Following my first year of graduate school, I spent the summer of 1994 studying abroad in London. The World Cup was being held back in the United States, and after advancing out of the group stage, the host country was slated to meet mighty Brazil in Stanford, Calif., on July 4. The sense of excitement and occasion lured us to a crowded pub, where Americans and Englishmen alike gathered beneath wall-mounted televisions, eager to witness the South American powerhouse fall. As the close match wore on—the U.S. eventually lost 1-0—I noticed that the natives were joining us Yanks in a familiar jingoistic cheer. It was the Fourth of July, and English and Americans were chanting "U-S-A! U-S-A!" together in the middle of London. Two hundred years ago, such a spectacle would have been a hangable offense.
The unreality of that moment lingers to this day, but my personal journey from soccer agnostic to ftbol fan would take another 15 years. Until recently, I was as indifferent toward soccer as every sport outside of baseball, football, basketball, the periodic boxing super bout and Tiger Woods on Sunday. Today, I use terms such as "pitch," "kit," "woodwork" and "stoppage time" in casual conversation. I can't wait to take a few days off work to watch the opening week of the World Cup. I attend Carolina RailHawks games and report on them for the Independent; heck, sometimes I watch second-division American soccer matches not involving the RailHawks live on the Internet. I even understand the offside rule!
And don't get me started on Sega's Football Manager computer video game.
New acquaintances carry on animated conversations with me about where José Mourinho will coach next season or which league is better: the English Premiership, Spanish La Liga or Italian Serie A. (I enjoy all but prefer the technical virtuosity of the last). Meanwhile, friends of 20 years wonder whether I've been replaced by a pod person.
As might be expected, there are several reasons behind my own private epiphany. Although my son began playing youth soccer four years ago, the increased exposure to the game I enjoyed through him does not fully account for my transformation. Indeed, while I'm setting my alarm clock to 7 a.m. on Saturday mornings to catch EPL matches on ESPN, he would still rather watch Bakugans than Barcelona.
With the help of like-minded proselytizers, my joy of soccer began in earnest by realizing the folly behind its two most prevalent criticisms: It's long and it's boring. The first is easy to debunk. The average professional basketball game is about two hours, 30 minutes long. A major league baseball game lasts roughly two hours, 50 minutes. The average NFL game is even longer at three hours and 7 minutes, of which, according to a study in The Wall Street Journal, there are only about 11 total minutes of actual game action.
Meanwhile, a world-class soccer match rarely reaches two hours, even counting intermission and an excessive amount of stoppage time. The clock never stops during the 45-minute halves, there are no designated timeouts, and teams are only permitted a limited number of substitutions (usually three) with no re-entry allowed once a player comes out. The game play never ceases except in the case of a goal or an injury.
The belief that soccer is "boring" really translates into "there isn't enough scoring." Here, my American sporting sensibilities do occasionally take over—purists (and masochists) may love it, but I still have to slog through a nil-nil draw. The welcome trade-off, however, is that in soccer, the act of scoring remains an event, not the expected outcome of every play or possession. One goal is one point, and the relative rarity of the feat only adds to the anticipation and ecstasy surrounding its completion.
Unlike many so-called soccer snobs, my appreciation for "the beautiful game" has not morphed into an elitist belief in its superiority over other philistine sports. I still marvel over Kobe's dynamism, gawk at a home run and wave a Terrible Towel. But I have become enlightened to soccer's exciting, unique and charismatic place in the sporting landscape.
There is a mythos surrounding soccer around the globe that is matched in American sports only by the game of baseball. Most of the top-flight clubs throughout Europe were founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In England, teams play on grounds with names like Stamford Bridge, Craven Cottage, Old Trafford and White Hart Lane. In a TMZ media world that has stripped away the vestige of the American sports idol, soccer stars such as Messi, Tevez and Ronaldinho are worshiped like heroes in their homelands (not to mention being recognizable by one-word names).
Moreover, soccer is the only major sport whose best game play does not regularly take place on American soil. In a sports world our country routinely dominates, soccer remains an untamed frontier. The United States is not expected to advance far through, much less win, the World Cup, but there is something exhilarating about both that underdog status and the worldwide parity that fostered it.
So when kickoff begins this week in South Africa, take the time to find a TV, pour yourself a pint and chant "U-S-A!" You might just find yourself becoming a fan.