THE WORLD CUP IS MY OYSTER
I have fallen in love with the World Cup all over again. The first time I became smitten with the month-long soccer (futbol) tournament was World Cup 1994 hosted by the United States. I had just moved to Los Angeles on June 1, 1994 to attend an acting school in Pasadena. I had no car, no job, and no money. (I’m setting the scene to give you an idea of just how far I’ve come since then.) L.A. was hosting a good portion of the event and I sat glued to the television in my overheated Hollywood apartment and watched just about every game. I was living with my brother, who was 19 years old and supporting us with his well-paying job at Alamo Rent-a-Car after I drained my savings account moving us in. He was, of course, resentful of the fact that he had to go to work and I only had to go to stupid acting school, and he was also very cheap. He wouldn’t allow me to turn the air conditioner on because it was too expensive. He threatened that if I did turn it on, he wouldn’t pay the bill and allow our electricity to be shut off. So I sat on the couch in this boiling living room with a towel around my neck to wipe the constant stream of sweat pouring off my face. Despite my struggle to breath during several extremely hot afternoons, I remained committed to watching as much soccer as humanly possible. I couldn’t get enough. I was drenched in soccer and loving it.
It’s now eight years later and I’ve had a relapse. I am addicted to the 2002 FIFA World Cup brought to you by Adidas. Strangely enough, once again, I have no car, no job, and no money. Perhaps subconsciously, when the World Cup comes around every four years, I clear my life of any and all distractions that might prevent me from committing to the tournament full force. I suppose the ultimate scenario would have me travel to the host country to physically attend the matches with actual money that I earned by working in some capacity. Ahh, someday… In the meantime, I am perfectly content to slip on my Adidas Sambas, sit back on my purple velvet couch, and watch live soccer on television from 11:30pm to 4:30am PST with the crisp night air flowing through my Westside apartment.
One element that helps cement me to the couch is some of the most colorful commentary in all of sports. Tommy Smyth, an Irish announcer, conveys such unadulterated zeal for the game that I can’t help getting excited with him. It reminds me of watching college basketball games in which Dick Vitale provides the color commentary with boundless joy and enthusiasm. Like Vitale, Smyth uses what seems like his own language to describe the game. Smyth refers to a pretty pass as a “delightful ball” and a solid defensive play as a “well-timed challenge.” After a striker made one move too many and had the ball taken from him outside the penalty box, Smyth remarked, “He needed to give it a good lash.” On the nature of Round 2, the knockout round, Tommy says, “It’s win or go fishin’.”
Another commentator I enjoy seeing in the studio is Ray Hudson. Hudson played for an old NASL (North American Soccer League) team called the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. I used to go to games regularly at Lockhart Stadium where Hudson was an extremely dynamic player and one of my favorites. I even got to meet him once when he came to my elementary school to give a soccer clinic. I remember he tried to teach the group how to do a rainbow kick, but our fourth-grade motor skills weren’t sufficiently developed yet. He brings a lifetime’s worth of experience, a storehouse of knowledge, and a touch of warmth to ESPN’s “World Cup 2Night.”
During the wee hours of this morning, I watched the match between Argentina and Sweden. Argentina, one of the tournament favorites, needed to win the game in order to advance out of “The Group of Death” and into the second round. Despite dominating the time of possession 65 percent to 35 percent, an increasingly frustrated Argentinean squad could not put the ball in the back of the net. One of their forwards, Claudio Lopez, was particularly dreadful. He had numerous scoring chances and found a myriad of ways to botch them. There were bad touches, shots sailed high over the top of the crossbar, whiffs, and a series of poorly-struck corner kicks, exasperating the long-haired attacker each time. Defensive-minded Sweden capitalized on one of its few scoring opportunities, when Anders Svensson sent home a brilliant free kick over the wall of defenders and off the goalie’s hand in the 59th minute. Argentina continued to apply the pressure, but fail to finish, until the 88th minute when they scored on a rebounded penalty kick to tie the game. And that was only their second goal of the tournament! Fittingly, in the last minute of the game, Lopez had one more golden chance to win the match and propel Argentina into the next round, but put the ball into the side of the net. As the game was winding down, the announcer summed up Sweden’s play in earning a tie as “efficient if inelegant.” So now two world soccer powers have been eliminated from the tournament in the opening round. France, the defending World Cup champions, failed to score a single goal in their three games and were summarily sent packing. There have only been seven nations to win The Cup -- France, Italy, England, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. All of them qualified for these games. Out of those seven, only Italy, England, Germany, and Brazil remain. Perhaps more soccer superpowers will go by the wayside and the surprising U.S. squad, affectionately known as Sam's Army, can shock the world. Stay up late or set your alarm clocks to find out.
I am awestruck by the sheer fanaticism of soccer's followers. With a renewed sense of patriotism in the wake of 9-11, I find there's an added dimension to rooting on the United States team. I don't think I'll soon be rioting in the stands or the streets like some deranged soccer hooligan, but I'm now starting to understand and appreciate the fervor fans show in supporting their home country. After all, what makes this the world's most popular sport is that the culture, ideology, and flavor of a country is reflected in its brand of soccer. And I believe the post-game jersey exchange is the most Utopian ritual in all of sports. After watching the Winter Olympics earlier this year and now the Copa Mundial, I have formulated the following potentially profound observation:
Baseball, Basketball, and Football are sports owned by America.
Tennis and Golf are worldly sports.
Hockey and Soccer are sports that belong to the world.