Roving thoughts and provocations

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Confessions of a Soccer Addict

Bob Thomas/Getty Images
The World Cup semifinal match between France and West Germany, Guadalajara, Mexico, June 25, 1986

I haven’t done a thing in three weeks except watch soccer. Mowing the lawn, paying bills, working on an essay and a lecture whose deadlines are fast approaching, writing overdue letters of recommendation and one of condolences, answering dozens of urgent emails and writing an angry letter to The New York Times pointing out the many historical inaccuracies in John Burns’s recent piece on the hundredth anniversary of the 1914 assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria—all these have had to wait. With sixty-four games to watch, it’s a wonder I find time to brush my teeth or tie my shoelaces. The only phone calls I let through these days are those from other junkies who want to discuss some game we are watching. Should an unexpected visitor come to the door, I would emulate the example of soccer players and fake an injury, dropping on the floor and writhing in agony until the person left.

Consequently, I was astonished last Sunday when my wife marched into our TV room, where I was making myself comfortable in my chair to watch the Netherlands play Mexico, and asked me if I wanted to go picking strawberries with her and our little granddaughter. My mouth fell open. I was about to ask her to repeat what she said, but then I remembered how it is with soccer and the women in my family. My grandmother once came to watch me play and when she got home told my mother: “All the other kids were running around nicely and kicking the ball, except your son, who kept jumping up and down and flailing his arms.”

As hard as it is to comprehend, there are human beings on this planet who have no interest in the World Cup. Not just in the United States, where many sneer at this foreign import and find the global passion for the game incomprehensible, but also in countries where the fate of the national team in such a tournament is the sole topic of conversation for months. I remember visiting the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz in Mexico City on the day his country was playing Italy in the 1994 World Cup. At first, we lolled around for a couple of hours, sipping wine and having a leisurely chat about literature and art. But to my surprise and distress, when the time came for the game, instead of turning on the TV, Paz and his wife took me and my Mexican translator to a French restaurant where we sat surrounded by empty tables, because everyone else in Mexico that evening was either at home watching the game or in one of the big plazas in the city seeing it on a huge screen. As we got into an argument about Heidegger, I recall cheers and gasps of collective disappointment reaching us from the vast crowd gathered outside. Desperate to find out the score, I kept going to the bathroom so I could peek into the kitchen where the cooks and the waiters were watching the game. I have no memory of anything Octavio said that night, and I sincerely regret that, because he was the most learned and articulate man I ever encountered in my life. But I do remember the final score: Mexico one; Italy one.

For us in the US who think back to the years when the World Cup was rationed to a few games on American television and one had to drive to Canada or Mexico and check into a hotel to see the rest, this month-long tournament with thirty-two teams competing and every one of the games televised is an addict’s paradise. Ordinarily, I keep my substance abuse under control. From August to May, I follow the English Premier League, going through extreme mood swings on weekends as I root for Arsenal, but lead a normal life the rest of the week with scarcely a thought about the next game. The World Cup is different. I approached the early rounds of this year’s cup with Olympian detachment, not caring particularly what team won and observing with equal interest both the perennial favorites and countries with little or no chance of advancing. Like any fan, I have my own ideas how the game ought to be played and delight in second-guessing the coaches and referees, as well as the decisions made by the players in key moments. Of course, after a couple of weeks, the impartiality was gone. I fell in love with the disciplined, quick counter-attacking games of Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia, and a few other teams whom no one appears to have told that they are expected to roll over when they play Spain, England, and Italy.

More than any other World Cup that I can remember (and I’ve seen sixteen others since 1950) this one has been about underdogs, teams that turned out to be as talented and as well coached as their more famous opponents. Even Brazil and Argentina, two great soccer nations with Neymar and Messi and other famous names on their rosters, often appear ponderous and short of ideas when attacking and had, as we’ve just seen, enormous difficulties getting past Chile and Switzerland. The Netherlands and Germany looked tougher and savvier at first, but after barely squeezing past Mexico and Algeria, it’s hard to make predictions. I suspect there’ll be more epic battles and more surprises. As for the United States, I never expected they would defend so well and play with so much flair after being two goals down against Belgium, though in an attempt to reestablish my credentials as a prophet, I must not leave out that I told my cat Zelda (who I suspect is a secret Liverpool fan) that Suárez, whom I greatly admire as a player, might revert to biting if he came up against some hard-nosed and unyielding defender during this summer’s World Cup.

So far, this has been a hugely entertaining tournament—not just the drama and suspense of the many close games and the large number of goals scored, but the spectacle. Brazilian crowds require no instruction on how to party, but they got plenty of help from fans of other nations, giving these games a carnival-like atmosphere and providing the alert TV cameramen with many delightful little scenes, like the one of a young couple holding on to each other and sobbing after their country’s last-minute defeat and then suddenly, as they catch sight of their faces being on the big screen over the stadium, beginning to wave and smile happily through to their friends and relatives back home. May we all do that when the final game of the World Cup draws to a close. In the meantime, there still remains the mystery: Who named a talented young midfielder from Costa Rica after Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, the ineffective and frequently drunk former Russian president?

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