Why I (Suddenly) Love Soccer

From FourFourTwo Magazine
November 2006

It started as many things do in England, with a trip to the pub.  I had been living in London for several months since trading the Big Apple for the Big Smoke.  And up until that point, I had only a marginal interest in what I used to call “soccer.”

In America, it’s unusual to drink during the day.  It’s even more unheard of to leave work early and drink with your work mates.  And for football?  Not unless you mean the Super Bowl, and everybody only ever watches that for the commercials anyway.  But it was Euro 2004.  I was far, far from home.  There was no escape.

That’s when I fell in love, in an old London Bridge pub, thrown into a whirlwind of emotion so striking that I hungered for my camera.  Back then, I didn’t care what was on the screen; instead I let myself take in the bubbling passion around me—strangers hugging, expressions that flickered from nail-biting exasperation to joyful relief with a single kick.  This was real national pride.  I’d never seen anything like it.  I was hooked.

Soon, I found myself swept away by the mounting tension before each game and the intoxicating thrill of the ensuing bumpy ride.  It was like falling into a fast and furious relationship rich with volatility and excitement.  I tried to communicate my unlikely new passion across the Atlantic, but it was no use.  Long-distance romance can only go so far.  You just had to be here.

The only thing that had previously come close was a teenage infatuation with Olympic figure skating.  It’s not that I didn’t like team sports, I just couldn’t play them to save my life.  But here was an opportunity to be a part of it still.  Being a football fan in England is a sport in itself, and the only requirement is passion.  Watching England V Portugal, I discovered it was much more fun to join the Ronaldo-bashing brigade than silently contemplate triple axels, no offence to Brian Boitano.

My worsening—and by now incurable—bout of football fever reached the point of no return during the World Cup.  Where once the sport section went to the back of the pile, I now couldn’t get enough of the headlines.  By the time I was sitting in a pub in Islington watching England kick off in Germany, I could match the yells of the Brits around me, gasp for gasp.  And, unlike my befuddled first brush with the game two years earlier, my eyes were now firmly fixed on that plasma screen.

Football to me is about the agony and ecstasy of great drama.  The lack of scripting gives it all the improvisational energy that makes it so deliriously addictive.  Anything can happen at any time and often does.

I’ve come to see the pitch as both a dance floor and a bullring.  There’s the seemingly spontaneous choreography of the ball spinning under agile footwork, and the photos that seem to capture balletic sculptures frozen in time.  It’s about making difficult moves look effortless:  from a 24-pass tango clenched by Esteban Cambiasso to Joe Cole’s playful goal-scoring pirouette.

Then there’s the theatrically dark side—the bullring, where goalkeepers take the role of the bothered beast and penalty takers become either quivering targets or fierce defenders.  It’s the modern-day equivalent of the Colosseum and the Elizabethan stage. And with its power to draw so many together at an international level, it’s also one of the few instances where world peace seems possible.

As the staging of the World Cup opera unfolded, from England’s first heartless courtship and guillotine-style exit to that bullish head butt and bravo finale, I became locked in an intrinsic and necessary part of British culture that grips me still.

There was only one logical next step: experiencing it in the flesh.  My transition from screen to stadium happened at a pre-season friendly between Watford and Inter Milan, and I wondered to myself how the moment could have eluded me for so long.  I was struck anew by the pure vibrancy of the sport, not to mention the virginal whites of the Italians, like a bride making her debut regardless of a tainted past.

Instantly, I realised the limitations of viewing inside the box.  Without the constraints of the television screen, my perspective was shifted to, literally, the bigger picture. And without someone telling me what to think or giving me a chance to watch it again, hyper-concentration took over, creating a certain quiet intimacy that made the cheers ever the more jolting.  You see everything once, as life’s meant to be.  And for that, you enjoy it all the more.

Which brings me to your obvious question: my club of choice. The British swear undying devotion to a football team from the cradle to the grave. In the US, we like to date around before declaring our eternal love.  I’m waiting to be wooed.  As in the beautiful game, it’s all about playing the field.