Life, death and the world’s most popular sport

Contributing Writer Contributing WriterJuly 7, 2014 

Do not call me a sports fan, not even a fair-weather fan.

In the world of spectator sports, those who call themselves fans jealously guard that title for the religious fulfillment they get from knowing the rules of the game and the virtues and vices of a team or a player as well as from assiduously observing the rigorous rituals of watching the a game every Sunday, holiday or whenever it is that the high priests of ESPN show the rites on TV.

Fair-weather fans are the sinners of that world. They are the believers whose faith and following of the game and its players are not as strong as those of the fans’. They do not necessarily watch the games religiously. Unlike the true believers who pull for their team, win or lose, the fair-weather ones are expected to be present only when their team is on the upswing.

These titles may have permutations that the true fanatics and not-so-hardcore fans might take issue with, but that is not my concern. Just call me an occasional sports kibitzer — sometimes a passionate and opinionated sports kibitzer — and we can share the fun of participating in the drama of the game.

For a few weeks every four years for the past 12 years now, I have found great pleasure in taking what excitement and drama I can from the World Cup. Football – or “soccer,” as we call it – is both elegant and absorbing in its simplicity.

The object of the game is pretty obvious from its elements: two guarded goals at both ends of a large field and a ball that the players of each team chase after, try to steal, or try to kick or head into their goal.

There are, of course, the rules of the game, but as with some of the terms of the game, I do not bother with their nuances. I leave that to the referee whose decision on whatever happens during the game — whether it is to warn an errant player, kick him or his coach out of the game, or ignore a foul play — can never be questioned effectively.

For sure, no player other than the goalkeeper can handle the ball while at play. They can hit it with their feet, legs, chest, head, back or any part of the body but they can never legally hit it with their arms. Much of the action, intensity and drama of the game comes from the interplay of these elements.

The dance of a well-timed kick, the forceful arc of a ball into the net, the certainty of a goal, the simultaneous roars of triumph and incredulity are just few of the things that make this game thrilling.

And then there are the fans.

The fans may not be considered an element of the game, but they should be. I cannot imagine football being what it is without its screaming, cheering, cussing, agonizing, ecstatic 3.2 billion fans. Despite my somewhat agnostic stance towards sports fanaticism, be it true fanaticism or of the fair-weather kind, it is the sheer force of their enthusiasm and involvement that draws me to the game every four years.

There are crazy fans. Of those I know personally, Victoria is my current favorite. Most fans root for their team to win. Unlike her name — victory — she prefers to root for the losing team; she fancies the idea of comforting the players of the losing team and sharing their national cuisine as well.

At last week’s Sunday games, for instance, she pulled for the loss of Mexico and Greece. She got her wish of celebrating with tacos and olives and later bragged about having Swiss chocolates and Beckerman icing for dessert.

As with the fans, the single-minded devotion of its practitioners is most captivating. Liverpool Manager Bill Shankly’s opinion about football perhaps gives an example of the singularity of this devotion: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

What makes football more compelling than life and death? Is it about the religious yet still secular experience that almost half of the world’s population can share? That is one potent shared experience for humanity.

After several World Cups, I am afraid that I’ll find myself turning into an honest fan. But then I can trust the corrupt gods at FIFA and some spoiled brat players to turn me off from that sport.

And even though my screaming and hollering could have cracked the brick walls of that pub in downtown Tacoma at last week’s U.S. vs. Belgium match, even though I compulsively scarfed chicken bruschetta pizza and guzzled down iced tea doused with pale ale as I willed the U.S. to win that game, I am now actually happy that our team lost it.

Let the U.S. be an underdog in this realm. There is something refreshing about the most powerful country in the world being helpless in the world’s most popular sport. It’s something like a Chihuahua nipping at the heels of a big dog, only that this time, the U.S. is the Chihuahua.

Isabel de la Torre of Parkland, an environmentalist and trained but non-practicing lawyer and journalist, is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email her at tribune@isabeldelatorre.org.

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