Love encompasses a myriad of emotions. Love can be devotion. Love can have an unhealthy intensity that leads to addiction or hate. Love can be a comfortable contentment. Love may be passionate. There is the love we feel for our children, which is different than the love we feel for a spouse but no less sincere. There’s a love for friends. You can love certain food, clothes and movies. We love our pets, almost to the point of the love we have for our children. There seems to be no limit to the spectrum that is "love." I began my love affair with soccer when I was an exchange student in Germany in 1966 and 1967. I sustained it despite the relative dearth of soccer on TV by getting my fix every four years with the World Cup and the Olympics. Now I can watch scores of college and professional games every week, which could morph my love into that dangerous area of addiction. However, I really enjoy watching my own children play. Tonight Robbie has a game in Chicago, and I’m as giddy to go see it as I was for his first game 16 years ago. We parents often intertwine our love of soccer with our love for our children. I’ve known dozens of parents who hated soccer, but begrudgingly developed, if not a love for the sport, at least a respect because their own children love it. And who wouldn’t love what our kids accomplish in the sport, even if we can’t quite muster the deep passion felt by fans around the world. My hope is that more parents find the same love for soccer that I’ve cultivated over the years of watching. In that spirit I want to share with you what I love about soccer so you might notice some of those aspects of the sport that make it so special for me.
First, I love soccer because it is one sport in America where both men and women have more equal footing in the fan base. This is a sport where girls can take great pride in the success of the Women’s National Team, and the players are well-known to even non-soccer fans. I really appreciate the power of strong sports role models for girls who are often second-class participants. Recently, TIME Magazine had a cover article about how colleges should pay their athletes. That’s a wonderful idea if it could be spread across the board, but the reality is that the sports who bring millions to colleges are football and men’s basketball. Women would be completely out of the equation, as would their male counterparts in less lucrative sports, such as soccer. This country’s focus on male-dominated sports can be frustrating as we parents of daughters attempt to encourage them to get active and to participate in the positive aspects that sports can bring to youth players. Soccer at least has a strong presence and respect among viewers for the women’s side of the sport. That exposure helps boys, as well, both by teaching them that girls bring plenty of athleticism to the table and by making sports fans aware of soccer.
While the Super Bowl has its halftime show filled with wardrobe malfunctions, Madonna falling, Beyonce bouncing and The Who aging right before our eyes, nothing can match the overall pageantry of soccer. First of all, there are far more opportunities for the glitz and spectacle. You can watch UEFA Europa League, UEFA Champions League, the FA Cup and the queen of glamour, the World Cup. Because these events have a longer and richer history than even the Super Bowl, they have had a long time to form, improve and nurture the pomp and circumstances of these events. The World Cup becomes a summer-long celebration every four years with play-in games all over the host country’s territory, so everyone has a show to present. Each cycle gets more elaborate as nations attempt to outdo the previous sponsor country’s display. Many of these contests have their own sound tracks, which make great use of trumpets, stirring strings, resonating bass and a choir to stir the emotions. Brazil has a thumping Latin sound for its World Cup theme song. I have no idea what the pre-event celebrations will be, but a country famous for Carnival will certainly deliver something spectacularly sparkling and explosive. Sit back and have your emotions toyed with – you won’t be able to resist getting passionately involved in the games that follow.
While the sounds of music make for an immediate visceral response to the game, I really love the sounds of the sport itself. That unmistakable thud as a player connects with the ball and sends it flying either to a teammate or on goal. The slap of a goalkeeper’s gloves while making a save. The clank of a ball hitting the crossbar that will either engender relief for some fans or disappointment for others. The chants of the crowd create an auditory backdrop for the passion and intensity of any game: Ole, ole, ole, ole rising from a stadium as a game comes to a close; Hey Ho yelled from one section to another who echo it back; "We love you, we love you, we love you, and where you go we’ll follow, we’ll follow, we’ll follow, ‘cuz we support the U.S., the U.S., the U.S." as sung by the American Outlaws. You can actually follow the game based on fan vocals – the "ahhhhhhh" crescendo as a goal kick is lofted, the collective inhalation as a strike is taken, the depleted exhale and "ooooooh" as the goal is missed, and the rumbling hurrah as a goal is made. Then there is the sound of scarves being whipped in the air as thousands of fans spur on their players. Drums, vuvuzelas and air-filled beating tubes add to the cacophony in the stadium. If you sit close enough, which you definitely will for youth games, you can hear the players shouting out to each other to both generate plays and warn players of an attack. The goalkeeper will be directing his or her side. I love to hear what the players see happening on the pitch since it helps me learn what to look for in a game. Of course, there’s the scary yowls of injured players that bring a lump to the throat and an audible crowd response as a player rises from the grass or claps of support as a player is helped from the field.
