After years of rejecting its pitch, I'm on soccer's side

World Cup

July 10, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

Can a 41-year-old American male raised on football, basketball and baseball suddenly learn to love soccer?

Sure, one can. One just did.

One has just spent more time watching soccer in the past month than he had, collectively, in his entire life - and, with no warning and no preparation, suddenly gets what everyone has been talking about. Well, not everything. But the wall definitely is down.

I have crossed over. I like this sport - that's a notch below "I love this game," the slogan of my preferred sport, but I'm willing. I want to see more of it, at the highest level. I want to see where it might go in this country if a truce can somehow be declared and tensions eased between the fanatics and the haters. I may watch a Major League Soccer game. Better yet, I may attend one.

Either there's something wrong with me, or there's finally something right. You all can debate that among yourselves.

See, from everything I've known about "our" games and "their" game up until now, I'm not supposed to add a major sport to my menu at this late a date. From what I've been told, I'm not supposed to be able to understand or appreciate this one - either that, or I'm not supposed to like it - because of where I was born.

Somebody was wrong. It has to be wrong, because yesterday, on a beautiful summer afternoon, I set time aside, in my living room, without being assigned to it by my editors and without a United States squad involved, to watch the World Cup final.

Not only that, I knew who was playing, I knew which players I should be watching, I had at least a mild grasp of each team's tendencies, subplots and histories, and I knew to watch the officiating and the diving.

I even knew that what France's Zinedine Zidane did, getting himself kicked out in overtime and all but handing the Cup to Italy, was absolutely stupefying - as if in the 1998 NBA Finals, instead of Michael Jordan hitting that jumper over Bryon Russell to win the championship, he had punched Russell in the face.

Yes, I still filter soccer through the prism of the sports I grew up with - but not nearly as much as I used to. Four years from now, when the next World Cup opens in South Africa, maybe that filter will be completely gone.

I'm not counting it out. Because the way I've fallen for this World Cup caught me completely by surprise.

Again, I am part of a generation that is supposed to have dismissed soccer long ago, the way we discarded that metric system nonsense. I should be set in my ways, protective of my preferences, unwilling to broaden my horizons. That's just me as a fan.

Now, though, I can't really explain either why I had no real love for the game until now, or why I suddenly have it. More exposure from the networks and the other media? Nah - there's always been plenty of both at Cup time at least in my adulthood, and it was never hard to tune out.

I've given soccer chances before. I once got drenched at a Diplomats game at RFK Stadium, I felt obligated to watch Pele and the Cosmos on TV when they were on, and I at least knew of the World Cup while in college.

I not only never felt particularly moved by the game, but I also grew weary of the increasingly nasty tone of the soccer conversation here. The level of discourse seems to have fallen to an all-time low, with those who love it telling those who don't why they're idiots, and vice versa. What is that supposed to accomplish, besides filling a couple more hours of talk-radio time and a few more inches of newspaper space?

So even as this Cup approached, I wasn't really feeling it. The NBA playoffs were going full-bore. I fully expected not to have the energy to try to care about the World Cup whenever it started.

Then it started, and I was hooked.

Some of it was the passion, some of it was the upsets, some of it was the inherent drama of a world championship. Yet that doesn't explain why I unexpectedly started grasping what was going on, why my attention suddenly wasn't superficial, why I sought out anyone who could explain subtleties that were going to help my understanding.

I tried to explain what brought me into the fold and why things suddenly clicked, couldn't put my finger on it, then stopped trying. It's better that way, in a sense. I won't drive the non-fans crazy, nor will I have any urge to shame them to my way of thinking. To each his or her own.

I will acknowledge that when I see a game on Univision, Fox Sports World or Gol TV, I'll probably stay.

I will also wonder if the talk of what might happen if our best athletes - our Kobes and LeBrons and T.O.s and Peytons - picked up a different ball, ever turns from talk to action. It would be nice if that develops and this country steps up on the world stage. But as a new fan, it won't be essential.

Yes, I'm now a fan. The lesson: If you don't think the fever is ever going to get you, think again. david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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