Here we come
Walking down the street
We get the funniest looks from
Everyone we meet.
When the 2006 World Cup kicked off I was traipsing around Southeast Asia. That sounds a lot more idyllic than it was. True, I was in Southeast Asia enjoying a lot of what Thailand and Laos have to offer. That was nice. But I was also running from unpleasantness that I did not want to face in the States thereby making said unpleasantness a shit ton more unpleasant. [Duh.] I was also supporting a junkie on the road. To be fair, he wasn’t on the junk at that time, but he had enough hang ups with ex-girlfriends, lager and indigence that things were not looking really auspicious… and they don’t call it a monkey on your back for nothing. [DUH.] My professional soccer exposure was limited, but because I am American it was assumed that I was a total football ignoramus. Not true y’all. As a basketball coach for more years than I often care to admit, I learned a lot about soccer. That is not a semantic error. Coaching basketball is what taught me about soccer.
One of the hardest concepts to coach in sports is the skill of moving off the ball. It is interesting because the majority of the action in basketball and soccer is actually taking place away from the ball (it is another reason refs are so shitty have such a challenging job, they need to keep their eyes away from the ball too, and they forget to do this often occasionally.) The ball in both these sports works like a magnet; everyone is instinctively drawn to it. This seems to be innate. Don’t believe me? Watch a pee-wee soccer game some time, it is one giant moving cluster of bodies, and it is pretty much the same in basketball, just less bodies. Anyhow, knowing this, I spent a lot of time teaching how to move away from the ball and how to be sure that my girls understood spacing on the floor and how to create space. It is the essence of setting a good screen. Or running an effective press. Both of which my teams did exceptionally well… primarily because of the soccer players that hooped it up for me. Kids who play soccer, and who are good at it, understand these concepts because they are even more important when you are dealing with a playing field, (yeah, yeah, “pitch”) that is more than twenty times larger with only two times as many players. [Basketball courts are standardized 94′ x 50′ and a soccer field – non-bloody standard btw, averages about 90m x 119m.) So, yeah, I knew a little about the game, if not the European clubs and big money players. And anyhow, I am a sports fanatic, making me a quick study and I went to more soccer games than I can count to watch my kids play. [Superfan.]
So there I was, in Bangkok and the World Cup was kicking off. Soccer was everywhere in the news and I was on the road with a group composed of Aussies, Brits and an Irishman; at least half the group full-on football maniacal. And everyone was getting all nationalistic as the days went on.
“What team are you going to support?”
“No, but I mean after the groups.”
[Imagine the most condescending voice ever] “But, the US aren’t* going to make it out of the group stage, so then who?”
“Who do you support?”
“Who do you hate?”
“Germany it is, then.”
*Semantic fun fact: British English assigns plural verbs to collective nouns. In spite of my general aversion to B.E., I like this.
In the midst of all of this World Cup madness I was coerced into picking a Premiere League team because Ex#5 was definitely on the footie-fanatic roster. I told him I could not just “pick a team,” I was going to have to check out this whole “league” concept in soccer (which, by the way, is superceded in stupidity only by the fact that an official game can end in a tie/draw.) But he insisted. Wouldn’t bloody give it a rest.
“Come on, pick a team. Look, here is the listing.”
“That means nothing to me, I don’t even know where some of these places are.”
“Why does that matter?”
[Now imagine the look on my geographile face when he said that.] “It matters.”
“Oh, come on, it’ll be fun, we can each have a team to support.”
“Quit bugging me, it is not even the Premiere League season, I have months to choose.”
“What, are you going to study up?”
“Give me that god dammed newspaper.” I grabbed the sports section from him. There was a giant color picture of a fairly good-looking guy on the front page. “Fine, who does this guy play for? I’ll support them. That is now my team.”
The look on #5’s face was worth the entire breakfast argument as the Tottenham Hotspur loyalist took in the spectacle of the front page that showed Michael Ballack in all of his German glory – signing to play for Chelsea.
“What?!?! You are joking! You can’t pick like that!”
“Look, you made me do it and now I have done it and I am sticking with it. GO BLUES. Now let me have my coffee.”
A Yank choosing to support Chelsea based on the Ballack signing is somewhat akin to a Brit choosing to support the Yankees or the Red Sox based on some equally skeevy signing – think A-Rod or Derek Jeter or a Giambi or something. It was the best revenge. But the Premiere League was hardly the topic du jour. It was World Cup time and people were getting ready.
No need to rehash the entire tournament for you here, but I can give you some highlights from my viewing experience. The US got spanked by the Czechs and though they drew with the eventual Champions, Italy, they could have won that one (I realize that the lone goal was actually scored by l’Azzurri, but there was another one that was right there and the US finished a man down.) Watching the game people started to give me pity props. That was really irritating.
“Whatever. The thing about the US is we are obtuse enough to believe we can win this thing. Give us another Copa Mundial or two and we’ll see who is laughing.”
“Oh, come on, don’t feel bad, Americans don’t even understand soccer.”
“I mean, you guys are all into American “foot”ball (yeah, they did the quote-y thing with their fingers), it’s cool. You have basketball.”
[Apparently these guys had missed the last Olympic games in Barcelona where an analogous attitude in “our” sport garnered us the oh-so-sought-after BRONZE medal.]
