Soccer in America is still constructing its infrastructure, and we need engineers. People to build the institutions that will support the weight. One of those engineers is here, with us. If you’ve watched a game in a bar in Chicago you probably already know him.
Tall, beer in hand, iconic rockabilly hat - that’s the ubiquitous German Cowboy. His name is Mike Knueppel, and he’s been in Chicago since 2005. You’ll find him often at the far side of the bar in Cleo’s on Chicago, sometimes in the back room, rarely on the patio, but you can always pick him out by his trademark collection of kits, dozens and dozens of them, all with COWBOY 57 on the back.
We were driving to Toyota Park on Wednesday night talking about all those jerseys. I once saw him change from a German kit to an American one at halftime of their friendly in June. How can one support ALL the teams? What happened to loyalty?
“I wear the shirt of who’s playing,” he said. “But mostly if they have a German player.”
This was hard to take. Aren’t we supposed to live and die for a club? That means hating other clubs, wishing harm on strangers in other colors, “You ain’t got no history,” all of that.
But he was saying something different. You watch because, first of all, you want to watch the game. The game is primary. Then, you have your local allegiance. His is German and Hamburger SV (He founded Hamburger SV Supporters Chicago with a few others.) He cares most of all about the German national team and he’s willing to wear shirts of teams he “can live nicely without,” as he says, like Bayern Munich, because of some of their players.
“I even bought a Bayern Munich shirt recently,” he told me. “I mean I really shocked their supporters, they know I don’t like that team, but as a fellow German I support them internationally.”
I said, “This is troubling. You support players as they come and go? They’re moving around constantly. It’s like rooting for mercenaries.”
“I don’t support only the players. That’s why I have COWBOY (or VAQUERO for Real Madrid) on my shirts with my birth year. At least I know that won’t change. But first you support your local club.”
That’s fine too, but the logic breaks down again because what about the organizations with detestable front offices or ownership groups? (I’m thinking about even some of our Chicago teams’ history.) You can’t just support a team willy-nilly.
“It’s true,” he said. “But you have to support your location.”
And Americans supporting European teams in places they may have never even seen in person?
These to me are the tough questions of support and fandom. What exactly are we doing supporting these teams, all over the world? Thankfully, seated in Toyota Park to watch our shared, indisputable, actual home team, we could lay the question aside for 90 minutes or so.
Fun game, too, right? Nice how the rain broke and the night warmed up. Dilly Duka more than deserved the standing ovation he got as he came off in the 87th. The Cowboy and I enjoyed watching him absolutely terrorize Quakes right back Steven Beitashour.
The night was beautiful. Leaving the stadium, I was mumbling about how we fans deserve these nights. Those cold, grinding results early in the season were tough. You could feel the fans’ relief at the result. No disappointment this time. Wednesday night was even better because of the challenge and drama; San Jose wouldn’t die, but the Fire earned the three points with three beautifully worked goals. “They won, that’s all that matters,” the Cowboy said. “Fans love the win.”
There’s a long story for how the Cowboy got to Chicago, a story including four weeks at the Presidential towers in 1987, karaoke, his wife Sharon, the city of Seattle, software programming - it’s a story that he might tell you if you see him at Cleo’s. He’s not afraid to share.
And in some ways, it’s fitting that he’s around. The Cowboy embodies the 21st century globalized soccer paradigm. He can watch his Bundesliga, follow die Mannschaft, and participate in the growth of soccer in America, all from a comfortable neighborhood bar in Chicago. His work developing Cleo’s website and social presence has made it one of the primary soccer locations in Chicago and turned heads nationally. Maybe most importantly, his unofficial freelance soccer ambassadorship has brought people from all over the world together.
You’ll see him meeting with local supporter clubs (some of which he founded himself) like those of Dortmund and Hamburg, as well as Section 8, the Fire, ESPN, and just last week, in the beer garden, you would’ve seen him watching Uruguay and Italy in the Confederations Cup with Hamburg’s senator of the interior and highest ranking police officer.
Ever since he convinced Cleo’s to let him fix up their site and control their Facebook page, and with the blessing and help of Stephen behind the bar, the Cowboy has been our handyman, fixing up games and posting schedules so we can watch American and European soccer at our ease. “I wanted a bar where I know them and they know me and I get there they put the drink on the bar,” he said. “Where I can watch all the games and they’ll open early.”
In other words, it’s not really about the fanaticism of watching games. Going back to our conversation about supporting clubs, it became clear to me that the whole “it’s what’s on the front of the jersey, not the back of the jersey” thing is cheesy and doesn’t apply - just having a jersey is what matters. In this way, the Cowboy is critical in experience-making. He’s not an owner of the bar, or even an employee - he’s one of us. His work setting up games and events at Cleo’s, with just watching the game as the goal, means that there’s less pressure to know esoteric European stadium statistics, or to spew hatred for teams thousands of miles away.
Maybe that’s the answer about why we support who and how. Maybe we just support the game. Watch the game for the game’s sake. Love the game. Talk to people. Drink beer. Amen.
Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.