Throwball, Anyone?

The World Cup, an event that captivates the entire globe for one month every four years, is here again, and I am thrilled.  This, despite the fact that I am an American, which means two things:

  1. I know nothing about soccer, and care about it even less.
  2. I insist on calling it soccer, while the rest of the world refers to it as football. 

Those are stereotypes, of course.  In reality, I know quite a bit about soccer.  Granted, this wasn’t always the case.  Four years ago, I was every bit as naive as my American brethren.  Soccer, to me, was a sport that one played up until the age of 12 or so.  Beyond that, you either moved on to something different – baseball or basketball, for instance – or devoted the majority of your time to academics (which is really a polite way of saying you didn’t hang with the popular crowd).  Maybe you joined the glee club before every other high school in the country was doing “Don’t Stop Believin'” and it was actually considered cool to sing.  The point is, you didn’t play soccer, because there seemed to be some unwritten rule that anybody past the cusp of adolescence was barred from kicking a white-and-black-checkered ball around. 

Oh, and I also knew who Pele was.  But that hardly counts.  His name’s a gimme, the same way non-baseball fans are familiar with Babe Ruth, non-boxing fans have an awareness of Muhammad Ali, and non-cartoon fans know Bugs Bunny.  Some people transcend the veil of ignorance.

And then the summer of 2006 rolled around.  One Saturday morning the TV was on and I was flipping through the channels, bored.  I stumbled upon a World Cup match.  Brazil vs. Australia.  It was nearly half over, and the score was tied at zero.  A scoreless game? I thought sarcastically.   That’s just so typical of soccer.  There must be something better on.  And yet, rather than reach for the remote, I was oddly transfixed on the game.  It took me less than a minute to realize that, hey, this was a pretty interesting sport, after all.  Soon after, Brazil scored a goal, and I pumped my fist in the air, shouting “Yeah!”  Which made no sense at all, because even if I had been a soccer fan at the time, I certainly didn’t have a favorite team.  But I had become so immersed in the nuances of the game in such a brief time, my reaction was genuine. 

True, the games are low-scoring, and often result in ties.  But that’s not the point of the game.  The guys who play are remarkable athletes.  It’s amazing to watch their prowess and skill as they drive the ball downfield, attacking and defending, passing and blocking.  If you want to see points on the board, watch basketball.  Dribble-dribble-shoot-score.  Other team: dribble-dribble-shoot-score.  100 points?  Yawn.

I love that the clock never stops ticking.  They play straight through, 45 minutes until halftime, and then another forty-five minutes after.  That’s pure sport.  No whistles, no time-outs to catch your breath or discuss strategy.  There are penalties, in the form of Yellow Cards (or the dreaded Red Card, which means sayonara, you ruffian, you), but the action onfield just keeps on keeping on.  Maybe that’s the real reason why soccer hasn’t caught on in the U.S. – how do you fit in commercial breaks?  Damn you, Madison Avenue, for deciding that talking geckos trying to shill car insurance are more important than a truly riveting sport. 

About that name.  Soccer is, officially, known as “association football”, but is commonly shortened to just “football” throughout the rest of the world.  This makes perfect sense.  The game is all about using your feet to kick the ball (the occasional headbutt notwithstanding), after all.  We only call it soccer over here because we’ve already got a sport we call football, which is sort of ironic because, unless somebody’s punting or kicking a field goal, there isn’t a whole lot of interaction between the foot and the ball.  I love my country, but I think we definitely didn’t think things over very well when we named that sport (although I’m not sure what we’d call it that would be more accurate – “throwball”, maybe?).

I watched a bunch of those World Cup matches in 2006, and when France rallied from behind three separate times to overtake Spain and advance to the final, I realized I had rarely before seen such a tense and exciting game, regardless of the sport.  From that moment, I was officially hooked. 

Plastic horns, or a hive full of angry bees?

It’s been a long four years, but the World Cup is back now, and I am just as stoked as before.  I could do without the vuvuzelas – plastic horns being blown by the fans that sound like a constant, angry drone of bees filling the stadium – but they’re a minor distraction, and a small price to pay for the privilege of watching the biggest sporting event in the world.

Bigger, even, than the Super Bowl. 

You know…that competition every February that determines the thowball champion…

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