This Wednesday has been circled on my calendar for some time now.
Why you ask? Is it because the whole campus will be talking about how Michigan was losing so badly to Illinois that the Wolverines had to forfeit at halftime? I hope not. Is it because Larry Harrison and Daniel Horton will get their day in court? Not exactly.
Feb. 9 has been on my radar because it’s a big day for the U.S. Men’s National Soccer team. Yes, that’s right. The Red, White and Blue will be taking on Trinidad and Tobago in the first of 10 games it will have to play this year as part of the final round of World Cup qualifying. This means that I get to parade around campus wearing my Chicago Fire jersey with pride while few people notice and even fewer care.
Ever since I found the 1990 World Cup on TV at the age of seven, I have always been enamored with international soccer. I played a little, but my best soccer memories have come from watching the U.S. men play.
I remember when the World Cup was played in the U.S. in 1994 and the Americans advanced into the Round of 16 because a Colombian defender accidentally deflected the ball into his own net. I also remember that the same defender was shot upon his return home.
I remember getting up at five in the morning two summers ago thinking that the Americans had no chance against Portugal and reigning World Player of the Year Luis Figo. I then remember never being so stunned while watching a sporting event, as the Americans — who would later advance to the quarterfinals — took a 3-0 lead and held on for a 3-2 win.
Later, as the Internet made watching European soccer more accessible, I started following the English Premier League and Glasgow Celtic of the Scottish Premierleague.
I have found that European soccer is exciting because it is the most comparable to college football, personally my favorite sport. While most people find this comparison to be ludicrous, European soccer leagues parallel American college sports more than they do professional ones.
All the top European teams are spread out across different country leagues, like top college teams are spread out across different conferences. Similar to the way fans from different parts of America bicker about which conference is better, fans in Europe can argue about the Italian Serie A or the Spanish La Liga. European soccer fans are able to travel to away games, just as in college sports, because of the close proximity between rivals.
Despite all this, the vast majority of my family and friends know absolutely nothing about soccer. Nor does most of America. Thus it’s very difficult to be a soccer fan in America. I’ve tried to become a fan of Major League Soccer, but the atmosphere surrounding the games has never really done it for me.
I’m instead left to salivate over the few opportunities I have to watch first-rate soccer action. Living in Chicago this summer, I had a couple of these opportunities when exhibitions came into Soldier Field. Even then, it could not compare to soccer in Europe.
I had a chance to see Manchester United, England’s most storied team, play Bayern Munich, Germany’s most storied team, in a preseason exhibition. A buddy of mine and I were so excited that we bought tickets the moment they went on sale and talked about the game for months. During this whole time, our hype superseded the fact that this was a meaningless preseason game scheduled to reap money from soccer-starved people like us. What followed was a 0-0 draw and one of the worst sporting events I have ever attended. Many of either team’s regulars didn’t play, and no one really seemed to be trying.
I also went to see the U.S. play Poland, where about 80 percent of the fans were cheering for “Polska.” During the game, I felt like I was in heart of Warsaw. But when the U.S. scored to tie the game at one in the final minutes, my friends and I went nuts and jumped up and down with our American flag. We looked like 12-year-old girls at a Kelly Clarkson concert; we were elated, but we also looked like idiots.
So when meaningful games come around, as in World Cup qualifying, I get really into it. While the causal sports fan may think that qualifying for the World Cup is a relatively simple process, it is actually very complicated. Hundreds of teams from around the world play games over a course of over two years for a chance at playing in the world’s biggest sporting event.
This provides internationality to soccer that can’t be beat. And even though the national teams are comprised of players that also play on club teams, the players really do care unlike the NBA. When the Americans put on their jersey, it means something. The Americans are also put in interesting situations when they have to travel to countries that hate us. You may think its bad for Michigan to go into Ohio Stadium in Columbus, but try playing against 110,000 Mexicans in the smog at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. That’s a real “road game.”
So I encourage you to spend some time this year to give soccer a look. You may even find that it’s not as boring as the causal American makes it out to being.
If you would like to talk to Bob Hunt about the U.S. National Soccer team, Glasgow Celtic or anything else in the world of soccer, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org