Wednesday, July 7, 2010

World Cup

I've been watching the World Cup this past month. Like many american sports fans, soccer--or football to the rest of the world--had not captured my attention or satisfied my enthusiasm the way other sports have. Yet this world cup, and to some extent the last two cup competitions, have made me understand some more about the game.

Americans talk about soccer being low scoring and slow. Yet I wonder how many of these same fans would understand baseball had they not been reared in this country. Like soccer, baseball can be seen as slow and some leads in baseball, like leads in soccer can appear to be insurmountable. It's not quite the same because even a 5-0 lead in the fifth inning can be overcome, whereas a two goal lead in the first half in soccer can seem to make watching the rest of the game a waste of time. (Yet the American soccer team overcame just such a deficit in one of their matches. And yesterday in the semifinals, Uruguay nearly overcame a two goal deficit in the last two minutes of their game with the Netherlands).

Often I read books while I am watching sporting events. Between pitches in baseball, plays in football, and timeouts in basketball I read whatever book I am in at the time. I find it pretty easy and a good time to do the reading if I am otherwise occupied doing other things. I tried to do this yesterday while watching the Holland/Uruguay match. Could not do it.

And this I think is the appeal of soccer. The more you watch, the more you realize that every play is significant and could lead to a scoring opportunity. If you just watch it now and again it seems like many times the ball is just being booted around. But try taking your eye away from the screen during any time except for injury time outs and you could miss a scoring chance. Also, since the games are so low scoring, any scoring chance is a big deal. Unlike basketball when a final score will reflect many made shots, in soccer all play is like sudden death because any one goal can force the opponent to play catch-up even in the first minutes of a contest.

Still the game does not do for me what it does to the zealots in other countries who fanatically watch the games. But I can see the appeal. A buddy of mine has a son who is home for the summer looking for work. He couldn't get a job but finally managed to get the low man on the totem pole morning and early afternoon hours at a bar in Cambridge. Well, the kid is raking it in as the multi-cultural denizens of Cambridge are packing the place.

So, for American sports fans who tend to dismiss soccer as an unfathomable allure, imagine a south american asking you what you see in baseball. Imagine that fan shaking her or his head after your explanation and saying, almost condescendingly, "I just don't get it." Then try to watch the world cup game this afternoon or the championship contest this Sunday from the point of view of someone who wants to get it. I think you will.

P.S. I wrote the above this morning. It is now 430 pm and at 330 I was to meet a colleague at the Starbucks on campus. The Starbucks here is a large facility as Starbucks go. It doubles as part of the student union. It is separated from the food court section and rectangular in shape about the size of a NBA basketball court. Usually, even during the school year there are many vacant tables and chairs for students or whomever to sip their coffee and check their laptops. In the summer, the Starbucks is often close to empty. However, today when I arrived to meet my colleague, I could not get into the joint. It was jammed with students all facing a giant screen that was showing the world cup game. In the adjacent huge food court it was also packed with students and faculty rooting for the combatants. When Spain scored there was a roar akin to the roar that one hears in Sports Books in Las Vegas. I was once in the same space when a Red Sox pitcher, Derek Lowe, was about to, and indeed did, pitch a no hitter. It was a Saturday so maybe the comparison is not apt, but the place was nearly empty then.

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