Soccer – futbol – seemed to me to defy evolution. The hands are the instruments of progress. The opposing thumb distinguishes us from other animals. Hands painted the Sistine Chapel and put Neil Armstrong on the moon. Hands perform life-saving surgery. So how perverse, I used to think, to design a game that forbid the use of hands? It made no sense to me for a long time – until I started to pay attention to the incredible skills of soccer players.
I only knew about Pele; but my soccer acumen improved when I watched the U.S. hosted World Cup in 1994. I loved the national spirit. Players from all over the world came home to play for their countries. The U.S. team, of course, was nowhere to be found. So I rooted for Italy, since I am of Italian “extraction” – even though that sounds like a dental procedure, you get my drift. Then the Italian team’s pony-tailed, Buddhist star, Roberto Baggio, who carried the team on his foot against mighty Brazil, blew his penalty kick and Brazil won the World Cup.
When I went outside to face my Portuguese neighbor, an ardent Brazil fan, he was wearing the biggest smile I ever saw. It was a source of ethnic pride for him as it would have been for me if Italy had won.
When I was in high school, soccer was a foreign sport, played by immigrants. Just about the whole soccer team spoke in broken English, as we called it then. But while Americans were fanatical about football and basketball and baseball, there was a groundswell of support in the changing community for soccer, especially the World Cup.
In 2006, while the U.S. team made a good showing, it finally lost. Italy won the World Cup in penalty kicks against France, and when my wife Alexis and I went to Italy for a three-week vacation a couple of weeks later, pictures of the Italian National Team were everywhere. It was bigger than sports.
I’m not sure my interest in soccer will lead me to watch teams in league play, because then it is just like football, basketball and baseball – a business that showcases good athletes.
But the World Cup, the real world championship, will always pique my interest.