Growing up, I always assumed that soccer was for rich kids who rode around on golf carts with sweaters tied around their necks.
I started to second guess that assumption several years ago when I played a game of soccer in another country with a bunch of barefoot kids who used intricately wrapped banana leaves for a ball. I completely abandoned my assumption when my own sons started to play soccer.
There’s this book at the grocery store. It’s a sticker book. It has a couple of pages devoted to each team in the World Cup with places for you to put stickers over each player’s name. I bought one for my son. It turned out to be, up until now, the crowning achievement of my reign as father of two sons. They love that book.
We’ve watched some or all of almost every game played in the World Cup. My sons and I are learning the game together. It’s completely different from the football and basketball that I grew up underachieving at as a player but excelling at as a viewer. Their questions were numerous. My answers, not so much.
When my sons asked what offsides was, I had no clue what to tell them. I think I said something about rich kids on golf carts.
But we kept on watching. Every game, we had someone to cheer for. Our reasons never made sense but they were our reasons. We cheered for Ecuador because of Jim Elliot. We cheered against Russia because of Drago. They were our reasons.
The game was relaxing to watch. Maybe it’s because I’m a new fan. Maybe it’s because I still don’t really understand what’s happening. Most likely it’s because if the team I’m cheering for loses, I don’t have to worry about what some Auburn fan is going to say to me the next morning.
More than anything, we cheered for the U.S. team. We all knew going in that the U.S. didn’t really have a chance. Kids who grow up driving golf carts will always lose to kids who grow up playing soccer with banana leaves. Always. Even I knew that much. And I made sure to make that fact known to my sons so as to soften the blow when the inevitable U.S. elimination finally happened.
And then the U.S. won their first game. Sorry, match. They won their first match. It was one that they weren’t supposed to win. It was against a team that has a history of making life miserable for the U.S. Man, it was so much fun to see my kids get quiet during the national anthem, raise their hands in the air on a goal and scream when the U.S. won. There hasn’t been a lot to cheer about in our country lately. We’ll take what we can get.
Before the next U.S. match, a very tough Germany team would tie Ghana, the same team that we had beaten. Maybe things were coming together. Maybe I was the missing piece in the U.S. Men’s Soccer machine. All of this time, all they needed was me as a fan. Maybe this, unlike every other sport that I follow with my sons, would be the one that would finally let us know what it feels like to win it all.
Then came the second game for the U.S. Sorry. Match. It was against Portugal and it went down to the final seconds. Apparently, this doesn’t happen in soccer. Matches aren’t usually decided in the final seconds.
That was before I jumped on the bandwagon.
When I was my son’s age, Dan Marino beat the Georgia Bulldogs with a late touchdown pass in the Sugar Bowl. I don’t remember a lot about the game but I do remember running to bedroom to cry.
Two years ago, the Bulldogs came two yards short of making it to the BCS title game. When the game was over, my son cried. I thought about crying.
Last year, Auburn beat Georgia on a last second desperation pass that was thrown by a former Georgia player who was kicked off of the team for being a ne’er-do-well. None of us cried. We just gazed off into space. I think I said something about Auburn players and golf carts.
And on Sunday night, in a sport that I was still learning but desperately hoping would be different from all of the other sports that I’ve watched, the U.S. fell just short of a victory that would have guaranteed them a spot in the next round.
I went to bed that night with an emptiness in my soul. I know that it shouldn’t be that way but it was. I woke up the next morning hoping that it was all a dream or that somebody on the other team cheated and officials decided to give the game to the U.S. It was just like I was a kid again. And just like when I was a kid, there was no dream. No reversal.
I thought about that game all morning long. It was really starting to get to me. If I was taking it this hard, my sons must be devastated. I decided that a joke would make things better. I told my son to rip the Portugal page out of his sticker book and burn it. Well, it was sort of a joke. He laughed.
I asked him if he thought that the U.S. could win Thursday’s game against Germany and advance to the next round.
He seemed pretty positive but I was still worried about how he was taking the loss.
I asked if he was upset about the game.
He laughed again.
“A little, I guess. But not near as bad as you.”
It’s funny how the bandwagons you jump on for your kid’s sake so easily become your own.
Sports has a way of breaking our hearts. But it also has a way of making us stronger. It builds bonds that might not otherwise exist. I’m not sure who’s going to win the World Cup. I’m still hoping for the U.S. The odds aren’t in our favor. But that’s okay. Years from now, we’ll all have to think for a few minutes to try to remember who won the 2014 World Cup.
But the sticker book will not be forgotten.
And we won’t forget the nights we all spent in the living room eating ice cream, yelling at players whose names we couldn’t pronounce and trying not to cry when things didn’t go our way.
At our best, win or lose, that’s what we can take away from any sport.
The losses are painful. The wins are joyous.
But, when we’re all together, the memories are always good.