As long time readers of the blog know, I love soccer. And another 4 years have passed, so it’s World Cup time again! It always feels appropriate that the World Cup and Father’s Day coincide.
I spent most of last weekend parked in front of my TV cheering and screaming and hooting. I’ve spent my work days flipping between XLS spreadsheets and Google to get a quick peek at the scores. God bless Twitter for the running commentaries, although I have to stay away from them when I’m on the clock or I’d do nothing but scroll.
On Monday, I even went to Chicago’s Grant Park to cheer on the US Men’s Team in their debut game against Ghana (2-1 US). I love that the sport has grown so much here — so much that I don’t think the organizers expected so many people to show up. There was one jumbo-tron and thousands of heads between me and that screen. I tried and failed to send a tweet because there were so many people squeezed into such a tight spot. But I loved being there, surrounded by fans. Chanting U!S!A! when I’m alone on my couch just doesn’t have the same feel-good energy as it does when you’re standing in the middle of a mass of people.
And being in the crowd reminded me a bit of my dad.
In 1994, the World Cup was held in the US. Most Americans were baffled, but FIFA was trying to bolster the sport here. For those of us who were already fans, it was a miracle. My dad and I road-tripped to Detroit and watched several of the games. We saw the US and Brazil. We sat next to a family of 3 who lived outside of Chicago and were traveling back and forth between the cities to get in as many games as they could. I remember the smell of stale, sloshed beer mixed with the strong, floral perfume of the Chicagoan mom. I remember the roaring crowd and beating drums. I remember the energy that crackled around the stadium, even when my team was losing, even when I wasn’t rooting for a team.
I couldn’t believe that not everyone loved this game like I did. I hated hearing sportscasters deride soccer players as silly little guys running around for 90 minutes…did they hear themselves? Running for 90 minutes. That’s not easy.
Dribbling, passing, juggling…none of it is easy, but when a player does it well, it’s fluid and graceful and, well, beautiful.
I grew up playing soccer, mainly because my parents wanted me in some activity. I’m not sure how soccer was picked. It was a fledgling sport that actually had a fairly big following in Lexington, KY thanks to the many international students and families at the University of Kentucky.
I remember not liking it so much at first. I didn’t get it and wasn’t good at it. Practicing wasn’t all that fun, so I didn’t do it and, shockingly, didn’t get much better as a result. But my dad was getting into the game. He joined an adult league and started reffing. To spend more time with him, I decided to ref, too. You can start as young as 13. I hated conflict and would rather have melted into the wallpaper than stand out, but I took the test and got certified.
I was terrible.
I only did it for one year, but I learned the rules and, to this day, my friends get annoyed when I agree with the ref on the field rather than join in the boos in the stands.
Even though I was never very good on either side of the whistle, I grew to love the game. Not because I knew the rules but because I was surrounded by it. I saw the good, the bad and the ugly of the players’ skill, parents’ attitude, and team-mate camaraderie. It really is the beautiful game – the power of the individual and the fluidity of the team working together.
If my dad and I ever drift into silence on a phone call (or at Christmas), one of us just has to mention soccer and we’re off like a whirlwind.
As of this writing, there’s a rumor that the US may get the 2022 World Cup from Qatar. Dad and I already plan on getting tickets and going together.