Surprised By Soccer

or… ‘How I Got Hooked On the Beautiful Game This Summer’

It might be a sign of midlife crisis, or, if Ann Coulter’s right, a ‘clear sign of moral decay’, but whatever it is, I can’t explain it, but it’s real. This Midwestern ‘born-and-raised on John Madden’s color commentary – still gets chills at the original Monday Night Football theme – still remembers vividly the glory of the ’85 Bears – devoted member of both Steeler and ‘Who Dat’ Nation’ has been, for a few months now, watching (even listening to, like, on the radio), and, wait for it…. enjoying soccer.

I blame the World Cup. I particularly blame a match between Brazil and Peru that was, again, surprisingly, among the most compelling television I had seen in some time. I had dismissed arguments before about the pure athleticism, the ‘passion’, the beauty of the game. But I saw it as I watched two teams, in brutal heat, leave everything on the field, in a way that conjured for me beloved images of Michael Jordan’s incredible ‘fever’ game, or Curt Schilling pitching on a busted ankle to win the World Series. That, along with the grandeur of the truly International character of this championship, of great stories like Costa Rica, and, watching the brilliance of teams like Germany, Argentina, Netherlands, I guess I started to get it.

Oh, and one other very, very important thing. The World Cup was the first sporting event I think that has ever captured my son’s complete attention through the entire game. We got to watch these together. It was wonderful. I’m not sure if it’s the lack of commercials, the constant movement, or just that he likes it more, but we’ve found a sport to really watch together.

As I thought back, I wondered, though, if the Summer of 2014 was just the fruition of my true introduction to the “World’s Game” three years prior by a group of kids, boys and girls, aged anywhere from 6 to 15, on the ‘pitch’ of the Hogar Rafael Orphanage in Zona 1, Guatemala City, Guatemala. We played soccer (or rather, these kids schooled me in soccer) every moment we could during free time. But the moment that is sealed in my mind was on Sunday, after Divine Liturgy in the Hogar Church. After the festal meal, the rest of the day was ‘free time’ – a Sabbath rest day – a day for watching movies, playing outdoor games, or maybe a much needed nap. This Sunday, though, a grand game of Futbol was called for.

The goal was set up (two rocks on the near side of the pitch) for a variation on the game, where one person is the goalie, and anyone else who wants to play fights for the chance to shoot on goal. If you make a goal, you’re the goalie. This version of the game allowed for participation of kids of all ages. Sometimes, rumor has it, the nuns even play (rumor has it they are very good!) On this day, they even let the visiting American Priest (me) play. It was hours of fun. One kid fired up the CD player (also allowed on Sunday afternoon) and played Shakira’s “Waka Waka”, followed by the entire FIFA World Cup 2010 Soundtrack. Before I left the country, on our ‘day in town’ I picked up a Guatemala National Team jersey, which I wear to this day in honor of the good people there. But the memories and the jersey were the end of my serious interest in soccer.

That is, until this summer.

So, maybe it’s just a summer fling, but I doubt it. We’ll see when the September Siren’s Song of the NFL season starts whether my interest in soccer will wane. I mean, I’m still going to watch my teams in the NFL, at least until Troy Polamalu and Drew Brees retire. I do have to admit, though, every offseason, with more news of players behaving badly, along with recent disturbing revelations about the NFL’s history of dealing with brain injuries (See Frontline’s excellent documentary “League of Denial”) that I have been struggling for some time about continuing to put my energy and support behind the sport I grew up with. I know pro soccer has plenty of problems too. But I am uneasy about the very real celebration of violence at the center of American Football, and, to be honest, I really don’t want my son to play. There is something about the ‘elegance’ the ‘pure sport’ of soccer that does draw me in, but it’s a definite shift in sensibility, which is maybe why I resisted it for so long, and why it still hasn’t really caught on in the US. But, I’m giving it a shot. I’ve decided to check out the ‘best of the best’, so I’m browsing the Premier League. But I also believe that soccer will never catch on big time in the US unless the MLS and smaller pro leagues catch on. Plus, I’ve always liked underdogs. So I got an MLS Live Subscription, and I hope to go see our local team, the Indy Eleven.

And, the strangest thing is, as of this evening, I just might be looking forward to next Monday’s Liverpool vs. Manchester City match as much as I am seeing the opening day of the NFL. Strange days, indeed.