I started writing this post in a very emotional state, just hours after Mexico was taken out of the World Cup. My blood was boiling because we exited on a bad call by the ref. Defeats will happen, in sports, in life, in everything. To live is to fail, often and miserably. But when defeat comes at the hand of an error (albeit a very human error), you end up kicking a lot of chairs and on the verge of tears; the world doesn’t make sense.
Some might think this is ridiculous.
Why are you so upset over a silly game?
It’s just a sport.
Nobody dies because of this*.
And you are logically right.
These are all valid points that make sense. But anything we passionately embrace can easily go beyond the realm of common sense. It’s in that weird place where logic is overridden by things like loyalty, pride, and faith.
This is why I get so riled up every time the World Cup comes around. I typically don’t follow futbol. I actually only follow it when it’s at the world stage. It’s such a spectacle without peer that I go from 0 to 100 in a matter of days. Seeing Mexico or USA play against another country is a deeply personal rush. It goes beyond fandom at the Super Bowl or World Series. It is the absolute best sporting event you can find.
The World Cup Is About You
You have a team. I have a team. Everybody has a team. If you were born on this Earth, you have a team.
My teams are the US and Mexico. I was born in one and raised in the other. I owe and love each so much.
Your team is as much about you as your citizenship. As much as your hair color. When you follow your team’s journey to and throughout the World Cup, you can’t help but think in terms of we. We have a great team this year. We know how to win.
Your country is playing, your people are playing, your culture and history and family are playing.
This is fundamentally different than rooting for the San Diego Chargers or the Chicago Cubs. While with these you are connected at the city or town level, when your team goes against another, you are still playing against your own. They may be from Milwaukee, but they are mostly still like you. Their accents might be weirder, and their cuisine might be greasier, but you’re all countrymen.
At the World Cup, it’s your people going against some other country in a fight for national pride at a global stage. It’s a kind of war, but the best sort, because it’s not war but a sport in all its meritocratic zeal. It’s played on an even field, on agreed upon rules, and the victor will likely be decided by their merit and will, not wealth or intimidation. You feel about good rooting for your country, for being unapologetically patriotic, in this field of battle, because guys are just playing ball, trying their best.
The World Cup Is About Those Guys
But, then, what about the Olympics? Aren’t we forgetting about this other global sporting event that happens every few years?
It truly is a beautiful event: the very best of each country are given an opportunity to make their country proud. Again, the geopolitical bullshit is set aside, and the purity of athleticism and sport is left to decide who wins.
But in the Olympics you have numerous sporting events, each with numerous athletes, numerous staff and trainers, so when you add them all up, you’re left with a very large number of people representing you. It’s not a bad thing, but you are looking at a congregation, not your Sunday church group.
Compare that to the World Cup, where it’s 23 guys, and a few coaches. You could memorize all of their names over a few days if you wanted. They are all easy to recognize. You know most of their stories, their quirks, and what makes them human. You know more about them than you do about the guys and gals in the 100-meter relay or doing shotput.
Size does indeed matter. It’s a lot easier to connect with a handful of people than with a few hundred. This is both a sociological fact, and a reason why families, the smallest, and most personal, slice of a community, has such powerful bonds.
Maybe it’s just easier for these guys to become akin to family. Or maybe that’s all bologna. But you can’t argue with the fact that being able to easily recognize a person makes it a whole lot easier to share their plight and their joy.
The World Cup is About Futbol
They say soccer is a sport for neurotics. It certainly is.
During a five minute span you experience hope, anguish, fear, and regret. You witness beautiful athleticism in action, a sort of grace that’s hard to find in any other sport, and sense the build up that could, maybe, hopefully!, lead to a perfect finish, and and..
The momentum either explodes into a joyous moment, or drops off the cliff with nothing to show for it. It ebbs and flows with such ease that it can give you whiplash. The kicker is that you end up getting on the ride again, knowing very well the likelihood of having your heart jerked around. 95% of what could be never ends up materializing.
If you said you have to be a sadomasochist to look forward to these games, I wouldn’t argue with you.
This emotional spin cycle does something else: it creates a bond. Just like facing a crisis with a friend, or sharing a foxhole with a colleague, the ups and downs you share with someone strengthen the bond with that same someone. So it goes for those guys on the field caught up in the spin cycle with you.
Futbol is Freaking Amazing
But we are forgetting about that 5%. That 5% is what anybody watching a game lives and dies for.
That jaw-dropping save, that uncanny bicycle kick, that perfect cross that leads to the perfect header. The highlight reels for futbol are probably the most unbelievable of all to watch. That’s really why most of us watch sports, right? When the best of the best play at the World Cup, you can be sure this will be the best 5% you can find…
…but it’s not all about that. Highlights don’t make it the beautiful game.
John Cleese put it best when describing what makes this game so inspiring:
(disclaimer: I hope his words don’t offend football fans, especially because I am one of them. Take the below just as a very in-your-face contrast between the two sports.)
The wonderful thing about football [futbol/soccer] is how creative it is; and this is why it has never caught on in America. You see, in America the action is deliberately kept short so that the sponsors can get in as many commercials as possible, and also so that the players don’t have to think for too long. They get instructions from the quarterback who has in turn received them from the offensive coach. No one has to think for themselves–this is the Dick Cheney version of creativity, otherwise known as, “doing exactly what you’re told.”
So, you get four seconds of extremely violent action and then the only genuinely creative activity involved: a beer commercial. So, American football is played like a series of advertising jingles while soccer is played like jazz.
(The full, and somewhat politically-charged, video here)
There are no set plays. There are no breaks. Only a few substitutions allowed each game, and once you are out you are out. The coach is not piping in his plays, or guiding his players during the game. The game, quite simply, is about 11 guys running an average of 6 1/2 miles a game, self-organizing themselves, playing a sort of emergent chess, and, like a flock of geese, moving as one.
There’s also a careful balance of intellect and athleticism each player must carry in order to be successful. The player must not just pass the ball, but be thoughtful about each move, anticipate the opponent, and look at how the chess pieces are all set in front of him. Any small slip or miscalculation could cost the game. Again, it’s like war, with strategy evolving as time goes on.
Considering these four reasons it’s not surprising why there are so many tears, fights, and joys in the stands and in the living room of fans around the world. It’s futbol, it’s soccer, it’s whatever you want to call this sport that when set at the world stage can unite a country, blur the differences within it, and allow an elegant display of teamwork, heart, and respect, especially among opponents.
It’s personal, and it’s inspiring. And it’s not over yet. If you aren’t on the World Cup train yet, there’s still plenty of time to enjoy it, which I hope you do.
*Unfortunately, this is not completely true. Google “Andres Escobar Murder.”