BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer
It is World Cup time again. A time when soccer fanatics rejoice, casual fans take slightly more than casual interest in the global contest and some of us carry on as usual–ignoring all the hoopla.
Not that I haven’t followed World Cup games in the past, but like most Americans, I never really called myself a fan as I generally placed soccer low on the totem pole of sporting events, just below Canadian football and just above women’s field hockey. And I blame the nature of the low-scoring game in that we have to wait so long for any payoff, and even that isn’t always guaranteed.
A friend of mine maintains that the fact that there are relatively few scores makes each goal that much more exciting. To that I have long countered with: “Meh.” After all, isn’t a game with at least one goal more riveting than a scoreless draw? Sure, it is. When the one thing both sides are desperately trying to accomplish for over 90 minutes actually comes to fruition, then there’s a feeling of satisfaction for both the players and the fans, right? So doesn’t it stand to reason that a game with a few great goals is more absorbing that a match with only one score? I think you see where I’m going with this. Besides, how intriguing would NFL or college football games be if they all ended 3-0 or 3-3 or (yawn) 0-0? It’d make for an excruciatingly boring season to say the least.
Yet soccer is enormously popular with the youth around the country. Every kid plays it in school and an ever-increasing number of neighborhoods are establishing youth leagues, like in Childs Park right here in St. Pete.
I recall playing in a game during my 10th grade P.E. class. Soccer was on the curriculum so we had to cover it, whether we enjoyed playing “the world’s most popular game” or not. Being apathetic amateurs, there were no precision passes, expertly headed balls or well-formed attacks. We mostly whacked the ball around under the hot sun as it ricocheted off our legs and Nikes. After fifteen minute of this or so, the typical tension that creeps into a scoreless game first made an appearance. After 30 or 40 minutes with still no one able to find the back of the goal, all smiles and clowning left the field as we suddenly took this meaningless contest seriously. Well, almost all of us.
Since we were just a couple of ragtag teams, we were in the habit of rotating positions. I don’t remember how, but toward the very end of game I wound up rooted between the posts as the goalie. I’m sure I didn’t ask for this, but I guess I was elected. Maybe the kid who had been playing the position simply got tired of standing back there or, being a teenager, wanted to get a better view of the girls in shorts that were running around in their own game one field over. Who knows? All I remember is that I had no real competitive nature and wasn’t about to risk a scraped knee, busted rib or worse by diving for a ball.
When a weak shot on goal dribbled toward me I picked it up and with the most half-hearted motion rolled it back into play, as I had no wish to embarrass myself with my non-existent punting skills. Turns out an enemy player who’d been lurking at the cusp of the goal took advantage of my carelessness and pounced. Rearing back and connecting with a mighty kick, this jock scorched the ball past me and into the back of the net. Some collective shouts and groans (mingled with some more, um, colorful words) went up from my disgusted teammates. We’d spent an entire period in a deadlock and just like that, I’d blown it and felt terrible. Even though it was a meaningless game, the back and forth struggle had engaged us all, and for that afternoon, I gained a new respect for the sport.
And though most high school kids who pursue athletics go for the popular, big money avenues like the NBA, the NFL and Major League Baseball, pro soccer is an option with Major League Soccer and the North American Soccer League, in which the hometown Tampa Bay Rowdies play. And before each Rowdies game I hear the fans leaving the pubs on Central Ave in a parade toward Al Lang Stadium, chanting and singing fight songs.
On the day that Team USA faced soccer dynamo Belgium in the knockout stage of this year’s World Cup, I was shocked to look out of my apartment window overlooking Central Avenue and witness so many people of all ages dressed in red, white and blue. One guy with an Uncle Sam beard sported Yankee Doodle pants. A blonde girl with a painted face was wrapped in an American flag. And this was no small contingent of revelers making their way down for a local game. It seemed like everyone in the county was on his way to cheer America on.
Not only was I impressed by the turnout but was instantly struck by the irony. It took a game that so many Americans usually ignore in their daily lives to bring us together and rabidly root for our country. I couldn’t think of a time when athletes representing the US caused more of a furor. The Olympics as a whole capture our attention, sure. But there are so many events and most of us care about only a handful at most. It’s a safe bet that at the office water cooler you won’t hear someone say, “Dude did you catch the women’s quadruple sculls rowing yesterday? What a race!”
Even our Olympic basketball team, which has featured such flashy, high profile players as Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and the best baller on the planet, Mr. LeBron James, doesn’t drive regular folks to don patriotic garb and flock to the bars to catch the games.
The World Cup is a tournament that the entire world is watching, literally. It’s focused on one game, not a plethora of wildly different events. And unlike the star-laden US basketball squad, our soccer team is almost always a dark horse against high-level international competition. In many other ways, the world views the USA as Goliath, throwing his weight around. But in the world of soccer, we fit snugly into the role of David when we face juggernauts like Brazil, Germany, Italy, England, Spain, Argentina, Netherlands…you get the picture.
The fact that we compete in the tournament with regularity is taken for granted these days. Indeed, there are youngsters who missed out on the American absence when it comes to the World Cup. For forty years the mighty U.S. of A. couldn’t even earn a spot to play with the big boys. After decent showings in early versions of the tournament, a US squad was absent from the party for two generations. How long was the gap? The Korean War was going on when the U.S. last qualified before the dry spell and MC Hammer was warning everyone “U Can’t Touch This” when we finally made the cut again.
For every World Cup since then we have earned the right to play against the elite soccer nations, and here we were, about to face Belgium in a do-or-die contest. Feeing the patriotic vibe which permeated the entire street, city, and I imagine even the country, I watched this game with interest for once. For over 90 minutes players on both sides ran and kicked and sprinted and dived and played as hard as they could, knowing losing equaled a plane ticket home. It actually reminded me of that war of attrition game back in high school, and I felt just as sickened as I did back then when Belgium finally broke through and scored in the extra period. When they later added a second goal it felt like the death blow. I knew enough about soccer to know that a two-goal lead was virtually insurmountable at this level, with so precious little time remaining. I reached for the remote but something compelled me to leave it on, the way you’re compelled to watch the very end of a really sad movie.
As time was winding down and Team USA finally put one in the back of the net to cut the lead in half, a sustained shout from every bar and restaurant absolutely rocked Central Avenue. I don’t know if I’d ever heard such a thunderous cheer downtown, and this includes the time the Rays won the game to go to the World Series. I contributed the decibel level myself, screaming as I jumped up and down in my living room, so proud of that plucky bunch of Americans a continent away, representing our flag, our nation and its citizens.
In the end it didn’t matter that we would lose 2-1 and get booted from the tournament. Those 11 guys gathered on a field on that muggy July day in Salvador, Brazil were the scrappy underdogs and for that afternoon we all emphatically embraced them and the great land they represented over 4,000 miles away. And if it takes Word Cup soccer rather than a Great American sport like baseball, basketball or even football to bring forth a jingoism and pride in our country that some of us didn’t even know we possessed, then I guess I really am a fan.