I’ve never been a soccer fan. I went to the World Cup games in Dallas, back in the nineties, as a novelty. I had plenty of futbol-loving friends down in Big D, but soccer never held much attraction for this snowbird, and it stayed that way most of my life.
I sat around a few grade school pitches watching my daughter play, but it didn’t stick with her, either.
When my stepson showed interest in the game, I was glad to see it. Gets him out, gets him exercise, gets him engaged with his friends, I thought, but only if he wants it. I’m the last guy to press team sports participation on a youngster. I still shudder thinking of how some kids used sports as an excuse for cretinous bullying.
Then Erik, a preternaturally bright and considerate kid, began taking his fandom seriously. Very seriously. He wasn’t just a boy with an idle interest in the sport, but a full-blooded follower. He’d taken to soccer in ways that baseball, or basketball, or hockey had never inspired. God knows I’d tried to make that happen.
He knew the players. He knew the national teams, he knew the professional leagues, he knew the clubs. His uncle bought him a head-to-toe Messi uniform, the one Messi was wearing on Argentina’s World Cup team. Getting him to wear anything else for the duration of the Cup was impossible.
The picture in this post? That’s not Messi. It’s a soccer emoji of Erik one of his friends created for him.
And when those games came along, there we all were, glued to the tube. Even me.
There’s grit and fanaticism in American sports. The NFL is the apogee of that. There’s also imperfection, human frailty and hypocrisy surrounding the game — but that’s around any game, especially at the pro level.
Even on a day when Ray Rice is being booted from “the League” for kayoing his wife in a casino elevator, I can’t claim any higher ground for soccer athletes. Some of their trespasses would make the most hardassed U.S. athlete flinch.
But on the field?
That’s where I began to see, even with all the invective and soap-opera intrigues that surround professional soccer, how there’s gorgeous purity at work on the pitch. Mainly because there’s none of the deadening calculus that’s part of every NFL contest: rule changes to enhance offense and pump up scores; limits on contact and collision that are prima facie evidence of the brutality of the sport.
No, NFL teams haven’t begun putting sponsor logos on their jerseys. Boozed-up bloodied hooligans don’t stomp down Michigan Avenue every time the Bears drop a home game. Or throw bananas at players whose skin is darker than theirs.
But NFL football, ever and always in love with itself, its “warrior” grandeur, has become a bit like many things American: burdened with technocracy and well-intentioned proceduralism that reaches down onto the gridiron and sucks spontaneity and grace out of the sport. Except for fleeting moments: a Megatron is in midair, doing what looks humanly improbable.
When I was sitting there watching the World Cup with my stepson, what got to me was the affecting clarity and simplicity of what was going on down on that field. It wasn’t only two teams against each other, but players battling against the sport itself, its difficulty, its unpausing tension, its willingness to allow a null-null, its demands that you shape your expectations of yourself to something that’s etched in tradition. I have to doubt anyone is ever going to be able to change the incredibly simple and important things about how the game is played.
I go out with my stepson on weekends so he can practice. Maybe soccer will be yesterday’s game in a few years, but he enjoys it right now in a way that’s not all that removed from what they must feel on great green pitches from Rio to Tottenham.
He’s wearing that Messi uniform. Still.