As I start writing this, we’re on the eve of the 2018 World Cup final between Croatia and France, and not for the first time, I’ve found myself wondering “How did we end up here?”
For most of my life, I’ve been pretty ambivalent, and even dismissive and hostile, towards sports of all kinds (though being a Nebraskan, I’m genetically hard-wired to care about Cornhusker football, even if only a little bit). I’m a proud sci-fi/fantasy/comic book nerd, lover of quirky arthouse cinema, and underground/experimental music blogger; woe to anyone who dare engage me in a conversation involving athletics. Yet here we are. And of all of the sports to become interested in, it had to be soccer instead of, say, football, basketball, or baseball?
It just doesn’t seem right, so goes the conventional and clichéd wisdom.
I start by blaming my kids, of course. All of them play soccer, and are pretty good (in my decidedly non-expert opinion). My oldest, especially, displays an athleticism that probably challenges all we know about genetics. In the process of shuttling them back and forth between practices, games, and tournaments, soccer has invariably wedged itself into our lives. And so, watching the World Cup, if only to better experience the sport that taken over our lives, was a no-brainer.
It also helps that we’re in what some might call a golden age of the sport, with topnotch players like Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar (when he’s not flopping around on the ground), Bale, Hazard, Pogba, Insigne, Ibrahimović, and Lukaku (to name but a few) taking to the pitch. (See how easily I can threw out some soccer terminology there?) Indeed, our household has been frequently filled with the sounds of highlight videos like this one.
And we’ve got to enjoy seeing many of those players strut their stuff on the world stage over the last few weeks. Case in point: The first World Cup game that anyone in our family ever watched was the Spain/Portugal game — my son’s a huge Ronaldo fan — and watching Ronaldo lead/save Portugal was a thing of a beauty. (I know people love to give Ronaldo crap but his final goal against Spain? Perfection.)
My friends love to give me crap now. One remarked on Facebook of all of his friends to chime in on his World Cup thread, I was the last one he expected. Nevertheless, the beautiful game has taken over here at Opus HQ and even beyond (even my mom’s become quite the soccer fan, leading to some fun text exchanges). Being able to talk with friends, co-workers, and even random strangers about games and players, cheer on victors and lament losses, jeer boneheaded plays and stand in awe of incredible physical prowess… it’s been a blast from the very start.
I’ve experienced something similar with the Olympics, which has been one significant exception to my sports-related ambivalence. But whereas my love for the Olympics has as much, if not more, to do with the human drama and myth-making that surrounds those games as any interest in the actual sporting contests themselves, the World Cup has primarily been about the the sport itself (though there’s certainly some very interesting human drama and myth-making in this year’s Cup, as well).
Don’t get me wrong: I’m still very much a n00b. I still don’t quite understand the offside rule (though the offside trap that Japan pulled on Senegal was so pretty) and I’m sort of afraid to ask what “set piece” means. And given how, um, passionate soccer fans can be, I’m a little hesitant to side with any squad other than our kids’ teams and our church’s team. (Yes, we have a church team. We Lincoln, Nebraska Presbyterians enjoy a good match.) And just because I’m newly enamored with the sport doesn’t mean I’m blind to the corruption that’s been sadly rampant in soccer, or the controversies surrounding some of its best and brightest athletes — all things that need to be dealt with, just like in any sport.
All that being said, I couldn’t have asked for a better first World Cup than 2018, thanks to so many wonderful games and stunning upsets (e.g., Germany, Brazil, Sweden, England). Indeed, we’ve been pretty spoiled for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. And as for the 2026 games that’ll take place here in North America? Let’s just say that we’ve already begun making some travel plans.