I very much enjoyed and learned from Andrew Knot’s primer to the U.S. in the World Cup, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this World Cup. I’ve also been reflecting on my own history with The Beautiful Game and on why soccer can be so appealing.
I really do believe that soccer is beautiful. Or rather, it has its own aesthetics. I believe that it has a unique form and system that allows its users to generate play, creativity, and fun. Poems do the same with language and words for both readers and writers. Paintings do the same with various media, colors, lines, and so on.
When I see a team working together in passing the ball or scoring a goal, I see harmony and nuance. When I see a team pressing on defense, winning a turnover, and counterattacking, I see moves in a large group dance. The surreal timing and control of players with the ball is like the use of the apparatus in rhythmic gymnastics. Check out this gorgeous goal by Robin Van Persie, for example. It is a pure aesthetic, kinesthetic delight to behold, and that is to say nothing of the high drama of the very game and point in the game in which it happened.
Soccer is my favorite sport to watch, particularly on television. Some other sports games have time-outs imposed during them so that commercials can be shown on television during that time. With soccer, on the other hand, play continues uninterrupted for 45+ minutes at a time. The intensity holds up, but not in an anxiety-producing way for me, as in hockey. (Australian Rules Football is another sport with continuous play but with the benefit of frequent scoring and no offside rules.) In my opinion, scoring in soccer is more exciting than in any other sport. A long touchdown run or pass can be exciting, too, but goals in soccer are rarer than touchdowns and, in my opinion, often more constructed much more gracefully
I am sure that part of my enjoyment of soccer has to do with the fact that I played for my junior high school’s soccer team. That experience helps me understand the skills and tactics at a bodily level beyond an analytical understanding. I appreciate soccer socially as well. Learning soccer, in fact, was an important part of my socialization. I began attending a new school in sixth grade. At my old school, basketball had been the recess sport of choice, but it was soccer at the new school. Leaning to play soccer well and participating on the school team became an important way for this dorky, scrappy new kid to fit in. I even tried out for my high school’s soccer team. I was disappointed to be cut, but I found my niche running cross country in the fall instead. (One year, the high school soccer team ordered hoodies emblazoned with a ball and the clever declaration “We Pass On Grass.” However, when the product arrived, the hoodies somehow read “We Pass Grass” instead. I’m afraid the latter statement was truer to the team’s ethos.)
I don’t remember my first introduction to soccer; perhaps it was in gym class or recess during the earliest grades. Some of my most distinct early soccer memories are playing one-on-one games with my brother in the back yard or watching the Mexican migrant workers who lived and worked on my family’s farm. Often on Sunday or after work they’d play in the dusty gravel of the farmyard using a tree and a clothesline pole for a makeshift goal. When I watched, they’d encourage me to join, but I was usually too shy. I remember them on a couple occasions trying to convince me how wonderful “soccer-fútbol,” as they referred to it to me, really was. I wish I remembered their reasoning, but I absolutely remember their enthusiasm.
These are my earliest memories of soccer as meaningful, as representing and embodying something important rather than simply fun. Soccer can be a way of embodying cultural identity for many throughout the world in a way that American devotion to a particular brand of pro or college sports pales in comparison with.
I have never been a big sports follower, or TV-watcher, but I’ve been following this World Cup closely. I followed some friends in following the Cubs, Bulls, and Bears a little throughout school. At the University of Oregon where I study and teach, from the lowest to highest levels of the institution, the presence of sports, particularly Ducks football, is pervasive to the point of perversity. The Olympics are always fun. But even more than the Olympics, I think that the World Cup “brings the world together” in how it is focused around a single, popular sport at a singular world-wide tournament
My own first awareness of the World Cup as a big deal was in 1998. That year, I vividly remember being in downtown Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and seeing a caravan of a few pickup trucks carrying joyfully screaming fans in the back dressed in the distinctive red and white checked Croatian jerseys. Croatia was on an unexpected streak, eventually finishing third. I first followed the World Cup in 2006 and have proudly worn my Netherlands soccer jersey on appropriate occasions since.
For the past number of years, I’ve considered the Netherlands international soccer team to be “my team.” While my Dutch heritage might be more meaningful in other aspects of my life, I also appreciate having a non-U.S. team provided to cheer for in international events. I hope they win this year, particularly after performing very well four years ago until losing 1-0 in the final to Spain. They started this World Cup with a shocking, unbelievable 5-1 defeat of Spain in the group stage, and they are looking good for their coming games. (I must say that I’m also cheering for the Costa Rican team, ranked 28th in the world, after they defeated Uruguay and Italy, ranked 7th and 9th. Incredible. And I’ll be happy if the United States, which plays today, advances as well.)
I’ve wondered if this time around I’ve reached the peak of my World Cup enjoyment or if it will last. Who knows? Next World Cup I’ll be older than most of the players and undoubtedly have more responsibilities to keep me from taking the time. But for now, I’m all in. Onward, Oranje!
Note: I would have loved to provide a primer for the Netherlands at the 2014 World Cup, but I’m certainly no expert. There is an interesting book on Netherlands football: Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer, but it was written well before this current generation of players were around. There are also several sports websites where an introduction is available for any team, including general introductions to the event. I have particularly enjoyed the analytics-based coverage of the World Cup by FiveThirtyEight, which applies various metrics to determine probabilities of likelihood to win various contexts, including political elections. And of course there’s Wikipedia.
Originally from a vegetable farm in rural northwest Indiana, Rob now lives with his wife Hope in Eugene, Oregon, as he pursues a PhD in English at the University of Oregon. He teaches undergraduate writing courses and studies religion, secularization, and environment in nineteenth-century American literature. He graduated from Calvin in 2007 with a major in history of religion but returned the next year to complete the English major. “Glory be to God for dappled things—”