 2014 to 2019, or England, where I live now. Each has been home, just like Philadelphia was, full of people I’d like to see experience the joy of winning. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit these two countries probably harder than anywhere in Europe.

In Naples, my neighbors cheered more fervently for the professional club, Napoli, than the Italian national team, typical of the city’s notorious reputation and collective (and well-earned) chip on its shoulder. Watching a game in Naples – at the stadium or on outdoor TVs with 500 of your neighbors – is like no other experience in the world.

In England, everything is England, England, England – except when you see British, British, British. Then again, we’ve been in some state of pandemic lockdown in most of my time here, so our connection isn’t as deep. But then, they don’t cheat like the Italians do.

I’ll let my gut tell me as I’m watching the game.

John Hackworth the gentleman

My son Isaac was born at 11:46 p.m., the night before the 2014 MLS amateur draft. The next morning, I left the hospital to pick up my mother-in-law at the airport after her flight from Brazil.

Philadelphia Union learned about Isaac’s birth before she did. I stopped into a McDonald’s to grab a breakfast sandwich, the only thing (along with French fries) I buy from this prestigious establishment. While there, I ended up on the phone with Chris Glidden, then the Union’s spokesman. He thought I was crazy to be thinking about soccer at that time, but hey, drafts are (were) so much fun.  He linked me up with then-Union head coach John Hackworth, and we had a chat.

He didn’t want to talk about soccer. We talked about children. It was representative of why he’s viewed as such a fundamentally decent person.

I later wrote a column on the Union next to my wife’s hospital bed, while she and the little guy slept.

Andre Blake, everyone. Andre Blake.

Dual nationals

Since moving away from Philly in 2011, I’ve spent most of my time living overseas.

Now I understand dual national soccer players in a different way, particularly the ones whose parents were U.S. military serving overseas. People used to get angry about players rejecting America to choose a parent’s homeland, and they used to treat many German-American players as not truly American.

Those people should pay a visit to the Stuttgart area, where the U.S. Army presence is huge, or Rammstein Air Base further west.

Then they’ll understand.

So many Americans establish themselves as long-term residents in these areas, working for the U.S. government — a realist’s patriotism is part of the day job. Kids in that environment know Daddy or Mommy works for America. That kid is going to feel American in a different way from anyone else.

S.T., a friend on my former Casa Soccer League team in Philly, grew up that way, picking up the game in Germany as a soldier’s son. By his demeanor, most would probably guess him a former American football player, but nope, he was soccer through and through. (And typical: He was slow to accept that he was no longer a right back but should be my center back partner. He has finally accepted it.)

I’ve worked with guys with Neapolitan mothers and fathers who were U.S. Navy sailors assigned to Naples. I think the biggest reason that German-American players are so visible in U.S. soccer – besides Jurgen Klinsmann’s role – is that there are more long-term U.S. Department of Defense jobs in Germany than in Italy, Belgium (NATO), the UK, and Spain, where military assignments tend to be two or three-year stints.

A gentleman’s sport played by hooligans

England is not as soccer-crazy as Italy.

In Italy, soccer is everywhere. It is by far the biggest sport, although basketball is surprisingly popular. (Pickup basketball in Italy is fascinating, by the way. They inbound the ball like in soccer, with no checking, and they play rough and cheat just like they do in soccer.)

In England, I was surprised by how comparably irrelevant soccer can seem on a day-to-day basis. Soccer is more a working class sport, while rugby is the upper class choice. As they say here, football is a gentleman’s sport played by hooligans, while rugby is a hooligan’s sport played by gentlemen. England remains preoccupied by class, and sport reflects that clearly.

Sunday should be awesome regardless.

A rose by any other name

In England, I often have to say “soccer” to the Brits, because when I say “football,” my accent makes some think I’m referring to American football, which many here love.

Please remind the American soccer snobs that the Italians call it “calcio,” and they’ve won a few World Cups. American soccer culture is just fine using our own word for the game, even if the Brits are the ones who coined it.

Il calcio, l’automobilismo

I’ve introduced my son to soccer, and I hoped it would be his sport. After all, he has a Brazilian mom, and team sports were basically my life for my first 20 years.

It turns out he’s more of a solo sport kid, and he loves everything with wheels.

This being Europe, it’s Formula 1 car racing for him. And him being Neapolitan (Italian) at heart, he’s all about Team Ferrari. He’s excited about next weekend’s British Grand Prix.

In America, he would never have been exposed to Formula 1 in the same way. It would have been stock cars, NASCAR, and bad mustaches. Soccer is the same. This is the expat sporting life.

The Daniels

The nearest professional club here is Peterborough United, who just won promotion from League 1 to the English Championship. My kid’s friend’s brother plays in their youth academy, having departed Leicester’s academy to be closer to home. We’ll be going to games this season.

Leicester is the next closest. Hanging out in a Leicester pub watching them play was awesome. I’ve done it only once, before the pandemic.

When we found our house for rent, my wife fell in love with the nearby town of Stamford. We can ride our bikes there, but I was hesitant about the commute to work. I wanted to live ten minutes from my desk and this was a good 35-38. So I did some research.

It turned out that Stamford’s semipro team is called the Daniels. Decision made.

Falling in love with laundry

The Union’s jerseys this year are awesome.

The Philly Soccer Page’s Chris Gibbons had a great idea several years ago in pushing fan designs – I thought it’d be lame, but wow, was I wrong – and the Union were smart to jump on it. They have probably the league’s best jersey. Not another all-white alternate kit for them, thank you.

I plan to order one for my kid and another for this great guy who worked in my local salumeria in Naples. I meant to get Antonio a gift before moving to the UK, but the move happened so fast. I want to get him an Andre Blake jersey, as Antonio is a goalkeeper, but I have to get him a No. 1 so it resonates for him.

(Blake deserves a No. 1. He may end up as  the most underappreciated goalkeeper in MLS history.)

I have to make it back to Naples for that. We had planned to go back twice a year, but due to the pandemic we haven’t been back since driving away in September 2019. Most countries are blocking travel from the UK due to the UK COVID-19 variant.

Germany won’t let me in to visit my cousin, who lives there. He’s a Jewish American married to a German, and they adopted a pair of Turkish-German twins. In modern Germany, anything’s possible.


Jakob Glesnes: Oh my goodness.

For better or worse, he is the most heart-in-your-throat center back in MLS – and maybe any top tier league in the world. That rocket goal was amazing — as was his own goal in the next match. Nobody in England or Italy hits a golazo like Jakob Glesnes, for or against.


  1. el Pachyderm says:

    Awesome, Dan. Glad to read you ‘regularly’ again.

  2. Gruncle Bob says:

    Nice read, thanks.

  3. Micah Bertin says:

    Great read. More, please.

  4. Really sorry not to see this till today…been catching up on some chores! Great read Dan! Always love the perspective from across the pond!!

  5. Nice piece, and glad to see you on these pages again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *