Football in a Football World: What Soccer Means to Us
"I could never enjoy watching a sport that I myself mastered at the age of seven," I once heard a local radio personality explain to his listeners. "Nobody in their right mind would dispute that it's just a kids game."
The host was referring to the game of football, following the sport's recent rise in widespread popularity throughout the greater Seattle area, in which I currently reside.
And he wasn't talking about American Football, either. He wasn't talking about Gridiron Sundays, tailgating in the Century-Link Field parking structures and large guys running into each other to stop the opposing side from carrying a ball more than ten yards. He, without question, was not talking about his much-beloved Seattle Seahawks.
No, he was referring to the Seattle Sounders (FC). He was referring to the wildly popular Portland Timbers. And our friendly, but not entirely successful (as of yet) neighbors to the north, the Vancouver Whitecaps.
He was talking about the other football and the strangle-hold it has taken over the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S. in recent years, the one in which the competitors actually use their feet more often than they use their hands in the run of play.
The misconception that he so unabashedly portrayed to all of his listeners, that football (soccer) is a kids sport, is surprisingly common in the United States. He played it when he was seven, when all there was to the game was kicking the ball toward goal and hoping for the best. There couldn't possibly be much more to it than that, could there?
And therefore, he effectively mastered the entirety of football before entering second-grade. He is Lionel Messi, if Lionel Messi didn't particularly care for soccer. At least that's the way the sport looks to a man who was entirely willing to admit that he'd never seen a professional match and would never be willing to give it a shot, which is a shame since his home city currently hosts one of the most entertaining attack-minded squads in North America.
For the rest of us, there's a reason that we refer to it as "the beautiful game."
Now, I'm not going to pretend that I don't maintain a certain affection for American sports, even after my extensive orientation into the world's most popular game. To this day, I still derive a fraction of entertainment from watching the occasional NFL clash on Sunday afternoons. And I thoroughly maintain that the only sports achievement capable of bringing me to tears would be the highly unlikely occurrence of the Seattle Mariners winning the World Series.
But those competitions have lost a bit of their magic, given the spectacular displays of skill that I can watch week in and week out across the pond.
When I watch a high-profile NFL franchise that I don't particularly have an affinity towards tear apart a lower organization, it's fun. But it's not beautiful. When the Patriots do not suffer a brutal upset by a last place team and instead play the thoroughly dominating game that they're so known to do, it's a typical game of American football.
But when Manchester City, who I entirely loathe with every ounce of my being, goes to London and gives my favorite club a thrashing of a lifetime, it's beautiful. Irritating, yes. Thoroughly disappointing, of course. But there's so much to admire in the flawless passing of the ball, the skill moves to slide past defenders, the seamless flow of the game and perfection of the finishing shot that puts my favorite team down by their fifth goal of the night.
There is a certain degree of emotion and entirely-unexplainable devotion to our favorite teams as sports fans. NFL fans experience this every week from August to February, intently watching last weekend's highlights, thoroughly studying each team's injury report and running plays in their heads as a week of anticipation culminates into three hours of glorious gridiron on Sunday.
And it's the same for hockey fans, it's the same for baseball fans, cricket fans, basketball fans and rugby fans. Of course it's the same for football (world football) fans. This "I just don't understand why anybody would care" argument is the most absurd idea to ever emerge from a sports-viewing society.
Just like in American football, there's a community in soccer. In America, where soccer is so low on the sporting ladder, it's a bit of an underground society. We see another fan on the street and there's no averting our eyes, even if they support the rival side. In those cases, it's pure hatred towards them for their club affiliations, paired with nothing but the utmost respect for understanding the game and showing their support.
Citing statistics about football's popularity throughout the world to people who insist that it's "not a real sport" never helps. A good friend of mine once insisted that soccer is only popular outside of the U.S. "because they don't have any better sports," as though the whole world would immediately jump on the NFL bandwagon if only there existed some sort of international information-sharing network where they could log on and learn about gridiron in the comfort of their own homes while eating potato chips.
There have been numerous experiments to expand the NFL model outside of the U.S. and Canada, most of which enjoyed moderate success for a couple of years before failing miserably in favor of soccer. That's not to say that there's nothing to American football, or that the lack of interest outside of North America somehow devalues its legitimacy.
But American football thrives on a particular regionally-derived view of masculinity. One that Americans tend to fully agree with, but that much of the rest of the world does not.
And that's okay. I've been there. I've experienced the joys of the NFL and still manage to find a way to remember those joys every once in awhile. I get it, I assure you. I just prefer something different now.
It's great to know that when you say "world championship" you actually mean world championship, not "championship of the U.S. and sometimes Canada." It's great to know that Manchester United, the New York Yankees of British football, will probably get their just desserts against FC Barcelona, the New York Yankees of Spanish football.
There's joy in watching two strong sides, equally matched and gunning for the top spot in the standings, play so spectacularly well against each other that the only possible result after 90 minutes is the 0-0 draw.
And I get that it sounds boring, with the possibility of a tied result and the final scorelines that are so minuscule compared to American football. But with all the buildup, all the beautiful passing and all the shots that should have gone in if it weren't for the goalkeeper having a particularly great night in the box, I've personally never experienced as a sports fan a feeling more incredible than the moment that it all culminates into the ball finally slipping through and bouncing awkwardly against the netting.
The build-of-play is half the entertainment of the game. The trying to get through the back line, the trying to beat the keeper, the desperately defending against a long series of attacks late in the game. The booing of the opposing player who went to the ground a little too easily to win a free kick or a penalty. The seeing on the replay that he was actually hit pretty hard, but not caring at all because, come on, what a wimp.
That's why the world football fan is so obsessive. Why we eat, drink and breathe soccer, whether it's local or 6000 miles away. And it's really not so different from why anybody follows the NFL, Major League Baseball or the NBA to an equally obsessive level.
To me, it's not boring, as the common critic will insist. It's fascinating, it's exhilarating, it's captivating, pulse-pounding and sometimes absolutely heart-wrenching. It is, without a doubt, beautiful.
Some of us were lucky enough to grow up in a nation where that beauty is entirely appreciated all around us, and soccer permeates the culture as thoroughly as the NFL does in North America.
As for the rest of us, we discover it a bit later in life. But once the obsession takes hold, it's almost impossible to turn back.
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