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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Learning to Love the Beautiful Game in America: A Personal Story

For 20 of the 21 years that I've lived, I've called the United States of America my home. And for many of those years, I've showed an interest in sport.

I fell in love with baseball around the age of seven. I embraced football around 13-14, and hockey followed about two years later. Two years ago, I caught the college basketball bug. 

For many Americans, soccer is an afterthought. I was one of those people for a long time. Like many things, I became interested in it because of my heritage. I was born in Moscow, and soccer is Russia's summer sport.
In 2008, at the age of fifteen, I noticed Russia was in the European Cup.

"Huh, that's interesting", I thought. "I should keep track of how they're doing."

My knowledge of soccer was barely existent. I didn't know what UEFA stood for, and I didn't care. I didn't know how good Russia was, or who their star players were, or who their coach was, any of it.

What I did know, however, was that the Motherland was fighting for glory and I figured I should at least pay attention. So I plopped down on the couch and turned on the day's match. I don't remember who was playing, or who won, but it was a start.

My initial reaction was pretty negative, admittedly. This is a slow game. This field is obnoxiously big. Is anyone going to score a goal?  Why is the clock going forward instead of backward? Why are they arbitrarily adding more time, this doesn't make sense? Oh come on, you're fine, get up already! 

So I turned my attention to the crowd, and this puzzled me. The fans in the packed stadium were not just focused, they were chanting. Singing, even, and not just a few bars a la "Seven Nation Army", either. Full songs, with verses and choruses and bridges. Every fan that got a closeup shot was either deadly focused or cheering happily...even if their country was down.

Wow, these guys are happy to be there. They really put their all into this, don't they? I admired that, even if it still confused me.  

That year, Russia was coached by Guus Hiddink, a Dutchman who I would later learn, encouraged a fiery offensive playing style that would be integral to Russia's performance. I didn't know how much to expect from the Russian squad, but I knew I didn't usually hear Russia grouped with names like France, Germany, or the Netherlands. 

They won game after game, however, and made it all the way to the semifinals. I forget why and when I had to switch off the television when the Russia-Spain semifinal game was on, but I do remember there being no score when I did.

I was disappointed when I was able to return to the TV. The game was over, and Russia had lost...badly. The final result was 3-0.

"Ah well. It was fun while it lasted. Back to regularly scheduled programming-the Sox are probably playing tonight."

But it fascinated me to see how the fans would belt out their national anthem as it played...I'd never seen that before, and it sent patriotic shivers up and down my spine even when the anthem was a country's I had no connection to.

I still didn't find soccer as interesting as baseball, American football, or hockey. I didn't feel a bond to the colorful history and chess-match thinking associated with baseball. It wasn't the social gathering like American football. And it lacked the same white-knuckle fluidity and physicality of hockey. But the seed had been planted within me. 
In 2010, the World Cup descended on South Africa. The United States was in the running, grouped with Algeria, Slovenia, and England. I realized I was enjoying watching the games more, and I was learning a bit more about the sport. The US battled to a draw with England and Slovenia, and beat Algeria, so I was happy with the performance.

And then it was over as quickly as it had begun. Team USA lost in the Round of 16 to Ghana’s Black Stars, and that was that. Back again to the sports I was used to. I had the same mentality when the Russians bowed out of the group stage in the 2012 World Cup. 

This year has been different. I didn’t have the highest of expectations for either the US or Russia, but I figured I’d make the most of it and be hopeful, if nothing else. Maybe...just maybe, if Germany or Portugal has a bad game, the US can squeak through. 

Right before the World Cup, I predicted the US would beat Ghana, draw against Portugal, and lose to Germany, but I sure wasn’t confident about that second prediction. Cristiano Ronaldo and company were a formidable adversary and in order for the US to get anywhere, they’d have to falter-and badly so. 

But after seeing the US keep their heads and battling Ghana to a 2-1 win and considering that 2-2 was actually a pretty admirable result against the Portuguese (even if the means to the end were heartbreaking), I was excited.
Even if we lost to Germany we'd be able to get in through a few different scenarios! Sure we weren't dominating, but advancing is advancing! 

The United States lost 2-1 to Belgium, but if not for the heroic performance by keeper Tim Howard, the final result could easily have been around 6-1. I was disappointed, sure, but I couldn’t help but marvel at the performance set forth by someone I didn’t even know the name of before the cup.

Something else had changed too. I noticed I cared about teams other than the ones I had personal connections to. I almost immediately became infatuated with the exciting Colombian team, had to admire the Algerians, and hoped for the Bosnians in their first World Cup-it was nice to hear that many Croatians and Serbians had by and large thrown support to the Bosnians. And wow, hearing 80,000 belt out the Brazilian anthem would make anyone (well, maybe not an Argentine) want them to win that day. 

And I’d noticed I'd picked up on other storylines as well. Were the Brazilians going to march on and at least temporarily relieve their home country of its anger directed towards FIFA? (Apparently not...) Could the Costa Ricans continue their miracle run? (No, but what heroes they must be for their country-not just surviving a brutally difficult group, but winning it and getting all the way to the Quarterfinals!)

I still don’t understand the rules of soccer like I do for hockey, American football, and baseball. I still think the league system in place in Europe is a bit absurd. And I’m still not the biggest fan of the fact that a match can end in a 0-0 draw. But I have decided to broaden my horizon of sport. I’m going to become a Toffeeman and place my support behind Everton F.C. and Tim "Brick Wall" Howard. Can't wait for August 16th (kickoff for the Premier League)!

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