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Tough Love

Why soccer superfan Jamie Trecker is U.S. Soccer's harshest critic.

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LOVE AND BLOOD: AT THE WORLD CUP WITH THE FOOTBALLERS, FANS, AND FREAKS

Jamie Trecker

(Harcourt)

Jamie Trecker may not be the foremost authority when it comes to American soccer journalism—and admittedly it's a small pond—but he's got to be the most controversial. He's unrelentingly critical when it comes to the sport as it's played in the U.S. and by

the U.S., and his columns on the Fox Sports Web site, where he's a senior writer, routinely inspire angry rebuttals on soccer blogs and bulletin boards: "Jamie Trecker can kiss my hairy white butt," for instance, or "Jamie Trecker: Exposed for the Pompous Ass He is to the Entire World." "I've been criticized over the years for being opinionated, forthright and, you know, argumentative," he admits.

In the run-up to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Trecker wrote in column after column that our team was vastly overrated. Ranked fifth at the time, the U.S. was eliminated during group play without winning a single match. He's so disapproving of U.S. Soccer, the federation that governs the national team, that it has effectively banned him from covering its games. Spokesman Jim Moorhouse told me, "We don't think his work meets the standards that we deem necessary for credentialing."

Trecker watches ten hours of soccer a day. His office, in a Bridgeport red brick two-flat he shares with his wife, Li, has TVs hooked up to five satellite dishes. DVDs of league action in far-off places like Yemen, Nigeria, and Bulgaria come regularly in the mail. He knows enough Spanish, German, Italian, and French to follow coverage outside the U.S., and has taught himself a bit of Arabic and Korean toward the same end. "A lot of the great football writing is in French," he notes. He's traveled to every continent except Australia and Antarctica to watch soccer.

In addition to writing for Fox Sports, Trecker also works as the soccer research department for ESPN International, which contracts him to compile a weekly report of scores, statistics, and analysis of matches worldwide. The document, which the network consults when putting together its soccer telecasts and highlights reels, can run as long as 200 pages.

Trecker's ecumenical knowledge of the game came in handy as he was writing his first book, Love and Blood: At the World Cup With the Footballers, Fans, and Freaks, released last month by Harcourt. It documents his experience covering the tournament for Fox last year. What his character sketches of fans, players, and other participants lack in depth—over nine weeks in Germany, Trecker was filing up to five dispatches a day—he makes up for with an authority backed by a lifetime of soccer scholarship. The book's strongest sections are expositions on how big money and commercial interests have altered the tournament over the last 20 years and on the resulting political rifts within the sport's international governing bodies.

Trecker, who grew up in Connecticut but spent a lot of time in his grandparents' hometown of Saint Andrews, Scotland, comes from a family of writers and soccer fans. His mother, Janice Law, has written more than a dozen books, including mysteries and a work of nonfiction about the suffragettes. His father, Jerry Trecker, was an editor and sportswriter at the Hartford Courant for almost 40 years; he was among the first writers at an American daily to cover soccer regularly. In the 70s, while the family was living in Scotland, Jerry called football matches for BBC Radio. In 1982 he published a book on his love for the game, The Magic of Soccer: An American's Appreciation.

Jamie Trecker started in journalism as a teenage stringer covering high school sports for the Courant and then wrote about music and entertainment as an undergrad at Syracuse, where he also played in hardcore bands. (He has the words punk and rock tattooed across his knuckles.) His big break came after his father turned down a job covering Major League Soccer for USA Today in 1996. The paper was so eager to have someone with the name Trecker covering soccer that it offered him the job next.

Trecker worked for USA Today for several years before moving to Chicago to take a job as a staff writer for the now-defunct magazine Inside Sports. He quit after less than a year, but by then he'd made a name for himself as a sportswriter and soccer authority—he'd covered the 1998 World Cup in France—to get steady freelance assignments and land a job with ESPN SportsTicker. He joined Fox in 2005. "I now enjoy this quasi celebrity," Trecker says. "I'm known enough to have people swear at me, but not enough to make a lot of money at it."

When Trecker wants to watch soccer somewhere other than his office, he heads to Fado, the Near North outlet of the Irish pub chain. He was there recently to watch Liverpool in a Champions League match against Marseilles. He says compared to the European league, which has the most talented players on the richest teams in the world, Major League Soccer is noticeably deficient, even to the most casual fan. "The MLS thinks it has a better product than it really does," he says. "And they get upset when people point out that the games aren't very good. But if you want to report on something and give it some dignity, you've got to report it with warts and all."

He met Li at Fado five years ago, when they both turned up to watch an Arsenal match. Last month the bar hosted his book release party. There was extra cause for celebration, as the book almost didn't get a release. Trecker has had severe epilepsy since childhood, and when he returned home from Germany last summer, he had a grand mal seizure that sent him to the hospital. His doctors told him he wasn't likely to live long, and the book was put on hold. Then he had surgery to remove noncancerous tumors from his spine and to implant an experimental pacemaker just below his collarbone—to lessen the frequency and violence of his seizures.

That plus a lot of pills seems to be doing the trick. He says that when he writes now he sometimes wonders if it's worth all the trouble. "How much does it really matter?" he says. "Being seriously ill, with doctors saying, 'You've got maybe six months to live,' I've got enough to worry about."

But implicit in Trecker's critique of American soccer is a defense of what he views as the merit of the sport. "Failure is a big part of the game. You don't get many chances to score, and when you do have the opportunity, you'd better take it," he says. "I hate to use a cliche, but it's a metaphor for people's lives. Life is hard. There's more disappointment than anything else in a lot of people's lives, and the fans see the players and teams as proxies for themselves. That's the reason soccer is so powerful."

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