I had every reason to hate the game. In third grade, my gangly, scrawny legs could hardly run, let alone kick a soccer ball. It didn’t help that my coach was creepier than Christopher Walken and kind of looked like him, too.
After a season of nightmares and athletic embarrassment, I hung up the soccer cleats and wholeheartedly devoted myself to the cool sports.My next ten years, I threw myself into the sports that Americans actually care about. I played the sports that they showed on TV more than once every four years, the ones that the pretty girl in your english class actually might show up to. For the rest of my childhood, if the ball wasn’t orange or brown, I wouldn’t touch it.
Soccer isn’t a real sport. You can’t even use your hands. The players just jog around. Real games don’t end in a tie. That’s not the REAL football. Nobody even gets tackled. Looking back, the rhetoric was questionable, but at the time, it was enough.
And who could blame me? It wasn’t like I was the only American hating on the world’s game. Sportscenter gives the world’s most popular game approximately 5 seconds of airtime in an average day. I can count on one hand the amount of MLS jerseys I’ve seen in my lifetime. On the first day of training camp, on high school football fields all across the the country, coaches deliver the universal line: “Well, boys, if you don’t want to work hard and earn your way onto this team, I’m sure the soccer team has some room for you.”
I’m not proud to say it, but I was a soccer hater.
Then Europe happened.
Soccer in the Netherlands is more than a game. A few blocks from our dorm, an entire neighborhood covers their houses with orange plastic and hangs soccer-ball streamers over the road. One year, they altered the street sign to say Oranjestraat and the police had to come remove it. At the church I’ve been attending here, they somehow weave soccer metaphors or references into every single sermon. There seems to be an entire genre of music dedicated to the Dutch national soccer club, and they play this genre exclusively during the World Cup.
On game day, fans pack the bars and restaurants like orange sardines. Sunday night, I threw on my old orange Ames high shirt and became one of those sardines. I was running a little late, so I had to fight and claw my way into the back of the bar to get a view of the HD projector screen brought in specifically for the World Cup. Orange streamers hung from every inch of the ceiling. Anxious fans murmured quietly. The dutch were tied with Mexico 0-0, and there was only one half left.
After Mexico’s forward lasered a shot into the upper 90 of the Dutch goal, you could’ve heard a pin drop in the crowded bar. No one ordered drinks. The 200 people in the bar went completely silent. I felt out of place, like I had stumbled into a funeral service for somebody that I didn’t know. I considered leaving, but I looked at the door and my exit route was blocked by tall, sad, angry, and slightly intoxicated Dutch people. Leaving wasn’t an option. I’d have to stick this one out.
Forty-five minutes later, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar sank a penalty shot to give the Dutch a 2-1 victory. Pandemonium broke out. Confetti poured out of the ceiling. A fog machine turned on. Disco lights filled the room. Mob mentality took over and the whole place started jumping. The floor started shaking when they turned on one of those weird Netherlands soccer songs. Everybody started hugging strangers and screaming along with the song in Dutch.
As with most major life decisions, the details are fuzzy on the exact moment when I switched over. Maybe it was the fog machine. Maybe it was the stranger-hugging. Perhaps it was more of a gradual process beginning with stepping foot on Netherlandish soil. I don’t know how it happened, but it did. I switched over from hating the sport of soccer to loving it.
I went from this:
So on the eve of the USA playing Belgium, I want to issue a challenge to my fellow Americans. Do some soul-searching. Are you a soccer hater? Did you have Christopher Walken-esque coach, too? Are you still letting the mainstream sports media and your former high school (American)football coach convince you that soccer isn’t cool?
If so, it’s time to let go. Do yourself a favor and watch some football this afternoon.