I was five years old when I first heard the word “soccer.” My best friend and I were changing into our fresh-out-of-the-box uniforms in his Mom’s station wagon, and I figured that the name of this sport we were about to try must have something to do with the long purple socks that we were trying to pull on over what we’d just learned were called shin guards.
A year later, once I’d learned to spell, I was baffled to see that the name of my favorite sport wasn’t “socker.” And so, the first soccer game I ever saw was the first game I played in. I probably scored a goal, too. I usually did. Not to brag, but as a five-year-old kid on the sun-scorched fields of North Texas, wearing a perforated purple jersey that hung down to my knees, I was an absolute menace in front of goal. This was in the mid-seventies, in the middle of the big U.S. soccer boom. The original North American Soccer League had just formed. I was a Dallas Tornado fan. I saw them play the New York Cosmos with Pelé and Beckenbauer in the squad. I had a poster of Kyle Rote, Jr., on my wall. It seemed like every kid in America was playing soccer, even the girls. And the best of those little girls, who grew up playing right alongside the boys, went on to form the incredibly dominant first generation of the U.S. women’s national soccer team. I enjoy thinking that I had something to do with that.
That’s how it started for me, and I haven’t stopped playing, watching, and loving soccer since. But that’s just me—oh, and about a gazillion other people around the world, and even one or two hundred in the United States. That’s a joke. Despite the running gag that “Amuricans hate soccer,” there are plenty of soccer fans in America, and most of us don’t care whether you want to join us or not. Just don’t tell us that soccer is boring because, believe it or not, that’s not a very interesting thing to say. For the rest of you, the interested and interesting folks out there who might not know much about the game but want to enjoy it a little more during this World Cup, here are a few tips.
Pick a team.
Life’s more fun when you have a dog in the race, so make a bracket. Place a friendly bet. Pick a team to go all the way, or just choose your side match to match. I like rooting for the underdog. Don’t know who the underdog is? America from here on out is an underdog.
Do the minimal research.
You are just five minutes on the Internet away from understanding the offside rule and how it affects the game. That’s the only tricky one. Another five minutes and you’ll know the next matchups, which teams are favorites, who has injuries, and even what their girlfriends look like if that’s your bag.
Don’t be a ball watcher.
If two players are a leg’s length from the ball, there are twenty others playing the game elsewhere on the field, and everything they do affects everything else. Soccer is a complex, ever-flowing chess game with running. Get into it. See how the movements of a player’s teammates give him passing opportunities or open up new space for him to dribble. What choices does he make? On defense, notice how the positioning of a single player a couple yards in any direction changes the team’s defensive “shape” and either closes down space or opens it up.
Enjoy the sociocultural anthropology of it all.
Pay attention to the rising and falling of individual and team confidence, the turning of momentum, the clashing of wills. Consider the delicate balance of a team’s commitment to offense or defense in terms of risk versus reward. Notice how countries and even continents play the game differently—I find that part endlessly fascinating.
Finally, and most important…
Appreciate what’s happening.
Don’t let the wide camera angles lull you into missing the physicality of it. It’s easy to start thinking that it’s perfectly reasonable for a kicked ball to go exactly where the player intended, or that a ball flying fifty yards through the air should by all logic settle down nice and easy on the toe of a person’s foot, but remember that a soccer ball is an inanimate object. Almost everything you’re seeing these players do with it has taken hours and hours, even years, to perfect. It’s like watching a constant stream of magic tricks. Enjoy that. Clap right there on the couch if you want to. That’s what I do.
Now, as many have said, it’s hard to truly appreciate this stuff if you’ve never played before, but if you haven’t, try this. Imagine you’re running as fast as you can. I mean a full-on panting sprint. Now imagine doing something else with your feet at the same time. Seriously, imagine it. It’s hard to wrap your head around the idea, isn’t it? Now imagine there’s another human trying his best to stop you. Imagine that other human is a brawny Brazilian nicknamed Hulk. When you start to see it that way, you realize that soccer isn’t all about the goals. It’s about all the amazing little things that happen along the way. That’s why Pelé called it the beautiful game. And because he called it that, I got picked on a lot as a kid.
The cartoonist Matt Diffee is sending us World Cup dispatches. Follow him at @matthewdiffee