Besides pageantry, the game has more ordinary yet stirring sights. Fans dressed in their team colors (yes other sports have this, but soccer has so many more interesting colors), flags, placards and ribbons fill the stands, and teams line up to face the fans with the referees to create a line of contrasts. Because the game is continually fluid, there’s the ebb and flow of attack that pricks the attention and offers a new perspective every few seconds. Keeping an eye out for offside can be a full-time job, especially since offside includes an "over and back" aspect. During professional games, there can be fireworks, flashing lights, confetti and even fire balls creating eye candy that exceeds what other sports offer. Of course, there’s always the significant sight of your own child streaking down the field or blocking the ball that can happen instantaneously and yield significant results, so no gossiping with your neighbor and missing that all-important goal. This nearly non-stop action makes the game so much more involving and intense than waiting the 40 seconds between 10-second plays in American football (unless you’re watching a University of Oregon game). This action also tests the stamina and athleticism of the participants, so that you can see amazing feats of agility including bicycle kicks, runs through several defenders and spectacular saves.
The game is so accessible to the spectators. Players are out in the open without tons of protective gear masking their faces and movements. I love being able to see their expressions, how they cut, what they do with their hands, including the fouls, and how they interact with one another. A good lip reader would be able to keep up with arguments on the field, disagreements with the referees and discussions of how to create a play. Last week, I observed Robbie talking to his defender on his side of the field, telling him he could beat the opposing defender so to send him the ball. Then he talked to the midfielder and clearly indicated the run he wanted him to make. Sure enough, the next play resulted in a goal by the midfielder, assisted by Robbie and begun with the kick by the defender. It’s a wonderful sport for being able to see things developing. In most venues, fans are just feet away from the field when they watch. Even in the largest stadiums, the configuration is to optimize fans’ closeness to the game because those who understand the game also understand the power of intimacy even in a stadium with a 90,000 capacity. It’s also not unusual with professional teams that several players make themselves available to the fans after a game. This happens in other sports, but in soccer the fan connection is unmistakably significant in the strength of a franchise.
I love the "ballet" of the game. People new to the sport complain it’s boring. After all, it’s not unusual for a game to end in an 0-0 draw. So why watch? Because the power of the sport is only partial found in the win-loss columns. The real attraction is in the movement of the play and the moments of explosion. Lots of people find baseball boring and a ton of us have no idea why cricket is so popular. But baseball is America’s pastime because we have learned how to watch the game. We look for how the outfield shifts for certain batters, how managers choose when and if to remove a pitcher, changes in batting order, whether or not a player will steal, how a team protects the field when bases are loaded, and the choices infielders make when a ball is hit to them. We understand the intricacies so we look beyond the score to appreciate the play. Soccer is that way too. We can look at how plays advance and appreciate the orchestration needed to have any outcome. Learning those nuances takes time, but yields big rewards in a fuller understanding and appreciation of the game. If your child decides to continue to play soccer and has a passion for the game, you’ll want to become the most informed fan you can be. Watch games on TV. Study the player in a game who has the same position as your child. Practice figuring out if a player is offside. Try to predict what will happen next. Scrutinize the keeper to see positioning under different conditions (corner kicks, PKs, free kicks, player advancing center, left or right, and chips). Use the rewind capabilities on your DVR. And most importantly, do all this with your youth player sitting next to you. Elicit his or her opinion, ask for an analysis of what just happened, cover areas of confusion for you, and encourage them to keep improving. The more you know, the more you’ll feel invested in the game. In time, you’ll be the sideline expert!
When love is a passion for an activity, it can translate into a lifelong devotion. There’s a saying in the English Premier League, "I might divorce my spouse, but I’ll always stick with my team." That’s a love that probably borders on the insane, but most soccer fans understand that description.