Like many in the US, I once lived in a soccer-less world

Contributing WriterJune 23, 2014 

For most of my life I have been involved with sports – baseball, basketball, football, tennis, among others. There has been one sport that has always eluded me though. One sport that didn’t quite capture my interest the same that the others did.

If you’re American, there’s a good chance you know which sport I am talking about and that is soccer.

I did play soccer when I was little and loved it. But at that age it is not as much of a sport as it is a rite of passage into team athletics. I probably would have continued, but having a father who conditioned me to love the same sports he did, my passion for soccer quickly turned to indifference. Like father, like son.

My dad was my coach in basketball and baseball. We watched games together and always seemed to be at some practice or game of our own. If I ever brought up soccer, he would chuckle or have little to say. There were many overlapping similarities between the athletics my dad and I were involved in, but there was one thing they all had in common: They weren’t soccer.

I suppose, statistically speaking, I fit in well with America’s athletic culture. Our sports are the best, and soccer is one of those “other” sports that those “other” countries play. I wasn’t quite this close-minded, but to any soccer fan trying to strike up a soccer conversation with me, I might as well have been.

To most people, this lifestyle and mindset is not a problem. Life without soccer is perfectly fine for many of us. But friends are a powerful influence, and my friendship with a couple of soccer players would reroute my world of no soccer into theirs of soccer being the world.

My two friends, who happen to be brothers, love soccer as much as life itself. Whenever I went to their house, our ritual of playing video games did not include Madden NFL, but FIFA – or Fédération Internationale de Football Association. My passion for video games slowly transformed into a passion for FIFA. I didn’t know at the time, but this was the hook.

If you can educate someone while they’re having fun, they can sometimes forget they’re learning. In this case, I was taking Soccer 101, a class I didn’t even know I’d signed up for. The vocabulary tests would occur on a regular basis.

As I neared the goal to score in FIFA, my friends would tell me, “In this situation, you want to go ‘near post.’” Or, “With that angle, you should have gone ‘far post.’” When the ball would sink into the back of the net, my elation would skyrocket through their basement ceiling. The rarity of such events made the feeling much greater than the routine scoring that comes with other sports.

“This game isn’t so bad,” I would think to myself. “In fact, I think I like soccer.”

Beyond the electronic version of the sport, my friends would invite me to play with them at the Annie Wright School field, even giving me an old pair of their cleats.

The disparity between their years of experience and my lack thereof showed up, but my energy and excitement more than made up for it. My friends and I were no longer just playing basketball or football after school, but also soccer, and there was no gap in the fun.

Off the field, I even started doing what most Americans dread; I started watching soccer. Ronaldo and Messi became as familiar as Lebron or Jeter. Not only had my appreciation for the sport grown, but also my appreciation for what it added to my life.

Now that it is World Cup time, I am grateful my friends exposed me to what would have otherwise been an unopened door of great experiences. Much like myself, many Americans have started warming up to soccer.

And for those who still turn their nose up, I only have one thing to say: You’re missing out.

Ben Kastenbaum of Tacoma, a graduate of Stadium High School and the University of Puget Sound, is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email him at benkastenbaum@gmail.com.

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