The 2014 FIFA World Cup begins today. It’s the biggest sporting event in the world and one of the most exciting. It’s a truly global event with a fascinating and storied past. Brazil will be at the center of the world for the next few weeks. While most people will be focused on the pitch, there will certainly be coverage of the social, political, and economic conditions of Brazilians. Criticism of FIFA and other international sporting organizations will follow. Protests of corruption and the increasing failures of what some might call “sports diplomacy” are likely.
While the World Cup is significant on a global level, it also carries national significance. Every four years
Americans ESPN renews their interest in soccer and columnists wax eloquently on their hopes for the future. Purists will deride the MLS and it’s quality of play, while others point out its increasingly popularity and commercial success in cities like Seattle, Portland, and Kansas City and extoll the rising American soccer culture. In the wake of the concussion crisis and concerns over CTE in youth sports, there will undoubtedly be hundreds of stories imaging a future sporting landscape with soccer at the center. Soccer, of course, has been the #1 youth sport in the United States for decades.
The World Cup carries personal significance for me, too. I’m a sports fan and I’ve always enjoyed soccer. I played it briefly in elementary school and continued to pay attention to local teams as I aged. I grew up liking soccer, but never knowing about the world of soccer. I didn’t know about the World Cup. I didn’t know about the EPL, La Liga, or Budesliga. I didn’t become aware of a lot these things until high school and college. Soccer was something I played at recess.
The first vivid World Cup memory that I can recall was the U.S. winning the Women’s World Cup in 1999. Then, the next year the Kansas City Wizards won the MLS Cup. I remember watching the game, annoying my brother by flipping between it and the Kansas City Chiefs game. That’s what being a soccer fan meant to me.
In high school I supported our soccer teams. Many of my cross country and track teammates played soccer in the alternate season. I knew that they were good. They won a couple of state titles and many went on to play in college. But in that moment, I never really got it. I never understood the club scene, where teammates would leave practice to go to soccer practice. I did know that the “Total Futbol” slogan used by my school’s coach was really a style of play borrowed from the fantastic Dutch teams.
It’s funny now. All those years I considered myself a soccer fan, but I barely even knew what soccer was. My love for the game was born and bred on the playground and coddled by the success of my local teams. It wasn’t until college that I saw the larger picture. My college’s teams were quite good and I became an instant fan. We had rowdy crowds with creative chants and championship banners. Several of our players came from the UK. During my four years, soccer games not football were the place to be.
Captivated by this culture, I enrolled in a History of the World Cup course January of my sophomore year. It was an “Interterm” class between the fall and spring semester. Three weeks of going to one class sandwiched between indoor track practices. This course (and all interterm courses at my school) wasn’t designed to be rigorous, but rather fun, engaging, and exploratory. One of the goals of the class was to prepare us to be intelligent and engaged fans for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. I recall the instructor asking us how many World Cups the United States had won the first day, and several of us had no clue. The class was a mix of the history of soccer and the laws of the game as well as the World Cup. Our main assignments was to give a presentation on a historically significant match for a country we selected. I chose 1966 England and talked about the “phantom” goal, using as a segue to talk about goal-line technology.
That class was the first “sports history” course I ever took. I didn’t realize it then, but it planted a seed. It started me thinking about combining sports and history. I began connecting the dots and discovering how little I really knew. I was a fan, but in a mostly passive and uncritical way. It was easy for me to cheer for my team and my country to win, but I didn’t know the historical contexts and significance of their competitions. I discovered that just as you can often learn more and enjoy watching one player for several minutes rather than following the ball, the same is true for a variety of issues, events, actions, and individuals in sport. The World Cup always serves as a reminder of these things for me, sadly that might be because that the easiest way to enjoy and cope with Team USA.
But this year I’m more excited. In addition to the various national and international stories that I’m interested in, I have a player to watch: Matt Besler. He’s a defenseman on the U.S. National Team, who came up through the MLS. He not only plays for my hometown team, Sporting Kansas City, he also went to my high school. Besler graduated a year after me, but we never knew each other well. I’m excited to watch him for several reasons, but probably most of all is the fact that he represents a sense of place for me. He’s a symbol of my high school, my hometown, and my country. I often wonder why I never got into European soccer during and after college, and I think it’s because I only follow sports team that have a personal connection. There’s a certain provincialism required to be a sports fan, and for me it requires personal connections. I’ll always be a booster of my home town and the colleges I attended. That’s how I’m wired. So while as an American, I’ve always had a connection to team USA , this year it’s even stronger. I’m excited to watch Besler play and continue to build his successful career on the world’s biggest stage.