The FIFA World Cup is going on right now. For those of you who aren’t sports people (if that’s you, keep reading, because there’s more to this post than sports), FIFA stands for “Fédération Internationale de Football Association.” For those of you who don’t know French and don’t have a very good grasp on the obvious, that means “International Federation of Association Football.” Association football is the game that those of us here in the USA usually call soccer. Every four years, teams representing their countries play each other in a month-long tournament. Thirty-two national teams qualify for the tournament, organized into eight groups of four. Each team plays three games, against the other three teams in their group, then the top two teams in each group (that would be 16 total) play each other in a single elimination format (losing team goes home) until there is only one team left (meaning that a team would need to win four consecutive games, after the initial three, to win the World Cup).
The World Cup is huge in much of the rest of the world, even bigger than the Olympics in some countries. In the USA, not so much. Soccer is not the dominant sport here. American sports fans tend to pay a lot more attention to baseball, American football (the kind of football with yard lines and touchdowns), basketball, and in some regions, hockey. But soccer is definitely becoming more popular in the USA. The USA did not qualify for the World Cup at all between 1954 and 1986, but since 1990 the USA has qualified for every World Cup, advancing past the group stage four of those seven times. Major League Soccer, the top level professional soccer league in the USA and Canada, has expanded from 10 teams at its founding in 1996 to 19 today. Sacramento has a new lower-level professional soccer team which, for some games, has drawn bigger crowds than many MLS games. If these crowds continue, Sacramento will likely be considered as a possible future MLS expansion site. And of course, city parks in many places around the USA are full of kids playing soccer on the weekends.
I’ve always had kind of an ambivalent relationship toward soccer. I’ve never particularly disliked it, but I don’t really follow it or make much of an effort to watch it. I have no family tradition of watching soccer (compared to, for example, making day trips to San Francisco with my family a few times every year to watch Giants games, or watching Joe Montana win Super Bowls for the 49ers on TV as a kid). I already have teams to follow in the other four sports I mentioned above. My watching of soccer has been limited to watching the students at the school I used to work when they have games, and watching the USA national team in the World Cup sometimes.
But while watching this World Cup, I made an interesting discovery, something that I started to notice about myself during the 2010 World Cup and am finally fully ready to admit: I like soccer. I enjoy watching soccer. I think soccer games are exciting. And I really should make an effort to follow soccer more.
Fans of other sports, particularly American football and basketball, always make a joke about how soccer is about as exciting as watching paint dry. I really don’t know where this comes from. They must not have been watching the same games I was watching. Usually such sentiments are borne of the fact that soccer games, at least at the professional and international level, are usually very low scoring. So many of the games during the World Cup have been decided by one goal, with final scores like 1-0 or 2-1. But I don’t think that makes the game any less exciting. There is a lot more to this game than scoring. The way the teams set up for goals and defend provides excitement in itself. And, more importantly, a low scoring game is more exciting because it makes everything so tense. One goal, one mistake, each one can end up being so huge.
There are a lot of important life lessons to learn from soccer. Soccer teaches patience. Goals don’t come often, and it takes a lot of work to set up for scoring a goal, just like in real life. Soccer teaches that your actions have consequences. As I said above, one little mistake can have huge consequences in the final score of the game. And at the World Cup level, soccer is a bit of a humbling reminder that the USA isn’t the greatest country in the world at everything, and that we have a lot to learn from other cultures.
Soccer fans have a different culture than fans of the other popular North American sports, it seems. They cheer for their teams differently. They have a different vocabulary as well: a jersey is a “kit,” a field is a “pitch,” a tie is a “draw,” and a game-tying goal is an “equalizer,” for example. Don’t get me wrong; I haven’t turned into One Of Them. I believe that soccer can coexist with baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. I’m not going to turn into one of those soccer fans who puts down other sports as inferior and roots for the USA to lose on principle. And if so-called true soccer fans are unwilling to embrace me as a soccer fan because I’ll be going for the USA in the World Cup and because I’ll continue to watch American football, and call it football, then maybe I don’t want to be one of you (see Exit 1 on geekbullying, for example). But I don’t care what those people think, nor do I care with soccer haters think. I like soccer.
Since the USA was eliminated Tuesday on a 2-1 overtime loss (I haven’t figured out yet what soccer fans call overtime) to Belgium, I haven’t really kept up with this. I didn’t watch any other World Cup games this week; I spent most of my sports time watching baseball, as I am doing right now as I write this. And I haven’t been to a Sacramento Republic FC game yet. But I plan on doing so eventually; there are four teams and four games left in the World Cup, and the Republic season lasts a couple more months. It’ll be fun. And I have a new culture to learn, and some new life lessons to learn.