Thursday, July 03, 2014

My thoughts on the 2014 World Cup

This is the first World Cup I've really watched closely. I've watched as much as I could of the games thus far, really focusing on the teams whose players I have watched before. I watched all of Team USA's heartbreaking defeat to Belgium. The long bouts of "boring" play punctuated by sudden feverish excitement and either ecstasy at a goal or agony of another missed opportunity really wears me out. 

Soccer (futbol, whatever) wasn't of much interest to me (outside the 1994 U.S. World Cup) from the time I played it as a 7 year old until the time I was 22 and living in Azerbaijan. I remember trying to keep up with what was going on in the UEFA Champions League that my Lezgi friends and students were watching late every night on TV. I didn't get the interest and still preferred basketball or American football. When my mom sent me a VHS of the Super Bowl, I invited my friends to watch it; they mildly enjoyed it. "At least in soccer you can tell who the good players are, I can't tell who is good at all in American football," one remarked. I used to sit with them and watch the local professional team (which wasn't very good) play, I enjoyed the live experience.

Since then, I've encountered ethical dilemmas with all the other sports I used to love, and become a NASCAR fan full-time. I remember Joni and I watching the World Cup final in 2006, but not much else.

But moving back to Turkey re-introduced me to concept of everyone being VERY passionate about professional soccer. (Even in the midst of cheating scandals... which repeatedly prevent me from really loving the game.) I was reminded of the goal of having your favorite professional team winning the Champions League or Europa League as a second-best option. The local Ankara team some of my colleagues loved had a stadium ban (fairly common in Turkish soccer due to fans often throwing things-- like flares!-- onto the pitch), which meant I was prevented from checking games. The major national clubs (Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe, Beşiktaş) also sponsor other sports leagues around the country from rowing to wheelchair basketball, and picking a particular club is pretty close to a picking religious affiliation. Elias originally chose Fenerbahçe when asked, but I made us change our minds after watching the fans riot after narrowly losing the Turkish Cup in 2012.

I watched what I could and enjoyed watching Christiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. When we returned to the U.S. I watched Galatasaray's UEFA games on U.S. cable TV, and kept up with the Champions League. I watched the semis and finals with much interest. Like foreign food, soccer takes a while to appreciate-- it's an acquired taste. I don't pretend to understand all of the UEFA scoring rules; I didn't understand NASCAR's point rules either until they simplified them last season.

But you can't watch Messi and Ronaldo and not understand why soccer is called "the beautiful game." When you realize that different countries have different styles-- some prefer a tactical passing game while others a fast-paced attack-- you realize there is a personality to the game that is also reflected in the rituals of the fans. ESPN has been showing the cumulative distance run by each player on the field, you realize they do a 10K made up of sprints out there in 100 degree heat with few breaks-- it's impressive.

I'm pulling for Argentina and Messi from here on out because I want more opportunities to see arguably the Greatest of All Time play. I'm enjoying watching.

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