I first discovered the game of soccer when I discovered most of my other contact with sports – in third grade in Oregon. Soccer was the recess game of choice and almost everyone played it. I really loved it for some reason, all of the excitement and passion of the World Cup (which I didn’t know about) seemed relived in every goal and run across the field. I would come home from school and draw up little box scores for the games we’d played, some of which I’m sure I still have somewhere. It wasn’t baseball, which I’d fully embrace later, or basketball, which was particularly handy when it started raining in earnest, but I really liked it for that year of recess.
It was perhaps with this in mind that I decided to try out for the Albuquerque Academy soccer team upon arrival in New Mexico in the fall of 1993. My Mom played a big role in this also, encouraging me to play sports and especially soccer because she’d read that such were a big part of life at the Academy and she envisioned me as athletic because I liked sports. And while I had just gone through a growth spurt that brought me to just about my current full height (5’10” or so) at age 13, I was about as thin and fragile as possible. I still naively clung to the idea I had a shot at the team up until one of the most farcical exercises I can remember enduring, wherein we paired into partnerships and were asked to lift our counterparts on our shoulders and carry them around the field. It was like asking me to teleport to Saturn. I was appalled, and cut shortly thereafter. Nevertheless, I joined intramural soccer along with most of the other kids cut, certain that it would be better than regular PE. If one of my main 8th grade antagonists hadn’t also joined, it probably would’ve been.
I didn’t really have contact with other people playing soccer until 1994, when I was peripherally aware that there was a “World Cup” going on in the US, but didn’t think it mattered that much. Until, of course, I got to CTY, my second summer going. I’d spent the first summer living with my parents in Baltimore and “commuting” to the JHU campus, but the second summer, in ’94, I was on my own and boarding in Carlisle, PA at Dickinson College. I flew into Harrisburg, one of the only Westerners going to a place where everyone drove, got picked up by one of the RA’s, and looked around the dorms for everyone I was going to be living with for two weeks. I couldn’t find them.
Suddenly, I heard a great cry go up from a room across the hall. I went to investigate and found twenty or thirty boys laying around in front of a television, rapt. I looked on the screen, awash with the colors of what proved to be the World Cup Final. And so I sat down to watch Brazil and Italy eke out an interminable 0-0 draw and eventually resort to penalty kicks, wherein Brazil triumphed. I wasn’t sure about the whole game, but those penalty kicks sure were exciting. Based largely on this experience, I would spend a long time making fun of world-class soccer as a place where no scoring took place. I remember telling Jake and Kunkel and other friends who liked soccer elaborate stories about epic triumph that ended with the first goal in twelve years of competition finally being scored. They were not amused.
In truth, though, there had been something about that gang of boys huddled around the pomp and pageantry of a game between two utterly foreign countries. Sure, there had been an Italian kid in the mix, a short guy who I went on to overthrow a baseball to and famously shatter a glass emergency exit door. He wound up mostly being a jerk, but maybe it was just because he spent that whole summer with people reminding him that “Baggio choked” on his last penalty kick. But I liked the experience, I liked the game, it was like the Olympics without the American jingoism. Even if the game itself was rather dull.
I had a lot going on in the summer of 1998 and so I sort of casually followed the World Cup in the paper. I remember thinking how crazy it was that France of all countries could win and really coming to understand what an advantage home field was, underscoring what a poor squad the USA really had. I had also discovered at some point that Ireland had a team and that, as my randomly chosen nationality (I’m a European mutt without a culture, so I latched onto Ireland at some point because of my love for the color green and their history of writers and mysticism), this would give me a reason to take special interest in the proceedings. Of course, Ireland failed to qualify for ’98, so I didn’t pursue my interest too closely.
In 2002, though, Ireland made it and a lot of my friends were following it. This was underscored by the fact that my Mep House roommates, Greg and especially Russ, and I had spent a great deal of the 2001-02 academic school year playing FIFA on the PlayStation hooked up to the TV downstairs. We had randomly adopted Denmark as our team and played on the same squad, trying to navigate the Danes to world-class glory. To this day, I can probably name most everyone on the early 2000’s Danish squad, and “Sand. Sand!” is a universal joke in the Mep language, along with countless other jokes about the wry British and Scottish commentators who make FIFA video games all the more worthwhile.
I wound up watching a lot of World Cup 2002. I stayed with Jake for part of that early summer, and he and everyone in his apartment complex were Cup crazy. I remember the heartbreak of Ireland’s penalty kicks loss to Spain, how well they’d fought for that game. The surprise runs of Korea (homefield again) and Turkey. The inevitability of the Brazilian title again. I went back to Waltham and played a lot more FIFA. I was more or less hooked.
In 2006, I was newly ensconced in my job at Glide, getting the feel for the Tenderloin and my co-workers, many of whom were proclaimed Cup addicts. I was wildly excited for this Cup, even without Ireland in the fold, deciding to root for Sweden, Russia, and anyone playing the United States. I remember the elation of Ghana edging the States and knocking them out in the first round. It was nice to have the games in a time zone where it was not impossible to watch matches live (Korea had been a bit of a challenge). Most of the matches came right in the lunch hour, and I would eat with the other Gliders who were Cup fans in front of a big TV in one of the upstairs offices, or go out to the Thai restaurant that was in a converted bar with the big TV hanging over the bar, always tuned to the current game. It wasn’t watching whole games, which I still found a bit challenging unless I had a clear rooting interest, but it was the perfect slice of action to break up the work day. Sweden, Russia, and Ghana all broke my heart, and we were left to watch the Zenadine Zidane incident in horror and Mep about it later.
Today, I am again saddened by the absence of Ireland, but excited to root for Denmark, for Cote d’Ivoire, which neighbors Em’s locale of Liberia (and has the Irish flag reversed, after all), for Mexico (feeling a slight tug of loyalty there for some reason), for any country playing the United States. Which, today, means England. Now it’s hard for me to root for England, even though I probably have as much English in me as Irish. But them playing the US is enough for me to do it.
It’s interesting, in reflection, to see what a cross-section of my life the World Cup has been. Every four years, I’m somewhere radically different. We could measure out our lives in Cups. I suppose one could do it in any quadrennial event – elections, Olympics, etc. But World Cups seem less arbitrary, more universal. Even than the Olympics.
Anyone’s guess about where I’ll be in 2014 is as good as mine. Probably better.