I have loved soccer for as far back into my childhood as I can remember. American football and field hockey reigned supreme in the autumns of the town where I grew up. But soccer was always my game. Sure, as a kid I shot baskets in the driveway and played touch football in the backyard on Thanksgiving, but I also scarred the garage doors (and broke at least one light) kicking a ball against them when there was snow blocking my way to the backyard backstop my dad built to feed my soccer addiction.
I don’t like watching American football and never have. Basketball bores me to tears. Baseball I can get into come October, but the six months prior to playoffs are much too long, with far too many games, to hold my interest. Hockey I love, although I don’t watch it much anymore. I don’t watch much television at all, really, in these days of fitting work and downtime around playing with and caring for three active kids. But for the past two weeks, the tube has been turned on and tuned to ESPN for much of every day. I like the noise and the color of the World Cup, even if it’s just playing in the background.
When I was a junior in college, the United States hosted the World Cup, and I landed a volunteer post in the press tent at the Foxboro venue. For one game – the quarterfinal between Italy and Spain – I was on the pitch, just behind the goal line, as a film runner. The photographers would dump a roll of finished film from the camera, toss it to one of us while reloading, and off we’d sprint to wherever it was they developed the photos.
|On the field at the 1994 World Cup|
It was a completely unglamorous and entirely amazing job. I got to be on the field during the pregame team warm-ups and for most of the game. I was on the field with some of the world’s best footballers. I was in heaven.
I also attended a few games as a spectator that summer. Outside the stadium before kickoff, people from different places, speaking different languages and draped in the flags of the day’s opposing countries, would gather together to smile for group photos. We were there for the competition, yes, but also to celebrate – our teams, our cultures, and the Beautiful Game.
I already loved soccer, but 1994, that summer I was briefly and wholly immersed in the world’s favorite game, was when I fell in love with the World Cup. I love the pageantry of it (and I don’t mean the dives on the field – Oy!), the singing and dancing and wild color in the stands. The sense that this sport, each single game, means something huge to people around the world.
This World Cup summer my son has been most interested in the games. He asks each morning who will be playing during the day. When we come home from wherever the day’s activities have taken us, we check the scores and game highlights together. If the U.S. is playing an evening game, the kids get to stay up late and watch until the final whistle.
They have learned, during close games, to keep a safe distance from me on the couch, lest a piercing yell be sounded too close to their little ears or a flying elbow inadvertently make contact while celebrating a spectacular goal. They have been delighted by the fans of many countries wearing face paint and funny wigs. I have explained, several times (and to no avail), the offside rule and what happens when a player gets a yellow card. We have looked at maps of Europe and Africa and South America to find the countries playing and learn a little bit about them.
The other night I came outside after cleaning up the dinner dishes to find the kids involved in an impromptu soccer game. They play barefoot in the grass, just like other kids all over the world (although probably not as incessantly). They giggle wildly through each Kids vs. Mom match. They’re learning to work together, as a team. Sometimes I don’t even let them win; they come by that result by luck or burgeoning skill or, most likely, a combination of the two.
Meanwhile, in Brazil, the U.S. has earned a spot in the Round of 16, which kicks off this weekend. Two more weeks of World Cup soccer. Hooray! Even better, though, is that my son just announced, as he ran out the screen door – barefoot, of course – “I’m going down to the soccer pitch.”
Futbol Fever burns on. May it linger long beyond the final whistle of this year’s World Cup.