A Story I Never Expected To Write

I played football for 12 years. From third grade all the way through high school, my autumns were filled with football. Practice during the week, games on the weekends. When I wasn’t playing it, I watched it. Saturdays and Sundays in the fall still are my favorite days in the year. I can’t get enough of football.

I couldn’t help but be that way. My father worked at the Meadowlands in sports public relations before I was born, and he had an avid Giants fandom that naturally was handed down to my brother and me. I learned two traits revolving around sports in the fall season: a love for football and a hate for soccer.

Most kids, even if they didn’t continue as they grew older, played soccer at one time or another. Whether it was kinder-kickers or whatever the equivalent was in your town, almost every child tried the sport.

Not me.

My parents had my brother try the sport when he was young. He apparently hated it so much that my mom and dad figured why even waste my time. That’s the attitude towards the sport I grew up with. My dad used to say, partially in jest and partially in sincerity that soccer was for two people: wussies and immigrants. That’s how it was when he grew up, so that’s how he always saw the game. Until I was in high school, I genuinely thought soccer players were the guys that weren’t tough enough to play football. I felt bad they were missing out on football. It was such a wildly ignorant opinion.

I’m writing this because, over the past year or so, I have made a full 180 degree turn on soccer. Maybe 180 is a little much, it’s probably more like 135 degrees, but the point remains. I don’t hate the sport anymore. As a matter of fact, I kind of enjoy it. How did I get here? Am I a disgrace to my family? What happened to me?

————

The seed was planted in 2010. It had to have been. I was a junior in high school, and the school year was winding down just as the World Cup was ramping up. You see, I have always been, and always will be, outrageously patriotic. I will root for the Stars and Stripes in any sport, competition, literally anything. It’s my default setting.  So naturally, the World Cup, even though it’s soccer, is big for me.

I know I was changing then because I remember where I was for each game in the United States group round. It was prom weekend down the shore against England (when this happened). The other two games took place on school days. But since it was the last week of school, the rules were bent. School was not so much a time of education as it was a scramble to find a teacher who allowed us to put a feed of the US game on in their room.

It all came to a head on June 23. Two years and eight days ago, the soccer seed was planted. America needed a win to win its group and advance. A loss to Algeria and we were going home.

————

Mr. Sabaday taught science in my high school for 41 years. He started in 1969. To put that in perspective, the New York Mets won the World Series in his first year. Richard Nixon was the president, and Mad Men’s plot line was happening in real time. June 23, 2010 was his last day of work. Ever.

Somehow, some way, we got the US-Algeria game on the TV in his room. Obviously he couldn’t have cared less what we did. It was getting late in the game, very late. Stoppage time. If the United States didn’t score now, it was over. And then this happened:

And then this happened in that science classroom.

It didn’t matter that America lost its next game and was promptly eliminated from the World Cup. If you’ve ever wondered why people get so wrapped up in sports, it’s because it can sometimes give you feelings like the one I, and so many other Americans, experienced watching that goal.

I was not a soccer fan after that. Not by a long shot. But I didn’t hate it anymore. How could I hate anything that gave me such a rush? And that was the first step.

Fast forward to my freshman year in college. I had played the FIFA video game series before, but because of my roommate’s affinity for it,  it soon became the game we viciously competed against each other in. Video games are not the best way to learn a sport, but I will say after months of playing FIFA, I understood the game of soccer much better. I knew the rules (for the most part), I understood why the players were doing things just as much as what they were doing. Again, I didn’t become a fan, but hate often comes from ignorance, and I was far from ignorant about soccer anymore.

————

The first club soccer match I remember actively tuning into was the 2012 Champions League Final, Chelsea against Bayern Munich. To me, watching a club match was basically admitting that you were watching for the sport. In international games, I could always hide behind the veil of supporting my country. I didn’t like soccer, I was just patriotic. This is what I told myself.

The biggest club match of the year, and it still took a perfect storm for me to watch it. Chelsea and Bayern Munich were the two teams I always used in FIFA, so I knew the players. Didier Drogba had led me to numerous wins in my dorm room that past year. Bastian Schweinsteiger has the most fun name to yell when he scores a goal. Nothing is worse than watching a sporting event where you are completely clueless as to who is playing, so that was a pretty big factor.

I had just come home from my first year of college, and was decompressing before the Summer of Matt. I was the epitome of lazy. The game also took place in Germany and started at 8:45 there. That meant it started at 2:45 here, and there is no bet more secure than Matt being home doing nothing in the late afternoon of a Saturday. It never hurts soccer’s case that the game, no matter how long it goes, will never turn into three plus hour adventure.

Soccer always seemed to come through when my eyes were on it. These were my formative times with the sport. A poorly played, boring game could have set me back eons. I got lucky. Chelsea-Bayern was an intense game, with Chelsea scoring a miracle header on a corner kick in extra time to tie the game at one, and then going on to win in penalty kicks. It was dramatic, it was a hard fought and it happened between the two best teams in the world at the time. What more could I really ask for?

——-

The Confederations Cup semi-final game between Spain and Italy was intense. A scoreless 120 minutes led to penalty kicks. And while penalty kicks are the direct opposite of a logical way to find a winner in a meaningful soccer match, they are so fun to watch. Spain won, but something funny happened the next day. I came home from work and was talking to my dad and he brought it up. “Did you see the end of that Italy-Spain game yesterday?”

I hadn’t. I had to go to Staten Island for work and missed the extra 30 minutes and subsequent penalty kicks. But I had seen the highlights, so I replied with a yes and we talked about it for a second and it was done.

I had always dismissed soccer almost out of loyalty to my family. They hated soccer, I had to hate it. I just wanted to appease them. And here I was, so many years later, my dad bringing up the results of a soccer match, most likely because he knew I had an interest in it. He just wanted to relate to me. Almost a full 180, let’s say a 135 degree turn.

———–

Let me be clear, I don’t, nor will I ever, classify myself as a soccer fan. It’s ignorant and prideful, but I just won’t. However, I have reached a point in my sports fandom where I will watch, and even seek out, greatness. When I saw that Champions League games were on a month ago and I was doing nothing, I watched. I sat through the entire Champions League Final again this year, and enjoyed it. These past few weeks, United States World Cup qualifying matches were a point of interest to me.

I definitely favor football, baseball and basketball, sports that I grew up with, but I can appreciate any sport when it’s played at its highest level, including soccer. That’s something 15-year-old Matt could not have said. I’m proud 20-year-old Matt can.

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