Warming Up to 'The Beautiful Game'
I come not to bury soccer, or to praise it either, for that matter.
I'm still trying to understand and embrace it. This is a big step for me.
I was an adult before I even saw a soccer ball, much less a game. In grade school we played kick ball, with a brown object that must have been the love child of a gym locker liaison between a medicine ball and a bowling ball. The fear that if you kick the ball your toes will end up jutting out the back of your heel significantly reduces scoring. If you wore sandals to school, in fact, you got a total pass on recess.
There was no soccer on TV then, or if there was, the signal didn't reach the Home on the Range. For years we only got two of the three networks, so if it was shown on ABC's "Wide World of Sports," I wouldn't have seen it. ("Bewitched" still qualifies as new programming for me.)
We didn't have youth programs, either. We had fields, of course, but they were taken up by wheat, milo, two baseball diamonds and a barrel racing course. The usual things. We didn't have soccer in high school, either, and if it was being played at Kansas when I was in college, I missed it. From there I migrated to Detroit, which was not then and still isn't, to my knowledge, a soccer hotbed -- unless you count assembling the minivans essential to the creation and distribution of soccer moms.
So my first exposure to soccer was here, in Washington, and I tried to get into it. Well-meaning soccer-loving fiends, er, friends did their best to convert me. Let's call them by their Brazilian soccer names -- Mani, Emilio (not the good one), Goffinho, Rukaká, Nünzzzo. They found it slow going. For instance, when I first heard the phrase "beautiful game," I assumed it referred to Kansas vs. Oklahoma for the 1988 NCAA championship. (I believe Kansas vs. Memphis for the 2008 NCAA championship is known as "the really beautiful game.")
For a long time I used my lack of exposure to the sport as an excuse for my tepid feelings toward soccer, which I have come to realize was unfair. I have managed to fall in love with sports I never played, such as Nordic combined (skiing and ski jumping) and biathlon (skiing and shooting). Well, come to think of it, I have shot a gun far more often than I've played soccer. In fact, you could add a shooting component to any sport and make it more intriguing to me. I love the equestrian events as well, although riding around 30-odd years ago on a big placid mare in the summertime wearing shorts and a halter doesn't really make me a candidate for dressage.
I thought perhaps it was a lack of knowledge about the game that was spoiling my enjoyment, so I went to the Freedom-United doubleheader last weekend at RFK. Goffinho and Tenorio (his name is already "Braziled") did their best to enlighten me. And I will admit that I enjoyed the second half of the United game very much. Things happened. I missed one of the goals, however, and this is a problem with soccer: It requires an attention span, which many Americans -- including, apparently, me -- have had beaten out of them by 21st century life.
There are some other facets of the sport that continue to baffle me. For instance, United plays in something called MLS, but also has played in the Superliga and the U.S. Open Cup and the Cup-a-Noodles, for all I know. And the players are constantly being sent off to play for the national team in things like the Gold Cup and the Confederations Cup, so you never know who might be at a particular game.
For instance, the Freedom was missing three players. This never happens to the best players on, say, the Nationals' roster (although there is some thought that perhaps it occasionally should). Nicci Wright, the Freedom's goalkeeper coach, had to come in to, uh, keep goal (again, you'll never see the Nats' pitching coach come in to pitch . . . say, that might be an idea). Tenorio told me how many caps she'd earned while playing for Canada. Then he told me what caps were. (Shouldn't they be called tuques if you earn them for Canada? Berets for France? Hey, I'm making an effort here.)
And of course there is the random violence associated with the sport that is a turnoff even for a woman who likes to shoot a gun. Two actual headlines from this week: "Colombian Player Says He Didn't Mean to Kill Fan" and "Man Stabbed for Coming Home Late From Soccer Match." Of course, there is random violence occasionally committed by fans of all sports, but I don't think even a soccer fan could refute the notion that far more of it surrounds their sport than, say, Nordic combined.
When this argument is advanced, soccer fans go back to this notion: that they are the most passionate fans in the world. This may well be the case, and I admire them for sticking with soccer over the years as it has slowly climbed its way to the top tier of U.S. sports. Well done!
But what I can't understand is the soccer fan's need to have the sport accepted by everyone. It must be exhausting, constantly proselytizing about anything, much less a game. Soccer has loyal, colorful fans (Barra Brava and the Screaming Eagles were a highlight for me); it's getting more television coverage than ever. But not everyone is going to love it.
I get that we want others to share our passions. But we can't expect all others to share our passions. My great passion is finding unmarked graves using dowsing rods, then trying to identify who is buried there using obituaries and old records. (I also quilt, but I don't like to talk about it because some people think it's weird.) I understand, however, that not everyone shares my obsession with dead bodies and cemeteries.
In fact, I promise not to urge everyone to take up their dowsing rods if the soccer fans promise not to try to make me love their sport. I no longer hate it, and I'm starting to like it. That's going to have to be good enough for now.
So I come not to bury soccer, or to praise it.
But if I did bury it, at least I could find it again with my rods. I'm just sayin' . . .