Soccer is usually only a passing interest of mine. I will catch a Premier League match if I am up early on the weekend or a Champions League one if I have a random day off in the middle of the week. However, soccer is not an obsession of mine like college football or professional basketball.
Except when the World Cup comes around. Every four years my social life gets put on hold as I try to catch every game. I will quickly form passionate opinions on players like Neymar and Mo Salah. I will support a team based solely on how good their uniforms look.
As an immigrant from the UK, football is in my blood, and I am forced to support both the England and USA international teams. Yet my love for the World Cup is more than genetic; several reasons make it the world’s greatest sporting competition:
1. The Stakes Miracle is one of my favorites sports films ever1)It is probably second to only Moneyball.. While I was not alive for 1980 Winter Olympics, the US’s victory over the Soviet Union is certainly the greatest moment in American sport’s history because the entire country was represented by that team. They were not the Chicago Blackhawks or the Boston Bruins on the ice but rather the Americans.
The World Cup is about 32 nations, not teams, competing against one another. Hearing the national anthems means a lot more in international matches. Losing a match feels like a referendum on your country’s culture, economy, and competitive spirit. Imagine the humiliation if an international economic superpower lost to a tiny island nation with the 112th largest GDP.
It also helps that almost the entire world cares about soccer. Watching the USA dominate Olympic basketball can be entertaining, but the easy victories ring a little hollow. On the other hand, every country wants to hoist the FIFA World Cup Trophy. The World Cup is arguably the only competition that actually has global relevance.
2. The Format American football is a fantastic sport, but even I can admit a three and a half hour game bursting with commercials can be grueling to watch sometimes. Soccer is not subject to these problems. There are two 45-minute halves with some commercials in between.
But the World Cup is more than just a single game. March Madness is amazing because you get to immerse yourself in college basketball for days. The group stages of the World Cup are similarly all-encompassing. And after experiencing so many multi-game series in the NBA playoffs, single elimination matches in the World Cup are refreshingly tense.
Plus, 32 teams is a perfect number. (Unfortunately, 48 will soon be the standard.) Almost every team has a real shot of winning it all. Despite their long odds, I can talk myself into countries like Iceland or Egypt making it far in the tournament. Panama is about the only team I have written off, but even then I could still end up eating my words.
3. The Smugness Being a soccer fan in the US makes you seem exotic (or like a smug ass). Other people love it when you look down on them and talk about the 4-4-2 formation. The World Cup is a month long excuse to convince people you are more cultured than them.
Those are the reasons I love the World Cup, but at the same time, the tournament inevitably ends in pain. Here are my three most painful World Cup moments:
2010 USA v Ghana The 2010 had been a wonderful World Cup for the USA. They drew against England in their first match, should have beaten Slovenia if not for a BS offsides call, and secured their spot atop the group with a stoppage time goal from Landon Donovan. The USA seemed like they had a good shot against Ghana in the round of 16.
As an England supporter, I am used to failure and underwhelming results in international soccer. However, this USA team seemed to be the exact opposite of those underachieving England teams; the Americans felt like they could actually snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. And so, I was looking forward for the first time in my life to a penalty kick shootout. But then Ghana scored in the 93rd minute to deny the United States the opportunity.
2006 England v Portugal
In the final match of the World Cup, Zinedine Zidane headbutted Italian Marco Materazzi and was sent off. That was certainly the biggest hotheaded mistake of the tournament, but the most painful one for me was Wayne Rooney’s red card in the quarterfinals. When the match went to penalty kicks, I was not worried. I knew England’s history of failure at them, but I had only personally seen them lose one or two before this one. Certainly, the streak would not continue here. I was wrong.
2014 USA v Belgium
Belgium had been one of the hottest teams of the tournament, and the USA should have had no chance against them. Tim Howard was under fire the entire match but had one of the greatest goalkeeper performances ever that kept the USA alive. But the Americans almost pulled it off. Chris Wondolowski had a shot at the go ahead goal, but it sailed over the crossbar.
Every time the USA plays in the World Cup so much seems at stake. The USA is not just playing to be the greatest team in the world; they are fighting for the future of the sport in this country. After every World Cup game, the excitement over soccer seems to grows. If the USA had made it to the quarterfinals, it seemed like everyone in America would tune in. Adults would start watching club soccer. Kids would dream of one day playing in the World Cup. Even though it is probably not true, the US always feels like it is one successful World Cup run away from becoming a soccer nation. And that is what hurts so much about the Belgium loss.
For this World Cup, I will not experience a painful loss. I have accepted that England will never win the World Cup, and the USA will not even be competing. No matter how much it hurts, I would love to be heartbroken by a soccer match once more. The alternative is apathy.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||It is probably second to only Moneyball.|