Being a sports fan in America is hard right now. Baseball, long our nation’s daily spring, summer and fall diversion is being threatened by the same forces that also bear down on glorious American life in general: drugs, racial inequality, and financial disparity. It’s great entertainment for a summer’s evening—who could resist the allure of a bag of peanuts, a freshly cut outfield, and 9 innings of relaxed conversation and baseball?—but 162 games is an eternity, and until late August, you never get the feeling that the game you’re watching actually matters when even the rivalries take place 18 times a season. NBA basketball’s luster faded the moment Michael Jordan stepped off the court for the last time (Chicago in ’98, not his alleged retirement in Washington D.C. ’03). The American game has evolved so much, that the rest of the world, slowly picking up on the game’s subtleties, simply doesn’t understand that basketball is really all about dunking and athleticism. Thus, the United States’ recent international basketball failures could only be attributed to misunderstanding.
And then there’s the NFL. Everyone loves pro football, right? 22 men, some grabbing each other, others tackling each other, still more attempting to run away from the larger ones (sounds more like a free-for-all of 7 year-olds), all united in the common pursuit of reclaiming territory and eventually dancing around in a rectangle of painted grass in the greatest feat of commercial saturation in the United States (you know the one). NFL fandom is an even stranger landscape. Even though outside the 31 NFL hometowns, few people have much of what “real” fans would call a legitimate claim to any NFL team, more people tune in to TV broadcasts of, watch TV highlight shows of, or play the officially licensed video games of NFL football. American sports fans generally think that two things make football the greatest thing in the world: really, really, violent, high-impact tackles and some of the most athletic Americans proving to other Americans (who are also pretty athletic, but are disadvantaged by having to show off their athleticism while going backwards), that they can run past them, perhaps even jabbing them in the face if they’re really talented.
The NCAA College Basketball Tournament is great, but that’s the only part of the season that could even approach being called great. Pre-season tournament titles, mid-season tournament titles, regular season conference titles and conference tournament titles are all absolutely worthless because of the overwhelming emphasis placed on “The Big Dance”. Throw in star players that will only be around for their ceremonial freshman year before moving on to pastures greener with NBA money, and all college hoops has left are Cameron Crazies and the 2006 George Mason Final Four run.
College football is just plain tiresome. Its calendar looks something like this:
Summer: Recruiting hype (players inevitably talk about their suitors’ “family atmosphere”, or they boast about coming in and winning the starting job away from obviously more accomplished players)
Pre-Season: Ohio State, last year’s Pac-10 Champion, or an SEC school that won 8 games the year before will be tabbed as the surefire pick to win the National Championship. Every other team is told that they probably shouldn’t even play this year, but to try again in next year’s pre- season, where they might fare better. The University of Oregon unveils its newest, cutting-edge uniform designs.
Early Season: Major conference teams beat up on small conference teams. Small conference teams make about $750,000 with which to bribe next year’s recruits, while every BCS conference team begins conference play with a record of 3-0 or 4-0.
Conference Schedule: One of the media’s pre-season favorite steamrolls the competition, while the other suffers a few embarrassing defeats because “the other team wanted it more” and “our players just didn’t have that Big Game Experience”.
Bowl Season: 70 of the 119 teams are thankful that they managed to make college football’s exclusive post-season. Players receive gift baskets full of stuff they already bought with the money they got from boosters during their recruiting experience. Fans watch teams they’ve never heard of in cities they couldn’t locate on a map that host bowl games sponsored by companies that make products they’ve never heard of and would never need or use.
Don’t get me wrong, I love American sports. I watch the NCAA Tournament, College Gameday, and even most of the Super Bowl. They get repetitive and feel commonplace, though, and there’s really no sense of awe or wonder involved. At least, not like in football. Not American Football, but the colonial slugfest’s parent game. International football, or soccer, as Americans refer to it when they encourage their children to capture the game’s beauty, has one quality that inspires awe like no other sport can.
My conversion to international football could never have been predicted, even thought it was foreshadowed in the spring of 2004. On vacation in Spain, I happened to watch the last 20 minutes of a middle round UEFA Cup game. At the time, I didn’t know that the UEFA Cup is the second most popular professional sports tournament in the world, that it draws teams 157 teams from 52 countries, or that some teams are allowed to participate because their country’s players and fans are respectful of each other and the referees. I don’t even remember who was playing in the game (although I have my suspicions it was Italian AS Roma and eventual champion, Spanish club Villareal). The one thing I do remember was being awestruck at just how international the game is. When I heard the game’s commentators discuss (in English, thankfully) players moving amongst clubs from different countries, I was blown away. Players get traded between teams in the NFL, but being moved from country to country, league to league? Incredible. I was so inspired by this revelation, that, upon returning home, I bought a soccer video game.
My previous experience with the sport could be quickly inventoried:
-Three years of “organized” soccer between the ages of 6 and 8
-Absolute excitement over the 1994 World Cup that was held in the United States
-Some confusing English Football Association trading cards that my uncle gave me when I was in the middle of my childhood soccer phase
-A few days of following the 2002 World Cup that saw me learn about Papa Bouba Diop, Landon Donovan, and little else
Likewise, the next few years passed without me paying any real attention to the sport. I knew that the United States had qualified for the World Cup and that my hometown Columbus Crew were, for the most part, miserable (I didn’t know that they finished at the top of the league in 2004, but I blame poor media coverage for that one). I did not know about the “Pirate Ship” Greek National Team’s massive upset of host Portugal to win the 2004 European Championship, I didn’t even know that D.C. United won their record fourth MLS Cup over Kansas City.
The 2006 World Cup changed all that, though. Excited by the prospect of 32 national teams from every populated continent competing in a tournament that surpasses even the spectacle of the Olympics, I vowed to watch all of the United States’ games and I had a few friends that liked soccer who provided much needed encouragement. I still, however, knew very little about the game. After watching the Czech Republic dismantle my country’s team 3-0, I felt anger and disappointment, two emotions that I had never before felt on account of soccer. When Clint Dempsey, former star at my future alma mater, scored our first goal of the tournament against Ghana, I felt genuine excitement, a third newcomer to the list of soccer-elicited emotions (which had previously consisted of such stalwarts as “confusion” and “boredom”). Even though my team disappointingly bowed out, I continued following the tournament, becoming more and more hooked on the sport as I saw just how free-flowing and deep it really is. When it all ended, I figured I would probably go back to ignoring the sport for another four years until the next World Cup managed to rouse a little enthusiasm.