My FIFA World Cup does not runneth over

FIFA World Cup 2014 logoBY CANDY PARKER

I’m not a soccer fan. There, I said it.

Some might find the statement sacrilegious, particularly given the timing, with the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) set to kick off – or tip off or whatever they call it in soccer – against Ghana tonight in their first match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, but I’ve never managed to go all in on this sport revered by so many.

I may be dating myself a bit in saying this, but back when I was in high school soccer was the sport that girls played in the spring when they weren’t good enough to make the softball team. And when my son was old enough to engage in athletics, we had ice skates on him, a plastic bat in his hand and a small basketball hoop in our living room when he was three, but nary a soccer ball in sight.

My most up close and personal experience with soccer came when I dated a woman for eight years who coached her teenaged daughter’s soccer team. I dutifully suffered through those Saturday morning events, the baseball coach in me frustrated by my ex’s half-time indulgences of her team. I’m sorry, but when you’re losing 6-0 at the half, the players should take a knee and listen to the coach talk strategy, not fret about whose hair ribbons are akimbo. No orange slices for you!

Honestly, I’ve just not had much interest in soccer over the years. Sure, I’ve gotten wrapped up in the nationalistic pride inspired by the Olympics or World Cup a few times. In 1999 when the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) claimed the cup I was as happy as anyone – and not just because a totally ripped and tanned Brandi Chastain tore her shirt off after winning the game with a penalty kick (a terminology I still don’t find apropos given that the kick wasn’t the result of a penalty, but rather the methodology this odd game uses to break a tie after having played but one mere overtime period, which they don’t even call overtime, but, instead extra time).

And when the USMNT squared off against England in their first match of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, I was firmly planted in front of my television, nearly bursting with anticipation and red, white and blue fervor. Yes, I’d bought into the hype hook, line and sinker, briefly duped into caring about men’s soccer by weeks of media propaganda touting the contest as if it were a replaying of the Revolutionary War.

By the time they threw out the first pitch – no wait, “pitch” is what they call the field in soccer, but you get my meaning – I was fired up and ready for my underdog Americans to put an ass-whoopin’ on those boys with notoriously bad teeth. (Calm down all you folks over in the U.K.; sweeping generalizations and the perpetuation of stereotypes are permitted for comedic effect.)

What I got that day instead was 90-plus minutes of the most disappointing and anticlimactic sporting event since Mike Tyson knocked out Peter “Hurricane” McNeeley in less than 90 seconds. What you have probably forgotten by now (but I remember vividly), is that the game ended in a 1-1 draw, a fancy word for tie. That is, no one won and no one lost – kind of like in T-ball.

So here I am, an avid sports fan and proud American, but I am torn about how much to invest in the USMNT’s exploits in Brazil. I’m having a hard time emotionally committing to a sport which allows what are essentially their playoff games to end in a tie. (Spare me your detailed explanation of the round-robin tournament format and the associated point system. I’m a girl, but I do “get” it. I just don’t like it. Playoff games — which, in effect, each contest leading up to the championship is, shouldn’t end in ties. Man up and play the thing out, boys!)

This is a huge tournament, not U-5 soccer where there are no winners and no losers. People wait four years for this thing to come around, paint themselves in their home country’s colors, take a month off from work to attend and have been known to beat each other to a pulp over the outcome. This is supposed to be the Super Bowl, World Series, Stanley Cup and NBA Championship all rolled into one (pun most definitely intended).

Imagine going through the entire NFL season and heading into the playoffs. As luck would have it, your favorite team is matched up against your most loathed conference rival. You eat, sleep and dream football all week. You trash talk. You RSVP “No” to your own child’s wedding because you don’t want to miss the game. FOX runs slickly produced commercials ballyhooing the contest and you get a little more charged up each time you see one. You have your snacks lined up, your friends gathered around the 70” HD set to rally ‘round the team and your sports-averse partner has agreed to leave the house so that you may bask in glory that is hardcore, hard-fought and hard-won competition.

The teams scuffle through the first half to a 0-0 score. “Great defensive battle!” you tell yourself as you replenish the beer cooler and refill the dip bowls at half-time, “This is what championship football is all about!”

Defense continues strong as each team manages only a field goal in the second half. Time is running out on a 3-3 score. Your team is driving down the field, almost within your kicker’s striking distance when you notice that the game clock has expired. But wait, the ref is winding his arm indicating that he’s putting more time on the clock, albeit a mystery amount of time to which only he is privy. You watch a few more plays, your team is getting closer and closer to the end zone and then…

*Shrill whistle sound*

Game over. It’s a 3-3 tie and there is no winner. Thanks for watching; everyone can go wash off their face paint now.

How disappointed are you in that moment? Exactly. And the world dares call this soccer thing a sport? Hrumph!

And adding to my World Cup apathy is the fact that the USMNT coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, has already conceded defeat. Yep, you read that right. The man charged with preparing our national team for battle on the sport’s grandest stage has stated multiple times in recent weeks that his team doesn’t stand a chance of winning. Real coaches in real sports don’t do that! Sure, the USMNT didn’t get the best tournament draw – I believe their bracket has been deemed the “Group of Death” by those in the know – but a coach should never admit pre-game defeat.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on how these so-called world class athletes tumble to the ground writing in pain if someone so much as looks at them cross-eyed.

So what’s an ardent sports fan and patriotic American to do when her national team in a sport in which she has little to no interest is about to compete on the world’s largest stage, led by a coach who says they can’t win?

I think this time around, I’ll set the bar on my own emotional involvement a great bit lower than I did in 2010. And if the USA and Ghana play to a draw tonight, I won’t let it faze me one bit. Heck, if the guys who make the rules don’t care who wins, why should I?

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