I hope #5 is watching WC2010 and remembering that conversation. [Wait, WHO won the group? Oh yes, that is right, America. How bizarre.] As an old friend from Petaluma mentioned on Facebook before our last game in the group stage: “Vuvuzela… check! Red, white & blue face paint… check! Massive amount of American overconfidence… check!”
We were in Luang Prabang when England opened up against Paraguay. It was a nail biter of a match and we were in a full bar. People were getting rowdy because of course there was the St. George’s Cross wearing posse and then everyone who wanted to see England lose. Ex #5 was in the former group and he was fired up. Particularly at Peter Crouch. Now, Crouch is not a favorite of mine because he is funny looking and he has an autobiography out at 29, which I find mildly presumptuous, but I felt a little sorry for him in this match because it was just not his game. England did come out ahead eventually, but not before Ex#5 managed to silence an entire pub of soccer rowdies by yelling: “Oh for fuck’s sake, what is that, you cunting streak of paralyzed piss!” Needless to say, we were soon seated on plastic chairs in the spillover area of a far less enticing venue.
We watched several of the next games in a tiny Lao village called Mong Noi (try to find that on a map. No, really, try to find it, I couldn’t.) There was no available power for anything or any reason all day in order for the village dudes to be able to watch the soccer on German time late into the SE Asian night. It was probably my favorite place to watch games; sitting outside, staring at a small television with a sketchy Thai broadcast that was regularly interrupted for ‘King news’ at which point disparagement of all things Thai would erupt from our Lao hosts. We had cool(ish) beer, cicadas and total soccer devotion from all the kids who convinced their parents to let them stay up late.
On June 26 we found ourselves in Had Yao on Koh Pha Ngan for the Italy-Australia match-up in the Round of 16. We were now with another group of people, largely Aussies, a couple of whom we had been hanging out with for most of the week. On this day, Ex#5 decided to wind up the antipodeans by marching around all day in his bright blue Azzurri Totti jersey. In good humor for the most part, the ribbing went both ways. The Aussies were feeling pretty good about their group performance, especially after the big win we had watched in Mong Noi.
On then to the game.
While it is true that Italy were the eventual champions and there is the theory that to be defeated by the best team is, what, not so bad? This would not be the case for the Socceroos. Seated in a clifftop restaurant specially arranged for World Cup viewing, we found ourselves front and freaking center, and that Totti jersey was like neon. The match was close and #5 took some guff from the Aussie crowd. And then there were some dodgy calls. [How bizarre.] And it ended up in a shoot out. Down. To. The. Wire. And who steps in? Totti. For the win. Suddenly the gregarious Aussies? Not so much. #5 made a quick exit, and I am fairly certain I witnessed at least one grown man crying up there in that restaurant on the hill.
In total honesty, I wasn’t all that invested in the tournament save for these funny cultural juxtapositions and the thrill I still get from competition. For reasons unrelated to this post I found myself incongruously back in the States not long after the final, and I had other things on my mind.
But here I am again. Another World Cup in Asia. Surround by soccer maniacs, all of whom think that I must not know a thing about soccer because I am American.
“Who are you going to support?”
“Yeah, but what about after the group stage?”
This year the Yanks and the Wanks Brits were not only in the same group, but opened against each other. Perfect! I had been listening to English people go on and on and on and on about this for weeks. And then there it was. Game time. And what happened? A tie. How bloody stupid. [Luckily the New York Post fixed that right up.]
I would like to state for the record, that just because I have a philosophical problem with a contest being allowed to end in a draw does not mean I do not understand soccer. I hate when people say that. It is like when #5 used to tell me I ‘didn’t get English humor.’ Yo, I got it, I just didn’t think it was funny. Totally different. I get soccer, I just think a final socre that is a tie is a lame part of it. Also, I think it is funny when I try to talk about soccer with people and they all say, ‘Awww, you are sooooo patriotic, that is soooooo cuuuuute!’ With this I definitely take issue. 1) Me /= cute. 2) Patriotism has little to do with my sports fetish. I like gamesmanship and competition and the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. 3) I KNOW ABOUT SOCCER.
Soccer is the most popular youth sport in the US if you go by the numbers. Seriously. It seems like the women’s game brought it to the forefront, at least in my experience, which is unusual and perhaps why everyone outside the US thinks that we do not play/know/like/study soccer.
“Though organized locally by organizations all over the United States, there are three main youth soccer organizations working nationwide through affiliated local associations. The United States Youth Soccer Association boasts over three million players between the ages of five and 19, while American Youth Soccer Organization has more than 300,000 players between the ages of four and 19. Finally, the USL offers a number of youth leagues, including the Super-20 League and the Super Y-League, which have almost 1,000 teams and tens of thousands of players from the ages of 13 to 20.”
One of my favorite soccer players from my days in Incline Village is in South Africa for the World Cup with a rowdy group of superfans. His photos and stories have been awesome. Of the 92nd minute goal that won it against Algeria he said: “I have experienced a lot of things in my life…but nothing compares to the feeling of TEAM USA scoring that goal! Straight EUPHORIAAAAA!!!!!” And really, Team America likes to win. So when we win, even the disinterested get on board (I think that really pisses people off too.) This whole combination seems like a snowball that the rest of the soccer loving world might not want to see start rolling down the hill.
And now, we have won our group and head into the Round of 16 against Ghana. Totally underestimated by our opponents, hosed by the refs and overconfident in our own right… watch out… here we come.
We go wherever we want to,
Do what we like to do.
We don’t have time to get restless,
There’s always something new.