Soccer may never catch on in the USA the way it has taken control of the world sports market. In Europe, soccer stars can make more money than A-Rod or Kobe Bryant. Manchester United has more worldwide fans than any other team in the world. It is a phenomenally popular sport. It is also very popular with the young kids in America, but once they grow up and become true Americans, they usually desire to hit something or someone, leading them to other more violent sports.
Perhaps I’m oversimplifying it, but that is what happened to me. I grew up skating on frozen ice surfaces, then playing organized hockey and as an eight-year-old, I knew I would be a professional ice hockey player. In high school, at 5’8” and <100 pounds, I was definitely more suited for soccer than football and ice hockey, but I still saw soccer as the dancing, falling, “foot fairy” sport it was at my all boys, testosterone filled high school. I may have been great had I practiced soccer with the zeal I put into my backyard roller blade sessions and slap shot. But that is just a dream. Besides, I loved to hit and I would’ve just got red-carded out of every game I was in anyway. Tackling and body-checks, despite my meager frame, were some of my favorite parts of those games. Now that I’m older, I see the perfection in basketball and soccer of using finesse to embarrass your opponent instead of just ramming your head into their chest.
In 2004, while on a brief, one-month stay for my last credit in college, I lived near Kensington Park in London, England. I lived in a large flat with 10 other U of Delaware students and we got real interested in the Tour De France, Wimbledon and of course the Euro Championships. England was doing well, and they drew host nation Portugal in the first round. Of course, it went to penalties, and anyone familiar with soccer knows, England doesn’t like them. They lost on PK’s for a fourth time in international play, and a collective sigh washed over the U.K. We were in a bar with a pile of dejected English hooligans and it was approaching midnight. We quietly, wisely snuck out instead of offering condolences. Greece went on to win their first championship against those same sweaty Portuguese. It was my first time experiencing the exhilaration of well-played soccer with passionate fans.
In 2006, the World Cup was in Germany, I was living in Austin with 4 other guys who loved the game. We had a DVR, air-conditioning, and I was working part-time; therefore, I watched every single game of that World Cup and it was awesome. Italy finally took the championship after a random and brutal head-butt red card ejected one of the all-time greats, Zinedine Zidane. We watched the final on our tiny TV at the Jersey shore with everyone rooting for Italy except for my crazy lady friend at the time who wanted France to win out of spite for Italy having defeated her beloved Germans. One month later, I was in Europe traveling and visiting all the places I had just seen on TV. I also caught a live game at the Stadio Olimpico in Roma, and learned a few curse words from the harassing Italian fans on some poor female ref. I also learned you can set off fireworks and flares in the stands at a soccer game.
I was living in Los Angeles briefly in 2007 with a beautiful girl and wanted to see the Mexico vs. USA final in the Copa De Oro (Gold Cup). We had no TV, so my girlfriend asked her Mexican neighbors if we could watch with them. It was magical, USA won, but I mostly enjoyed listening to her translate my broken Spanish and converse with these nice old people for 90 minutes. They offered my super sweet Mexican soda and tortilla chips. It meant a lot to me that she went out of her way to find me the game I wanted to watch.
2008 saw the Euro Cup back in my life. This time I was working at a high school in Austin and had the summer off to enjoy each game again. This was the year of Spain’s domination. They never gave up more than one goal a game and usually scored more than one. One afternoon in Las Vegas, in a nice comfy hotel, the ex and I awoke with wicked hangovers from a friends’ wedding the night before. I found the Netherlands and Romania as well as the Italy and France games. We ordered greasy room service and watched 5 hours of soccer coverage. I was in heaven albeit with a stomachache; she was too sick to complain.
The World Cup was in vuvuzela world, South Africa, in 2010. USA was primed with young talent and ready to go. We surprisingly tied England, had a tough tie against Slovakia and amazingly pulled out a shocker win against Algeria, with a goal I’ll never forget by Landon Donovan. This was the hottest summer on record in Texas. They were in a terrible drought and it was basically too hot for A/C to effectively cool. The sun won the battle everyday. We sat inside due to lack of options and watched all the games again. It was a great month for me and a boring 30 days for the ex. I was not a fan of this World Cup, due to the constant drone of the African horns. They have since been outlawed in every corner of the world except South Africa, where they are seen as a “cultural heritage.” They may be, but I like to hear the songs and whistles of a soccer game, not the whine of a dying elephant through a didgeridoo. South America represented hard in this competition with four teams in the quarterfinals, but eventually, the Spaniards relentless defense and accurate attack won the day.
Last year, the Women’s World Cup showcased a new breed of American female athlete—the soccer player. Many are familiar with the WNBA or LPGA, but now we can root for those lovely ladies on the pitch. The American women blew through everyone on their way to the semifinals against Brazil, a perennial powerhouse. I can’t write down the fascinating and unbelievable culmination of that game because you probably saw it. Hell, to celebrate the ladies’ victory over Brazil, I cut my hair in the all too stylistically vexing, yet simultaneously efficient—mullet. It seemed like everyone was watching those games. I know I had everyone around me fired up for the final. They took the country by storm and were on cereal boxes and Jay Leno and movie premieres, and they didn’t even win the title. Those poor Japanese people, still reeling from the devastating tsunami of March 2011, were more than happy to get the chance to celebrate something, and honestly, I could see the writing on the wall. Japan played hard and won fairly, but it was good for their country to have that win at that time. Just like when the Saints won the Super Bowl a few years after Katrina’s destruction.
Finally, here we are, post Euro 2012, Spain champions again. To watch the games here in South Korea, I had to wake up at 3:45 a.m. I can hear people laughing at the idea. It is too late to just stay up, and too early when the game is over to go back to bed for any substantial amount of sleep. Needless to say, I missed lots of games. I eventually hooked up my TV for the last few rounds. Soon, I found the rhythm, go to bed at 9, wake up at 3:30, watch the game with a slice of pizza around 4:30 and then back to bed at 5:30 before waking up for work at 7:30. It is ridiculous I know, but it was what I wanted to do. I like soccer. I used to wake up at 6:00 a.m. to go to Fado’s Irish Pub in Austin to watch Man United play premiership games while pounding Irish car bombs and Guinness’.
These competitions make stories of where I am in my life. I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing due to the regularity of their timing. It is fun to watch with new people, bring your memories along with you for the ride to the next round. Now the Olympics are here in a month, and I will be rooting for South Korea (unless they are against USA.) Sport connects the world, it connects me to my love of athletic competition, and it connects us all in a positive manner. I’m glad to be a crazy fan.