Thursday, June 10, 2010

The World Cup: A History of My Young Adulthood

I have watched the past four World Cups from four different homes in four different towns and two different countries. Like many Americans of my generation, soccer was the first organized sport I ever played and yet I didn't watch a full game on television until I was 21. Sad but true, I grew up without cable television and was thus deprived of the World Cup. I have since made up for lost time. I don't so much watch the World Cup as wallow in it. And yet, the experiences of the four Cup tournaments I have watched have been very different depending on where I was in the world and in life.

A brief history...

1994 USA

While I was in college, my parents finally got cable. The summer of '94 was the summer before my senior year of college and it was a very nice one. I had a lot of odd jobs while I was home in Maryland, among them serving as dog sitter for a golden retriever puppy. A young couple my parents knew from church were first-time dog owners and didn't know quite what to do with their new family member. They hired me to stop by during the day while they were at work and keep the dog company. Now, those of you who know dogs are surely aware that nothing in the world is easier than amusing a golden puppy. I loved that dog and we had a grand old time. Our favorite game was for me to lie prone on the floor while she jumped on my back and licked my ears. She also happily watched soccer with me. Easiest money I've ever made.

16 years later, I now look back upon that summer as perhaps the beginning of my young adulthood. I didn't know it yet but back at school in September, I would break up with a longtime girlfriend and the seeds were planted over the summer for both of us. When we got back, we were different people and we both knew it. It was a rough breakup but the right thing for both of us. She started up with someone who made her a lot happier and whom she eventually married. For me, it would be four years before I dated anyone for longer than a few months but being on my own allowed for all sorts of interesting adventures.

1998 France

In '96, I took off for Japan for a job teaching English. As explained in other posts, Japan was a major formative experience in my life. By the summer of '98, I was getting ready to say goodbye. Not by design but by some wonderful fortune, most of my close friends in Japan were British, primarily English. The English are, of course, nuts over soccer and I spent many wonderful hours with them in ex-pat pubs watching the games on big screens. That is how I wish I could always watch the Cup: not in the host nation itself but in a bar somewhere in the world with people who care deeply about the game.

The '98 World Cup was a very big deal in Japan as the country had qualified for the first time. Japan and South Korea were both already preparing to co-host the Cup in 2002 and Japan was the first nation to be awarded the tournament without ever previously qualifying. But in '98, they made it. I still count their qualifying match against Iran among the most exciting games I've ever watched.

Japan is, first and foremost, a baseball nation. In fact, I think it's fair to say that they take baseball far more seriously than we do. There are no three-sport athletes at Japanese high schools. When you join a team, you're with them for the entire school year. Your after-school club - be it baseball, ikebana, band or whatever - is a very important part of your social identity. Among sports, baseball was by far the most prestigious. But soccer was already growing in popularity when I was there and qualifying for the Cup was a major national event. For a month, the country went soccer crazy. I remember statues on train platforms dressed in the team colors. I had students who genuinely believed they had a shot at winning the tournament.

The Japanese team was fun to watch, though not especially effective. The most entertaining player to me was the Hokkaido-born striker Shoji Jo. During the Cup, he had an amazing knack for being in the right place at the right time but always missed his shot. Japan lost all three games in the group stage and managed only one goal for the tournament. But the team had managed to win the hearts of their compatriots. Since then, they have emerged as a perennial power in Asia and have qualified for every World Cup.

It broke my heart to leave Japan, though I knew it was the right thing. The friends I knew there were absolutely wonderful. I still miss them.

2002 Japan/South Korea

In '98 I moved to New York where I met the woman who would become My Wife. First we moved to New Jersey and then Vermont. '02 was our first summer in Vermont and we lived in a small apartment in Burlington. It was not the easiest of summers. We loved being here but money was tight. My full-year salary didn't kick in until the fall and it took My Wife a little while to find a job. But we had the Cup and she actually enjoyed watching with me. It was the summer, in fact, that she first discovered her affection for bald French players. Her favorite was the team's goalkeeper Fabien Barthez.

I remember the time-difference was murder for that tournament. We woke up at a ridiculous hour to watch the final game between Brazil and Germany. It was the breakout tournament for the US team. In the group stage, they managed a huge upset over Portugal, considered one of the power teams going into the tournament. Then they beat arch-rival Mexico in the first round of the knockout stage. The quarterfinal match against Germany, though ultimately ending in defeat, was a pivotal moment in American soccer. I don't know if the record has been broken since but it was, at the time, the single highest-rated cable program among men - ever.

Japan did well as co-host, too. I could have told you ahead of time of a surefire combination for the success of an international sporting event: put the Koreans in charge of security and let the Japanese build things. They did well on the field, too. Japan won its group. The Koreans did even better, ultimately finishing fourth in the tournament.

2006 Germany

By '06, we'd moved into a little house in the woods. More significantly, we were now parents. Our Girl was two years old that summer and watched a little bit with me but wasn't overly impressed - nothing to compare with her reaction to Olympic ice hockey earlier that year. My Wife, of all people, organized a pool at work. I got to serve as commissioner.

Most pertinent to this story, we are in the same house four years later and, at least according to my hopes, likely to remain so for the rest of our lives. There have been other changes since then - new jobs for both of us and, of course, our daughter is just about to finish kindergarten. But we are still in the same place, a nice change from my prior vagabond lifestyle.

And happily for me, My Wife still enjoys the World Cup. We're planning a small gathering for the USA-England game on Saturday: her idea. No pools this time but I hope that at the very least, she'll watch some with me.


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