Soccer & America: Why the Rest of the World Loves the Beautiful Game and America Should Too.
I’m standing around a bar in an airport in Columbus, Ohio surrounded by 100 strangers. 20 of whom are members of the professional soccer team FC Dallas. We are circled around a what can be no bigger than a 19 inch TV over a bar. We are watching with the upmost angst as Greece and Costa Rica go head to head in what I believe to be the most exciting, high pressure act in all of sport, a World Cup knockout round penalty shoot out. With the eyes of the entire world watching these athletes step up with the weight of nations resting on their shoulders. With a single kick one player instantly makes the globe gasp for air.
As the man next to me sings “Olay Olay Olay!” into his phone there is a constant buzz of anticipation in this outdated 1980’s airport restaurant bar. The cheers and jeers are continuous as we watch Costa Rica barley edge out the Greeks. While some people are talking about the risky tactics that Costa Rica like having to play one man down just to get to penalties, others simply speak of the glory and agony felt by each team. All this is going on in multiple tongues some of which I could figure out and others I’ve never heard before. From the professional soccer players to the airport cart drivers who’s heads were on a constant swivel looking to hide out from their bosses just to enjoy these few moments of sport, we were all together. A random cohort of humans gathered in an airport united in the fact that this game is glorious, beautiful and universal. All this in front of a small TV at a bar in an airport in the middle of America on a Sunday afternoon which is a day in these parts that is usually reserved for football, family and faith. Yet on this day it was about Fútbol.
I always tell people that this is my favorite time of every four years. I believe that soccer (fútbol, or whatever you want to call it) is the world’s most beautiful and challenging sport. It’s a game I grew up playing as a child and fell back in love with in my late teens. I didn’t get to play as much organized soccer as I would have liked in high school or college but I’ve always played.
I’ve played in Brazil with children who had never played on any official organized team but had college level skills. I’ve played in Costa Rica on rocks and dirt inside a construction site with workers in boots and hard hats who couldn’t speak a lick of English yet we became friends through soccer. I have played in Italy with other kids from around the world at hotels and poolsides. For those moments when we were passing the ball back and forth I called them my friends. I have played in England in a park underneath the shadows of the London eye and in France at night in the old Latin quarters. Anywhere on the globe you can just play it. There doesn’t need to be a referee or rules because everyone basically gets it. You need some sort of round object and something that you can perceive as a goal.
When you play you lose yourself in the game. It’s game for any age, race, gender, nationality or religion, Anyone can love it whole-heartedly. During this time every four years the world is united. All supporting their own colors and praying to the Fútbol gods that this is their year. As teams go head to head and teammates face off against teammate and friends from their respective club teams, there is this sense of pride that you really see nowhere else is the world not even in the Olympics. Each match is an event for the nations that find themselves going head to head while the rest of the world sits back and enjoys the duel pulling for whomever they believe gives their country a better chance to hoist the trophy.
Even now in the USA we see people “calling in sick” for work to watch a match and gather in large crowds for a sport that is growing immensely more popular by the day in our country. I believe in 40 years that soccer will be the dominant sport in America. This is coming from a guy that dedicated the majority of his youth wearing a helmet and shoulder pads under the Texas sun for about 8 months out of every year. The thing about soccer is that is brings people together. No matter whom you are or what you believe the game speaks to everyone in it’s own way. There is also something inherently American about the sport that is widely overlooked. It is a game in which anything can happen and anyone is welcomed, and just like in any sport with hard work and a bit of luck any team can walk off the pitch as a victor.
Some people view it as simply a sport. Others, as we get the blessing of seeing this World Cup, like in Brazil, see it as something as necessary as oxygen. It’s so simple and so beautiful that during this span of a month the globe revolves around a simple ball. It’s peaceful yet capsulizes pure chaos where a millimeter can separate champions from broken hearts. You can go from victor to villain in a nanosecond. These players are warriors for their respective nations. They put heart, body and mind on the line to bring home a small trophy of pure gold that unites men and nations.