Sunday, July 4, 2010


OK, so I was wrong. It happens every now and then. For years I have been complaining about how soccer is such a boring sport, about as exciting as a speech by Al (the groper) Gore, but sorry to say, I was wrong. The 2010 World Cup is making a soccer fan of me. Even the mindless South African soccer fans incessantly blowing those idiotic "vuvuzela" horns can't dampen my new-found enthusiasm for the game. What changed my mind? A casual conversation with a neighbor's nephew, Michael, who was born in Greece and married a girl from Italy. Both countries, and for that matter the rest of the world, are gaga for soccer. Mike gave me some tips on how to watch the matches, what things to look for aside from scoring, and how to appreciate the skills required to play the game well.

My kids played soccer, and while I attended a lot of their games, I didn't know what I was looking at. Unlike baseball or football, sports I played as a kid and whose rules I understood inside and out, soccer to me was like hockey without the ice...just a bunch of guys running back and forth trying to get the ball into the net. I had no feel for the skill needed to "handle" the ball without using the hands. The way soccer players "dribble" and pass the ball while running at full speed is something to behold. I still have a lot to learn, but at least the game now interests and excites me. Seeing an incredibly athletic player streaking down the field, taking a perfectly placed pass from a teammate and exploding the ball into the net is a thing of beauty. The TV announcer traditional call of "GOAAAAAAL!!!!!" gets the screaming crowd on its feet cheering for their team.

One thing I love about soccer is its universality. You could take a bunch of kids from the poorest slums of Calcutta and drop them into a soccer field on the French Riviera filled with wealthy local kids, and soon a game would be in progress. Soccer has been the ticket out of poverty for some of the game's greatest players like Pele (born Edson Arantes Do Nascimento) in Brazil, and Diego Maradona of Argentina. Others like England's Bobby Charlton and Stanley Matthews, whose exploits on the soccer field were so admired by the fanatical British fans, that they were actually knighted by the Queen. Then there were the soccer stars like David Beckham, whose names became so familiar that they attained worldwide celebrity. Soccer is a world-class sport that transcends language; I sometimes now watch games on Spanish TV stations and enjoy them just fine.

ABC and ESPN have been broadcasting a lot of the 2010 World Cup matches. Part of the coverage included many interviews with past soccer stars who all have one thing in common...the joy that lights up their faces as they recount their moment in winning the World Cup for their countries. They drift off into a reverie as they reminisce about that perfect pass or that penalty kick that won the deciding match. Roberto Baggio, the only Italian soccer player to have scored in 3 different World Cups, said that these deciding moments were like acting in a silent movie. "You feel completely isolated, unaware of everything; you don't hear the roaring crowds, you don't see anything else except the ball and the goal. I have mixed feelings about these special moments...I'm glad I had them in my life, but I know I will never experience these emotions again."

Another thing that surprises and pleases me about the game is the lack of fighting. Despite the constant physical contact between players, they seem to understand that it's part of the game and don't let it get out of hand. They leave the fighting to the fans who have been known to start ferocious brawls after a disappointing game from their favorite team. Another tough aspect of soccer is that it is a hard game to referee. Several key games in this year's matches have been decided by bad calls. Its very difficult for losing teams to accept such calls from the refs. To be beaten fair and square is one thing, but to be sent home by an officiating mistake is another matter. I don't know why they don't use instant replay or some other solution to minimize these situations.

I'm glad that in my late sixties I can still find new things to amuse and excite me. I need to learn the rules and terminology of the game a lot better so I can be a more knowledgeable fan, but I proudly add my name to the millions of soccer fans around the world.


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Joseph Del Broccolo said...

Are the Yankees THAT good that you are now turning to soccer to kill the boredom? I do agree, the game is fun to watch, and I have played it in high school.

Jim Pantaleno said...

I find myself recording soccer games to watch later...geez, I'm hooked.