Learning to Love the World Cup

I will admit to having a mild case of World Cup fever.  As is true of most Americans, I had seen soccer, or what the rest of the world calls “football” or “futbol,” played before.  But my passions when I was growing up were basketball and baseball, and I am positive that my high school didn’t have a soccer program.  

I became more acquainted with soccer when my wife and I lived in Scotland for three years.  If I didn’t watch their version of football on TV, I’d have had few other sports to watch.  My friends in Scotland, whether they were Scottish or from other countries, were, of course, fanatical about soccer.  When we took breaks from studies to kick the ball around, I was completely out of my depth.  The American sports that I knew and loved emphasized hand-eye coordination.  Soccer emphasizes foot-eye coordination, and I was a certifiable klutz. 

It was also jarring to learn that professional soccer in Great Britain and elsewhere is routinely two sports being played out simultaneously.  There was the game that was being played on the pitch, or field, and then there were the fistfights that erupted regularly in the stands.  Glasgow had two professional teams, one with Catholic supporters and the other with Protestant.  I can’t recall a match between the two teams that didn’t end up with serious blood-letting in the stands and outside the stadium afterwards.    

Looking back now, I realize that I brought to soccer the same prejudice that other Americans have towards the sport. A soccer match can seem exceedingly slow. Watching a match for two hours that ends in a 1-1 tie seemed to me to be a waste of time.  Of course, I would never have complained about a baseball game that was tied 1-1 before extra innings, but then, sports fans are anything but rational.  

But the World Cup this year has changed my thinking.  Some credit for the change must go to the TV networks that have covered so many of the games.  But I give most of the credit to two other factors.

One factor is that the TV cameras in this tournament of tournaments have shown not just the game on the pitch but also the faces of the fans in the stands.  Qatar is hardly the easiest country to visit, and yet fans from all over the world and of all ages have made the trip to scream, shout, paint their bodies, and cry for their nation’s team.   I emphasize the phrase “fans from all over the world.”  Besides the lucky fans in Qatar, there are billions who are watching the World Cup all around the world.  

American football’s Super Bowl and baseball’s World Series pale by comparison.  Despite the adjectives “super” and “world,” America’s biggest sporting events are provincial, not global.  Soccer is the one sport that can claim to be the sport of nearly the entire world, from the poorest nations to the richest.    

The second factor that led to my recent appreciation of soccer is what is happening in this World Cup.  As in any sport, there are superstars in soccer who are surrounded by team members and opponents with little fame.  But guess what?  Many of the favored teams with internationally-known superstars have been humbled by the no-name teams and players.  Croatia and Morocco—countries that many would have a hard time placing on a map—have made it against incredible odds to play at least to the semifinals.  Both teams have left some of the highest-paid players in Europe and South America sprawled on the pitch in defeat.

It turns out that a sport that routinely ends with a score of 1-0 can, because of that low score, be supremely tense and totally absorbing.  If you haven’t experienced the excitement of the World Cup yet, there is still time to join the rest of the human race in watching the final on Sunday.  Prepare to be amazed.