A Worldly possession

“There are many beautiful things about being an American fan of World Cup soccer—foremost among them is ignorance. The community in which you were raised did not gather around the television set every four years for a solid, breathless month. The U.S. has never won. You have not been indoctrinated into unwanted yet inescapable tribal allegiances by your soccer-crazed countrymen. You are an amateur, in the purest sense of the word. So when the World Cup comes around, you can pick whatever team you like best and root for them without shame or fear or reprisal—you can spend the month in paradise.”
Sean Wilsey, The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup

Yes. The World Cup is here. It has been for nearly a week now, though I’ve been counting down for quite some time. And thanks to The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, I’m ready for it. My thoughts have been focused. My knowledge, honed. I’m more excited this year than I was four years ago – that would be World Cup 2002, my first foray into World Cup soccer – because the team I’ve arbitrarily picked (England, of course) has a chance to win.

Yeah. A real chance. Of the 32 teams that qualified for the World Cup, England sits as the club with the second best chance to win (after the Yankees of international soccer, Brazil). Wayne Rooney. David Beckham. Michael Owen. I should break out the old Liverpool FC jersey, though I’m not sure if Stephen Gerrard is playing. He’s nearly 45 by now, I’d guess.

In 2002, I watched England lose a tight game to Brazil in the quarterfinals. I woke up at 2:30 am, laid in bed as I was bathed in the glow of Korean grass on the television, and watched England lose. It was heartbreaking. I thought they had a chance. I’ve gotten use to my professional sports teams-of-choice choking in the playoffs – if they even make it – but this was a new hurt. The type that comes from realizing great potential, yet not being accustomed to seeing that potential squandered. Foiled by the very team that took England’s invention and turned it into the “beautiful game.”

I will never admit to knowing a lot about the World Cup. But am fascinated by it. I’m from the United States, and there’s no bigger freedom than being a World Cup fan in a country with little to lose. There’s no need to root for the United States. For the most part, I’m an England man. Call it a little bit of Anglophilia. Listen, Kerrie’s adopted the country of her distant heritage – the Czech Republic – and rooted against the U.S. in their meeting with the Czechs. Of course, beating the States 3-0 in international soccer might not be much of a feat.

As Sean Wilsey says in the intro to The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, we don’t have to root for the U.S. because our country simply doesn’t care enough about the sport to create any sort of vested interest in our national team. We know their names. They’ll go on Wheaties boxes if they win. But they won’t, so why bother?

It’s kind of nice having a competition, whether it is war, economy, or sport, where the United States isn’t the prospected winner – the leader for all time. It’s nice to see us fail at something. I’m not being anti-American. It’s just that there’s a swagger involved in rooting for the U.S. in everything, all the time.

And it’s a simple fact that since our nation isn’t good at soccer, we’re not going to bother with paying attention to it. We consider it a secondary sport. Not worth our time. Not even worth the smallest bit of energy. Sure, every single other nation on the Earth loves the game, embraces it and uses it as a form of unorganized religion. But not us. Why would we? We’re not that good at it on an international level. We have better things to spend our nationalistic energy on – war, for example.

(end political rant, please)

Here’s the deal – soccer is simple. It’s basic. It’s pure energy, at all times. It’s a lot more difficult than it looks, but it’s a lot easier to imagine yourself being a great player while watching on television. It’s fans are rabid – completely involved. There’s a real buzz when you watch soccer.

There are a lot of people that don’t care for it. That’s fine. I’m not going to pretend that a sport that’s barely on the radar in our country should suddenly become the nation’s sport of choice. It will never be that way. It’s constantly made fun of in the United States. It’s too slow, and it doesn’t have enough scoring, blah blah. Oh well – I’ve found it to be incredibly subtle. Exciting even without a score. I gave soccer a chance because it was a very European thing to do. But it hooked me. For those of us that really get the fever, the true nationalistic fervor that far exceeds anything the Olympics or the World Baseball Classic could ever come up with, this is a time where anything is possible.

Brazil could, and probably will, win it all. They know the game well, and they’ve held the trophy five times in the past century. Germany’s at home, ready to lock down with excessive defense and raise the temperature with an entire nation backing them up. England is nearly always downtrodden, but they’ll surely make it to the quarterfinals (and, as always, be beaten by the eventual champion.) Of course, we can only hope for an Argentina/England match up – The Falkland War has nothing on Beckham’s kicks (the one that lost the game in 98’ and the one that won the game in 02’) and Maradona’s “hand of God.” Anguish vs. Beauty. Andres vs. Corey.

Some teams (Cote d’Ivoire) stopped a war because of the World Cup. Others are making the trek for the first time (Angola, Ghana) instead of the continent’s usual heavyweights. These are the ultimate in underdog stories. Not just Major League underdogs. We’re talking entire countries. Angola vs. Europe. And South America. And Asia.

Once the ball is kicked off, all teams are on equal footing. No monetary means will secure your team a victory. Rich soccer teams can buy all the talent they want – AC Milan, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea – but only citizenship will get you a World Cup championship. Just the allegiance to your country. Every country can build a team. All you need is a soccer ball and a flat pitch.

It’s called the beautiful game because it’s the joining of athletics and the pure will to win. Sure, there will be 0-0 ties. Sure, the most goals a team will score in a game will probably be the four that Germany put up in the opener. But the defensive stops, the fight to get to the goal, the sheer determination that leads to a cross pass that is beautifully set up by some guy that wasn’t even there ten seconds before and then kicked into the back of the goal – that’s sport.

I’m ready for the World Cup. Even if I don’t see a single game, even if I have to monitor the proceedings through an Ethernet connection on my Mac at work, even if England fails to make it out of the Group Phase and I’m forced to root for France or Spain or the random long-shot of a small country that somehow blasts their way into the tournament, I’ll still enjoy myself.

It’s one team against the world.

Welcome to the World Cup.

“The joy of being one of the couple of billion people watching thirty-two nations abide by seventeen rules fills me with the conviction, perhaps ignorant, but like many ignorant convictions, fiercely held, that soccer can unite the world.”
Sean Wilsey, The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup

This was lovingly handwritten on June 14th, 2006