In 1990 my parents were in West Germany when the Germans played Argentina in the World Cup final. My dad was born and raised in Germany during much more tragic times. It was a profound moment for him to be there, raising a glass with his former countrymen to celebrate the ultimate soccer triumph.
In 1994 I lived in Washington D.C. and planned to spend most of the summer studying for the New York state bar exam. Instead, I signed up for a bar review course and proceeded to watch 61 of the 64 World Cup matches played that year. The United States was the host and upset Colombia before losing to Brazil. June 1994 was also when the O.J. chase happened, not to mention Knicks and Rangers both making the finals (I attended Game 4) and a host of other memorable events. But it was the World Cup that capitvated me, that siphoned off my study time.
Thankfully, the Cup ended approximately ten days before the bar exam, plenty of time for me to cram a lot of useless information into my head and pass the bar. But I could more likely tell you the starting eleven for Brazil that year than I could remember anything from my New York State Criminal Procedure study guide.
In 1998 The United States regressed badly, fielding a poorly conceived squad and bowing out in the first round. France went on to win this tournament. Once again I watched most of the games, though not quite as avidly as 1994. Work got in the way, for one thing, as did a social life. I vividly remember sitting in a beach cottage in Montauk with my friends Rob and Harry, squinting at a tiny black and white television as I watched Zinedine Zidane score on two headers to lead France's upset of Brazil. Zidane was a god, capable of taking on the Brazilian legend and emerging victorious. I didn't like France but I was in awe of Zidane.
Even then I wondered why most of my friends couldn't care less about a tournament that captivated the rest of the world. The Olympics on crack. Patriotism in 32 different flavors, the intensity and delayed gratification one feels during those 90 minutes of running time. Why the rest of the world got it but Americans did not: A microcosm of our culture and how it influences and yet stands apart from the rest of the world.
To love soccer is to love the passage of time, to not be in a rush, to celebrate the moment, even when it's a tie and even when the score is 0-0. I don't want to imply the rest of the world is a sort of languid paradise of living in the now, but it often feels like they're dialed to another channel. It's reflected in their social welfare - government provided health care and education in place of personal wealth; shorter work hours; longer summer vacations. And I can't help but feel that soccer - the love of soccer - is a manifestation of that bonhomie.
In 2002 I was at Jim Brady's Pub at 5 AM every morning of the first two weeks of the tournament, downing an "Irish breakfast" while watching the live feed from Korea. I set the alarm for 2:30 AM to watch USA-Portugal live, and was rewarded for my dedication. I watched South Korea upset Italy with hundreds of new friends in an Argentine bistro in Soho.
Halfway through the tournament Ora and I flew to Ecudaor (and Peru) for a month-long trek. Ecuador made the second round of the World Cup that year. We watched with Ecuadorans and cheered on the red, yellow and blue in Quito and Cuenca. I watched the USA-Germany quarterfinal in a hostel in Baños. This was watching soccer at its finest, the game smoothing over the language gap as I hoisted cervezas with the locals. Germany committed a hand ball that never got called, Oliver Kahn made a Matrix-like save on Landon Donovan, and the soccer world order remained undisturbed.
By the time we reached the final we were on a sailboat cruising around Galapagos for a week. Two of our shipmates were Germans from Stuttgart. They invited us to stay with them for the 2006 Cup. Nobody knew how we were going to watch the final while sailing around the most remote of locales. Fear not; another boat delivered us a videotape of the Brazil-Germany match. I watched with the crew and the one other soccerhead among the 15 passengers. Once we had watched every last second of Brazil's victory we broke out the box wine and guitars and kept the sea lions up until sunrise.
In 2006 I was a father with the second kid on the way. I snuck out of work as often as possible to watch the games. I watched at night. My family rented a beach house for the first time. We saved on suntan lotion by staying home to watch the games, once again on a tiny rabbit eared television. What is it with beach houses and tv's? I roared when Clint Dempsey equalized against Ghana, a short lived euphoria to be sure.
We returned to Brooklyn, and Archie got stitches on his forehead while running in Prospect Park on the same day that Germany and Portugal played for third place. We got in and out of the emergency room in time to watch the game, only to have our cable box crash just before opening kickoff. I sped to the Cablevision outpost in the bowels of Brooklyn - and I have the ticket for running a red light to prove it - and stood in line for the entire first half while waiting to get a new cable box. Thankfully the outpost had the game on, on a much nicer TV than our 1995 Sony Trinitron (still in use today).
The final was an ugly affair - valiant play from both teams marred by a very different kind of Zidane header, France losing on penalty kicks, Italy whining and complaining as always but also the better team that day, probably the two soccer powers I least enjoy watching battling it out for the Cup. I loved every minute.
Now it is 2010 and I enjoy the World Cup just as much as when I first totally committed, back in 1994. How often do we Americans get a tangible reminder that we are citizens of the world? How often does a 2 million person country like Slovenia get to line up on an even pitch against the US of A? I'll be rooting hard for our guys tomorrow, but I'll raise a glass to our opponents as well.
Maybe Americans aren't accustomed to struggling on equal footing with lesser nations. Maybe they prefer having the deck stacked in their favor. Maybe soccer is too subtle or slow for our Get It Now culture. The feeling persists, though, that in soccer and in life the rest of the world gets something that we're missing. To borrow from Franklin Foer, soccer might not explain the world as much as it reflects it.