Once Upon a Conversion
The 2014 World Cup has arrived, and with it, the typical nationalist hopes of 32 countries great and small. For this reason—soccer, that is—I've found myself of late in a somewhat nostalgic space, remembering with deep religious sentiment my conversion to "the beautiful game."
How did it happen, and where?
Quite unlike faith, my conversion to the planetary pastime didn't ultimately topple or even re-arrange other identities or allegiances. I'm still head-over-heels for our venerable national pastime—as I have been since childhood in suburban Dallas, Texas. Recently, in fact, Amie and I introduced our children to A League of Their Own, where, among other important American conversations (like the narrative of women's equality), "There's no crying in baseball."
As a parent, watching two boys fall hard for baseball has helped to offset my lover's quarrel with the professional version of the game, still in the shadow of performance-enhancing drugs. It's also served to save me from the unfulfilled passions I carry around every day for my beloved New York Mets, who, it must be said, occasionally play baseball.
Meanwhile, rather in spite of itself, what might be appropriately called the national obsession—American football—admittedly becomes my renewed obsession every fall like a bad cliche. We are simple creatures, aren't we, unable to escape these predictable cultural confines?
Yet, honestly, notwithstanding the game's glaring issues, something about moments like this (see: below) connects with me, and often moves me, in sporting and spiritual terms. Not to mention, these scenes are precisely why some people prefer their football on Saturday versus Sunday. There's also Friday to consider, of course, and over the last year or so Friday Night Lights has made its enjoyable, slightly over-charmed case in our living room.
And when it comes to casual-competitive recreation, I typically default to a good pickup basketball game or tennis match as over against kicking a black-and-white ball around and attempting awkward headers.
Distracted and Unconvinced
In contrast to numerous soccer converts I know, who are reasonably in the vicinity of 40, the 1994 World Cup in the United States was not my tipping point. Sure, it inspired the likes of a six-year-old Michael Bradley and a seven-year-old Graham Zusi. It set the U.S. national team on an entirely different trajectory. It prompted the birth and growth of Major League Soccer.
But in 1994, in my world, I had just graduated from college. I was anticipating graduate school in the fall. I was working like a beast. I can remember watching a match or two in between long days on a housing construction frame crew where, unfortunately, I was brutally subjected to the music of Jackyl.
Besides the U.S. losing to Brazil on the Fourth of July and shattering any ridiculous notion I maintained of American exceptional-ism, my strongest memory from the 1994 World Cup was the extremely dull final between Brazil and Italy. It was soccer in name only, with no justice being served to the supposed beautiful game. In fact, it left the haters doing what haters will do.
[Roger Bennett and Michael Davies took a funny, poignant trip down memory lane at the 1994 World Cup on a recent episode of the Men in Blazers podcast, which you can find here.]
Albert Camus once said, "Time is an irritating inconvenience between football matches." As fate, Camus, and God would have it, on another Fourth of July no less, at the 1998 World Cup in France, I became converted in a single moment—with television mediating like a stand-in priest. In one sublime instant I understood exactly what Camus meant, which, if you've read Camus, is saying something.
In the 89th minute of the quarterfinal match between the Netherlands and Argentina, with the match tied, 1-1, the Netherlands forward Dennis Bergkamp put three movements together of such intelligence and skill, such artistry and technique, while the game hung in the balance, while countries dangled by a nervous thread, I was convinced on the spot. I figuratively dropped to my knees.
I had witnessed it: the utterly material yet transcendent beauty of the sport. I could never return to the way soccer and I were before.
The next morning, I sensed that I was a believer. Living near Chicago, I searched the Chicago Tribune with fiery eyes and unyielding focus. Who was playing in the World Cup today? And how long would I have to wait to experience it again?
What I didn't need from soccer was another sports belief system. Nor did I need, at the end of the day, its traditions and rituals—however significant to those who believe and practice the faith.
I didn't actually know what I needed from soccer until I experienced an almost mystical encounter with it, with the divine earthiness of it. To be persuaded completely by the game itself—no matter anyone's sincere, impassioned proclamations—I needed a very peculiar revelation, breaking into time, and occurring just in the nick of time.