I tune into the World Cup final just as Germany and Argentina head to “extra time,” deadlocked in an epic, scoreless tie. My son, Joseph The Football Player, says, “I didn’t think you liked soccer, Papa.”
“I don’t,” I respond. “I just really dig sports. And championships move me.”
What I love foremost about sports is not the particular game being played, but the human confrontation. The drama. The fearless reach both deep and high to discover in ourselves what character and potential really mean. The thousands upon thousands of hours of boredom, repetition, sweat and sacrifice spent to achieve excellence.
But, truth is, I’m a soccer ignoramus. As a kid growing up in Peoria, Ariz., I knew exactly zero peers who ever took a serious kick at a soccer ball, let alone played faithfully in youth soccer leagues. If there even were such leagues, I never heard of them. Don’t remember one childhood chum who owned a soccer ball.
Here in midlife, my tangential, uninformed cognizance of soccer is one part cultural curiosity and one part personal. Culturally, I’m aware that, while soccer is the most popular sport in the world, America is the anomalous exception to that fact. In my adult lifetime, soccer has found momentum as a popular youth alternative to the Big Three of football, basketball and baseball. I’m intrigued to see what will become of soccer’s hold on this culture in, say, 20 to 25 years when these youths are adults and parents.
Personally, my sweetheart has a son who is a gifted soccer player, not to mention a huge fan of the game. I’ve watched him play. He is elfin. Magical. His feet are more like hands.
So, I watch this championship game because I’m compelled by human confrontation. Not because I’m a particular fan.
In my vacuum of knowledge, I notice things. Like, soccer crowds seem never to stop cheering. Like Beatlemania, there’s no ebb and swell to the noise. That the movement up and down the field of the two teams reminds me of sardine bait balls in the ocean, swirling together then scattering apart. That I can’t find the referee. That I watch for several minutes before I know which team is which. That, during the time I’m watching, it seems lots of players end up writhing on the grass holding their heads in their hands, grimacing. In one case, bleeding.
And they say this game is the safe alternative to concussion concerns in American football? Soccer is intense!
Germany scores. It was a perfect pass, “caught” by the chest of Mario Goetze who, apparently too cool for gravity, levitates sideways and kicks the game winner. (Don’t be impressed. I only know this guy’s name because I looked it up on the Web.)
The camera pans the sidelines. The boy is perhaps 9 years old. Tears swell in his eyes. Face a dark cloud. An adult is speaking encouragement into the boy’s right ear. From the left side an adult male arm reaches to console the boy, who contorts his face and shrugs off the loving gesture with a defiant, scornful twitch of his shoulders.
It’s apparently universal, this broken-hearted boy thing. This is exactly what happened to my youngest when the New Orleans Saints beat his Philadelphia Eagles with a walk-off field goal in last year’s NFL playoffs.
The star of the Argentines is crumpled, sitting on the grass. His body language cries out a savage, cruel disappointment. I immediately recognize it, because I’ve been there. I’ve felt it. It hurts to lose. Crushing.
The winners pile five and six high, squirming together like a tangle of nightcrawlers. When the pile finally collapses and breaks apart, it reveals two men, both prone, stacked face to face, enthralled in an ecstatic lovers’ metaphor. I smile, remembering how the celebration of athletic victory universally suspends any and every “rule” or anxiety about masculine, physical intimacy. Their joy is palpable. It makes me smile.
Soccer will someday take a mainstream place in the bottomless American appetite for sports. It’s only a matter of time.
What do I think about that? I think soccer is a passionate, skillful game. I think it will be good for America to become a real player in this globally popular sport. I welcome its emerging American fan base and the joy those fans will find in this artful contest.
And I think NFL training camps open in the next six days or so. I am indeed a product of a time and a place. We all are.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.