Soccer is the most watched sport in the world not because it is the cheapest to play — although anyone with a ball or a crushed soda can and a couple of friends can play in the street — but because it is the best spectator sport. With World Cup 2014 soon upon us, it is worthwhile to list soccer’s virtues.
Soccer has no time outs. The nonstop action and constantly changing formations on the field are as hypnotizing as a campfire. Since human legs have the most powerful muscles, the soccer ball flies pell-mell all over the huge field, like a human pinball. And if you don’t want to miss what might be the only goal of the game, you have to watch every second. You take beer and bathroom breaks at your own risk.
There is a certain minimalist perfection to goals, often with one long pass, one volley off the edge of the foot, and it’s past the goalie, and then gleeful celebration. It is a wonder to see the adaptation of the human body in soccer. For example, I recently watched a soccer game that featured a bullet pass from 40 yards out to a Dutch player, Robben van Persie, who “caught” the ball on his chest, then kicked it powerfully, with his left foot in mid-air, past the goalie, for an absolutely unstoppable goal.
Soccer has its downsides as well: players diving, feigning fouls and writhing on the ground with feigned injuries in an attempt to get the referee to call a foul. The next minute they are up and running, as spry as ever. You will be relieved to hear that the American soccer players do not indulge in such unmanly antics.
Soccer has large-sized personalities; for example, Cristiano Ronaldo, from Portugal, the current best player in the world, is the player that people love to hate. He has magic dancing feet but drips arrogance as he poses after making each of his many goals. By contrast, the quite modest Lionel Messi, Argentina’s “artful dodger,” is considered by many to be the best player in history, bouncing the ball all over his body as he dodges though crowds of defenders. Then there are the hairdos, the long hippy hair and the mohawks.
Americans lack familiarity with soccer, but the country versus country drama of the World Cup still makes it fun.
The question is how best to watch the World Cup, which starts Thursday. Definitely in a bar frequented by people of various nationalities, drinking beer and yelling, cheering or mourning with each goal, or with a gathering of friends at a house party, with a wide-screen TV and bowls of chips and salsa. But be prepared for heartbreak and depression. The best U.S. team ever, with an electric offense (though porous defense), is unlikely to make it out of group play. So start rooting early for other teams as well.
I remember standing in a square outside a 1,000-year-old church in a tiny village in the Netherlands with 1,000 people, drinking beer and yelling, as they watched the Dutch in the World Cup 2010 final against Spain on an oversized TV screen. One goal, in the final minute of overtime, defeated the Dutch. My lifelong dream of celebrating with the locals in the country that just won the World Cup was dashed. I was depressed for weeks. But no matter. I will be glued to my TV again for World Cup 2014. I hope you will join me.
Glenn Gordon Smith
The writer is a professor at the University of South Florida.