From soc­cer skep­tic to fan

Santa Fe New Mexican - - LOCAL & REGION -

Ihave had a change of heart about one of my deep­est and long­est-held be­liefs. No, I’m not re­fer­ring to my view of the GOP, a party I be­longed to my en­tire adult life un­til the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. Even be­fore I was a Repub­li­can, I was a soc­cer skep­tic.

True, I played for the Amer­i­can Youth Soc­cer Or­ga­ni­za­tion grow­ing up in River­side, Calif., in the 1970s. But I thought that the only foot­ball worth watch­ing was the kind played in hel­mets. I also en­joyed spec­tat­ing bas­ket­ball and ten­nis, but I con­sid­ered soc­cer to be too slow. There was no ex­cite­ment, I thought, in games that ended in scores of 2-1 or, worse, 1-1. (Don’t tell Ge­orge Will, but for sim­i­lar rea­sons, I never be­came a big fan of Amer­ica’s pur­ported pas­time.)

I couldn’t fathom how for­eign­ers could be in thrall to such a te­dious game. This con­firmed my Amer­i­can chau­vin­ism.

I as­sumed that, as the great­est coun­try in the world, we must have the great­est sports.

It never oc­curred to me there was any­thing hubris­tic about us­ing the term “World Se­ries” for a con­test in which only U.S. com­peti­tors (plus one to­ken Cana­dian team) take part, while dis­dain­ing the true World Cup.

So how is it that I find my­self riv­eted by the 2018 World Cup? I’ve watched as many games as I can, even fol­low­ing the ac­tion on my iPad if pro­fes­sional obli­ga­tions take me away from my com­puter or TV. And I have thrilled to ev­ery dra­matic turn:

The 70th-ranked Rus­sian side get­ting to the quar­ter­fi­nals by beat­ing Spain on penalty kicks, only, in a bit of po­etic jus­tice, to lose on penalty kicks to tiny Croa­tia.

South Korea, an­other underdog, de­feat­ing top-seeded Ger­many, thereby al­low­ing Mex­ico to ad­vance. (Deliri­ous Mex­i­cans showed their grat­i­tude by buy­ing drinks for ev­ery Korean they could find.)

Lowly Ja­pan lead­ing mighty Bel­gium by 2-0, only to have the bril­liant Bel­gians storm back and win on a last-sec­ond goal. (The well-man­nered Ja­panese play­ers were heart­bro­ken but still metic­u­lously cleaned out their locker room and left a classy “thank-you” note.)

Pow­er­house Brazil, the fa­vorite af­ter Ger­many’s de­feat and the win­ningest team in World Cup his­tory, los­ing its quar­ter­fi­nal match.

Eng­land, a peren­nial dis­ap­point­ment that won its only World Cup in 1966, ex­ceed­ing ex­pec­ta­tions by ad­vanc­ing to the semi­fi­nals — only to lose to Croa­tia (pop­u­la­tion 4.1 mil­lion), which be­came the sec­ond-small­est na­tion to reach the fi­nal.

This, of course, only hints at the drama that has en­thralled much of the world’s pop­u­la­tion (the last World Cup was watched by 3 bil­lion peo­ple), but that, un­til re­cently, had left me cold. What changed? The gate­way drug was the 2014 World Cup, which fea­tured an Amer­i­can squad head­lined by the “sec­re­tary of de­fense,” goal­keeper Tim Howard. But even with­out a U.S. team to root for this year, I have be­come trans­fixed by the flow­ing ac­tion, pin­point passes and reck­less head­ers of the “beau­ti­ful game.”

The young have been my teach­ers — specif­i­cally my son (now 16) and step­sons (10 and 12), all of them avid soc­cer fans in a way that few Amer­i­can kids were in my day. They pa­tiently ex­plain to me the finer points of the game in the same way that I ex­plain to them the finer points of mil­i­tary his­tory.

We have en­joyed watch­ing New York’s pro­fes­sional teams, New York City F.C. and the Red Bulls.

But noth­ing has com­pared to the trip my son Will and I took to the home ground of his fa­vorite side — Manch­ester United. For him, vis­it­ing Old Traf­ford, as its sto­ried pitch is known, was like a Catholic pil­grim go­ing to Lour­des.

We (or, more ac­cu­rately, I) had some trep­i­da­tion about at­tend­ing Pre­mier League games (aka “fix­tures”), hav­ing read news ac­counts of the vi­o­lent British foot­ball hooli­gans.

But it was a peace­ful and de­light­ful ex­pe­ri­ence, even if the taunts shouted by Man U fans can­not be reprinted in a fam­ily news­pa­per.

I’m not used to be­ing hugged by strangers, but when Man U scored, I was en­veloped in a bear hug by the burly fan stand­ing next to me. (The seats ex­ist, ap­par­ently, only to act as beer­hold­ers.)

I have not joined in my son’s pas­sion for the Red Devils; I don’t have a side be­yond Team USA.

But be­ing a “neu­tral” al­lows me to en­joy the ath­leti­cism of soc­cer’s su­per­stars with­out wor­ry­ing about whether “we” are win­ning.

It also al­lows me to cheer or groan along with each coun­try’s fans at the vi­cis­si­tudes of for­tune — an ex­pres­sion of pa­tri­otic de­vo­tion that sel­dom de­volves into toxic na­tion­al­ism.

By learn­ing to ap­pre­ci­ate soc­cer, I have also learned to ap­pre­ci­ate the lim­its of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism. Yes, we are a great na­tion, but that doesn’t mean that it’s our way or the high­way.

In fact, we be­come even greater if we learn to trea­sure the cus­toms and at­ti­tudes of other lands.

I sup­pose, in the end, my change of heart about sports is re­lated to my change of heart about pol­i­tics. In both fields, I es­chew the Trump Doc­trine: “We’re Amer­ica, b---. ” No, we’re part of the world.

Max Boot

Wash­ing­ton Post

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