I used hate soccer. I loathed driving down Hill Road past Optimist park on Saturday mornings, dodging illegally parked cars and their soccer-crazed owners. The soccer ball stickers--the ones with kids' names and numbers stuck to the back of minivan windows--make me want to huck a bowling ball at someone. The very idea of soccer moms is enough to make me forbid any offspring I may one day have from playing the sport. Even the name "soccer" makes me crazy. Why can't Americans just call it by the same name the rest of the world calls it by?
Because soccer is not futbol, that's why. Futbol, on the other hand, I can dig. Watching the game is better than most of the crap on TV. Drama, scandal, triumph--it's all there in a futbol game. But there's something different in the soul of the futbol player's game, something the American game seems to lack.
As it turns out, I never hated soccer. I just hated the stereotypes of American soccer and the fact that beyond the World Cup, on a professional level, the United States has so little interest in the world's most popular game.
Six months ago, I couldn't have told you the difference between soccer and futbol. Had the World Cup aired in January, I wouldn't have paid it any mind, much less known off the top of my head that Landon Donovan scored the winning goal against Algeria in 90-plus minutes of last Wednesday's game. But in January, I was persuaded by a coworker to join an indoor soccer team, never having played a game in my life.
Two seasons later, I've been hit in the face a few times by the ball. I've been bruised, kicked and knocked over by other players. I've twisted a knee out of whack, faceplanted on the field and tripped over the ball. Somehow, I've even managed to self-mutilate my nether regions with my own foot while botching an assist. I recently scored my first goal, and as I jogged back to center I made the mistake of telling an opponent it was my first goal ever. He was not amused.
My bumps and bruises haven't led to any grandiose revelations. (And during the editing process of this piece a co-worker hipped me to the fact that Chuck Klosterman beat me to a version of this rant in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs.) But what I have discovered is the actual sport behind all the crap associated with American soccer is fun. It's fun to play, it's fun to watch. My teammates are heavily tattooed and none of them drive a minivan. And, for better or worse, we play the same game as all those kids at Optimist on Saturday morning.
None of us, however, play the same game Pele played as a kid in a Sao Paolo slum. None of us will ever play the same game many of the kids in the FIFA player escort program play. I'll be watching the World Cup finals come Sunday, July 11. And I'll continue to volunteer to get knocked around the indoor field with my American soccer team. But I've learned a lesson about judging the world's favorite sport by American standards. Sometimes, the rest of the world gets it right.