As you may have noticed, soccer’s World Cup is currently being played in Brazil. How much you have noticed depends on whether you think this is a great celebration of the beautiful game or a festival of men in shorts.
Put me in the former category. That said, my love affair with the football played mostly with the feet — as opposed to the football where feet are primarily the means of transportation for the arms — took a while to develop.
Growing up in Australia as a kid, I didn’t play organized soccer, although the game is popular Down Under and the Socceroos are currently playing in Brazil. They deserve to be there for having the best nickname.
Instead, I was a rugby player, which may explain my somewhat beaten-up appearance. I grew up wanting to play for the Wallabies, a small kangaroo that lent its name to the national rugby team. Not to be too technical, but Australians play two kinds of rugby and the other national team is, yes, the Kangaroos. The women’s national field hockey team is the hockeyroos, just in case you were wondering.
From all this, it can be said that Aussies love sports and leaping animals both, which is unfair to wombats, who are adorable in their own way. Perhaps a darts team is named after them. Darts players and wombats both come out at night, although the wombats aren’t seen as much in pubs.
My life in short pants did not take off until I went to England and got a job on the sports desk of The Times of London As a sub-editor, I often wrote headlines on soccer stories, especially those about English teams losing to disrespectful foreigners who didn’t have the decency to recognize that the English had invented the game.
As well as learning about soccer at work, I got to play a few games myself. The Times, a venerable newspaper traditionally known as the Thunderer, had an office team. Naturally, it was called the Thunderballs, but we brought neither thunder nor lightning to the pitch. We were like the English weather — damp and cold and not conducive to excitement.
I remember one match in Regent’s Park in London, next to the zoo, against members of the Irish Press Association, who managed to avenge every national insult in one afternoon. How the giraffes in the zoo must have laughed!
I also became a supporter of the famous club Arsenal and went to their games in north London. For halftime entertainment, a police brass band would march up and down the pitch and the chief constable-cum-band leader would throw his baton in the air and catch it.
Now, your typical English football fan is not much for the police, and every last yobbo, hooligan, bovver boy and tough in the stadium would yell his lungs out hoping that the drum major policeman would drop his baton. But the brave officer never faltered and he would allow himself the tiniest of smiles when he disappointed the lads in the stands.
A policeman’s lot is not a happy one, but it does have its victories. Late score: London Police 1, Hooligans 0.
What finally confirmed me as a soccer fan was the 1974 World Cup final between West Germany and the Netherlands. I was on a Greek island, where I had met an American girl in a bikini sitting on a rock. Turned out she liked a man in shorts. Crikey!
So we went to a tavern packed with Germans and Dutch fans to watch the final on TV. As the Germans were on their way to a 2-1 victory, a magical moment occurred. She bought me a beer. A beer! She had no idea of the cultural significance of that act where I was from. Romantic roos, when they make a commitment, take a beer from their pouch and give it to the other roo. Wombats, of course, get an emu to fetch it.
We are still together, although more formal arrangements were made later according to her culture. When we moved to America and had children, I was their soccer coach. It was great! Everybody thought that I knew what I was doing because I had an accent.
I love the World Cup. As a former rugby player, I do hate the flopping done after the slightest touch to attract penalties. In rugby, you are expected to rise up from the dead if you are tackled. Why, if memory serves, Lazarus played for the Wallabies.
Go Socceroos and go USA anyway!
Reg Henry is deputy editorial-page editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Email him at email@example.com.