Four years ago, when I was living in South Korea during the 2006 World Cup in Germany, I wrote an email to my friends and family describing the experience of being part of a huge crowd gathered at Seoul City Hall Plaza to watch the home side's opening match on a massive screen on the side of a nearby building which had been commandeered to publicly show the game. As clearly as I can recall it (it was a very memorable experience), there is a marked difference in my attitude toward the current tournament and the attitude toward the 2006 edition I expressed in the email. I wrote that the experience of being part of a passionate World Cup crowd had turned me into a fan of the World Cup as an event, the mix of ardent fandom, patriotism, and collective emotional experience being an intoxicating (and volatile) cocktail, but that I still "didn't get" the sport itself.
I get it now. This year, I find myself not only excited by the buzz created by the World Cup, but also by the chance to watch some of the world's most brilliant players strut their stuff for their national teams. Three years of playing pickup and team soccer alongside friends who have the game in their blood - Englishmen, Scots, and South Africans among my fellow expatriate English teachers mostly, but a smattering of Germans and Frenchmen as well - have converted me into a full fan of the sport itself. Playing in real games, with players who know what they're doing, has given me a greater appreciation of a brilliant midfield possession game, a perfect form tackle, and a beautifully placed cross into the box than I used to have, and - most surprising to me of all - I no longer consider a scoreless draw by definition a boring contest. Though there are poorly contested matches, soccer well played presents as much excitement as hockey (my preferred "goal" sport as an American), even if balls more rarely end up in the net than pucks do, and a lot of the joy of watching it comes from seeing a play develop as the ball is advanced down the pitch, with the thrill provided by the possibility of a shot on goal (more likely to result in a goal than in hockey) being produced rather than only coming with an actual shot. This was something that only came once I'd acquired some firsthand familiarity (and only a little, at that!) with how the game is played.
I am psyched to see how the likes of Messi, Rooney, Kaka, and all the rest perform in this tournament. I'm excited about the U.S. team, and rooting hard for Japan, Korea, England, and whichever of the tournament's underdogs emerges from the group stage as well. And I'm going to watch as many of the games as I can manage, and block out time on July 11th to watch the final. I've become a full-fledged fan of the game, if still a relative neophyte in it (something about which my English friends will no doubt continue to needle me). I still love my "American" sports as much as the next guy. But there's always room for one more fantastic game in a true sports fan's schedule, and soccer, I've more and more realized, is a fantastic game.
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4 months ago