I have had a change of heart about one of my deepest and longest-held beliefs. No, I’m not referring to my view of the GOP, a party I belonged to my entire adult life until the election of President Trump. Even before I was a Republican, I was a soccer skeptic.
True, I played for the American Youth Soccer Organization growing up in Riverside, Calif., in the 1970s. But I thought that the only football worth watching was the kind played in helmets. I also enjoyed spectating basketball and tennis, but I considered soccer to be too slow. There was no excitement, I thought, in games that ended in scores of 2-1 or, worse, 1-1. (Don’t tell George F. Will, but for similar reasons, I never became a big fan of America’s purported pastime.)
I couldn’t fathom how foreigners could be in thrall to such a tedious game. This confirmed my American chauvinism. I assumed that, as the greatest country in the world, we must have the greatest sports. It never occurred to me there was anything hubristic about using the term “World Series” for a contest in which only U.S. competitors (plus one token Canadian team) take part, while disdaining the true World Cup.
So how is it that I find myself riveted by the 2018 World Cup? I’ve watched as many games as I can, even following the action on my iPad if professional obligations take me away from my computer or TV. And I have thrilled to every dramatic turn:
The 70th-ranked Russian side getting to the quarterfinals by beating Spain on penalty kicks, only, in a bit of poetic justice, to lose on penalty kicks to tiny Croatia. South Korea, another underdog, defeating top-seeded Germany, thereby allowing Mexico to advance. (Delirious Mexicans showed their gratitude by buying drinks for every Korean they could find.) Lowly Japan leading mighty Belgium by 2-0, only to have the brilliant Belgians storm back and win on a last-second goal. (The well-mannered Japanese players were heartbroken but still meticulously cleaned out their locker room and left a classy “thank-you” note.) Powerhouse Brazil, the favorite after Germany’s defeat and the winningest team in World Cup history, losing its quarterfinal match in part because of an improbable own goal. England, a perennial disappointment that won its only World Cup in 1966, exceeding expectations by advancing to the semifinals — only to lose to Croatia (population 4.1 million ), which became the second-smallest nation to reach the final.
This, of course, only hints at the drama that has enthralled much of the world’s population (the last World Cup was watched by 3 billion people), but that, until recently, had left me cold. What changed? The gateway drug was the 2014 World Cup, which featured an American squad headlined by the “secretary of defense,” goalkeeper Tim Howard. But even without a U.S. team to root for this year, I have become transfixed by the flowing action, pinpoint passes and reckless headers of the “beautiful game.”
The young have been my teachers — specifically my son (now 16) and stepsons (10 and 12), all of them avid soccer fans in a way that few American kids were in my day. They patiently explain to me the finer points of the game in the same way that I explain to them the finer points of military history. We have enjoyed watching New York’s professional teams, New York City F.C. and the Red Bulls. But nothing has compared to the trip my son Will and I took to the home ground of his favorite side — Manchester United. For him, visiting Old Trafford, as its storied pitch is known, was like a Catholic pilgrim going to Lourdes.
We (or, more accurately, I) had some trepidation about attending Premier League games (a.k.a. “fixtures”), having read news accounts of the violent British football hooligans. But it was a peaceful and delightful experience, even if the taunts shouted by Man U fans cannot be reprinted in a family newspaper. I’m not used to being hugged by strangers, but when Man U scored, I was enveloped in a bear hug by the burly fan standing next to me. (The seats exist, apparently, only to act as beer-holders.)
I have not joined in my son’s passion for the Red Devils; I don’t have a side beyond Team USA. But being a “neutral” allows me to enjoy the athleticism of soccer’s superstars without worrying about whether “we” are winning. It also allows me to cheer or groan along with each country’s fans at the vicissitudes of fortune — an expression of patriotic devotion that seldom devolves into toxic nationalism.
By learning to appreciate soccer, I have also learned to appreciate the limits of American exceptionalism. Yes, we are a great nation, but that doesn’t mean that it’s our way or the highway. In fact, we become even greater if we learn to treasure the customs and attitudes of other lands. I suppose, in the end, my change of heart about sports is related to my change of heart about politics. In both fields I eschew the Trump Doctrine: “We’re America, b----.” No, we’re part of the world.