With the quadrennial arrival of the World Cup, plenty of electronic ink has been spilled this month about soccer’s place in America. While this topic is worth debating, it’s not what I’d like to get into today. I don’t care about the history of the game here, how it’s grown, and what its future is. What I am interested in is Tuesday’s elimination match against Belgium. I wouldn’t even go so far as to call myself a casual soccer fan, but for the third time now, I’ve found myself excited for the World Cup. Everyone has different things that draw them to sports. For me, the sports for which I have a rooting interest are by far my favorite. As such, while I can sit down and watch the average baseball or football game, other sports never get me quite as psyched. It’s the same for soccer. I enjoy the sport in a vacuum, but there’s no way I’m getting up early on a Sunday to watch Liverpool and Chelsea go at it when I have no skin in the game.
The World Cup is different, though. The atmosphere that surrounds it brings people together and it seems like more Americans have bought in to it this time around, which for me, makes the whole thing even more fun. I’ve had three distinct viewing experiences that were all enjoyable in their own right and only possible in the context of The Cup.
For the Ghana game, I met a group of friends at the same bar we went to four years ago when the Black Stars (The Ghanaian team nickname) knocked the US out of the Cup. It was a plan made with catharsis in mind as much as convenience. The people I was with were from all different points on the soccer-fandom spectrum: from those who wake up early on Saturdays to catch English Premier League Games to those who didn’t watch the last World Cup and were just looking for an excuse to put on their best red, white, and blue and get drinks on a Monday. When the US scored seconds into the game, the bar exploded in cheers and the tone was set for the rest of the evening. As the game progressed, the empty pitchers stacked up and the tension built. The release I felt when John Brooks notched the winning goal with under ten minutes to play was as raw and genuine as it would be for any touchdown or homerun, and being able to share the moment with a room full of friends and strangers made it all the better.
When the US played Portugal the following week, I was with my girlfriend at her parents’ house. My girlfriend didn’t grow up in a sports family and her fandom is limited to rooting for teams I like on my behalf. She’s not the type to go out of her way to watch a game. So when I approached her about watching the US-Portugal match, I wasn’t expecting such an enthusiastic response (although I did sweeten the deal with pizza and ice cream). Usually, when she roots for a team it’s because I’m rooting for it, but in this case, her support for the Yanks, and, more importantly, her disdain for Cristiano Ronaldo, was her own.
This past Thursday, the US faced their toughest competition in Germany. The game kicked off at noon on the east coast and much of America had made plans for an extended lunch break. A majority of my coworkers, from executives to interns, were watching in one conference room or another. Some of us even brought in laptops so we could take a stab at being productive. But as the second half started with the US down by a goal, the feeling of dread that had been growing inside of me since Sunday evening came to a head: my 1:30 conference call, directly conflicted with the game’s second half. As we worked through the inevitable small talk and formalities, it was apparent that everyone had been watching the game and wanted to get back to it as quickly as possible. Everyone managed to keep things professional, but for whatever reason everyone seemed especially focused on having an efficient call. Following the call, I dashed back into the conference room in time to catch the final minutes of the game. When time expired, the US had lost, but still had done enough over the three game stretch to move on to the next stage of the tournament.
Scenes like these have played out across the country in homes, parks, offices, bars, and anywhere else people might congregate. Here’s my advice: if you’ve missed out on the Cup so far, tune in Tuesday afternoon. Get together with friends or family at home or out somewhere, however you’re most comfortable. Come at things with an open mind, try to put whatever your aversion to soccer is out of your thoughts for two hours. Feel free to embrace the nationalism angle. It’s the World Cup, that’s what it’s for. It’s alright if you never watch soccer again after, or at least until the next World Cup. In all honesty, that’s probably what I’ll do. If nothing else, it’s a semi legitimate excuse to ditch work for an afternoon. In fact, if you don’t like soccer, this arguably the best time to give it a try. There are no more groups, no more points, no more losses that feel like wins, and no more ties. There are sixteen teams left and from here on it’s simple: winners advance, losers go home. The US are still alive and while they won’t be favored on Tuesday or any other games going forward, you never know what might happen. From one bandwagon fan to another, go ahead and jump on, there’s plenty of room.