In case you were unaware, on Sunday we’ll have a new World Cup champion. There’s a chance we’ll even have an outright champion rather than a championship earned on penalty kicks after the extra periods and stoppage time, as France and Croatia won their semi-finals before getting to that point.
With the motherland, England, out of contention, I have no dog in this hunt, so I’ll be rooting for the underdog. Nothing against France, but the Croatian team isn’t just the underdog. It also has the distinction of defeating Russia, which means its players are Harry Potter or whoever the good guys were in “The Handmaid’s Tale” or something.
For those unfamiliar with the World Cup, here’s a brief primer. Established in 1930, the World Cup occurs every four years. Uruguay won the first one; Germany won the most recent in 2014. Croatia has never taken the title, which is another tassel on their wizard’s robe. France has taken the cup once, in 1998. There are no dynasties, although Italy has won four times, Germany four times (three of those were West Germany, when the Berlin Wall divided the country), and Brazil five times.
Okay, so those three teams have won 13 of the 20 World Cups to date, but they’re not dynasties in the normal sense of the term, even if Italy and Brazil have won back-to-back championships. Neither will win in 2018, nor will the 2014 winner, as none of the three made it to the finals this year. That is one of the upsides of the World Cup and only playing every four years.
It Will Probably Never Be America’s Pastime
Soccer hasn’t fully taken America yet, except for those of us with kids. We’re out there twice a week—and often a couple of times on weekends—yelling our hearts out for tiny warriors who don’t yet understand all the nuances of the game or even all the rules. For those age groups, the rules are somewhat nebulous anyway, so the important thing is that they have fun, work on discipline, and learn to rub some dirt on it when they suffer mild injuries.
One rule that is regularly enforced, regardless of age, is the one against handballs. Unless it’s the keeper who touches the ball — he’s allowed. Everyone else has to keep his hands away, except on throw-ins. Incidental contact is just as much a penalty as is intentional handling of the ball, even if Tom Brady were to switch sports.
This brings us to the biggest controversy in soccer: Why is American football called football when it’s played with the hands?
Oh, You Mean American Football?
Most likely you encountered this while at a gathering back in college, when attempting to discuss football. The fellow you were conversing with shifted his microbrew from one hand to the other and said, “Oh, you mean American football?”
Such people can generally be ignored—particularly as they’re ignoring the origins of the word “soccer,” which is a contraction of “association football”—but if you’re feeling pedantic, you can offer a retort to their assertion. The fact is, football is just as much a football game as is soccer or lacrosse or rugby or any other such similar organized activity.
Although the etymology is hazy, the most likely explanation is that “football” arose not from the action of kicking the ball with the feet, but from the fact that it was a game played by peasants on foot, whereas royalty played games while riding on horses. Ergo, football.
At this point your interlocutor will either throw a smoke bomb in an attempt to escape or seek to out-pedant you by asking why there is no horseball, but you can safely pretend you didn’t hear him and find someone who wants to have a friendly conversation rather than practicing for debate club. Besides, it’s likely he isn’t actually that concerned with “real” football, or fútbol, and just wanted to signal how cosmopolitan he is.
The Beauty of Strategy and Occasional Biting
There is a bit of truth to soccer being a more cosmopolitan sport, which is funny given it’s a game that arose from the peasantry, but that’s not important now, for two other falsehoods must be addressed. The first is that soccer is boring because it’s low scoring and can be decided by penalty kicks rather than goals scored during gameplay. On the surface, that is true, but similar complaints can be made about baseball. One has to appreciate the strategy of the game to enjoy it. If you’re all about high scoring, you should watch basketball.
The other misconception is that soccer isn’t a physical sport. This year’s World Cup somewhat disabused people of that notion, what with Uruguay’s Luis Suárez biting people and a vast array of flops and some legitimate yellow and red cards.
Biting and flopping aside, however, soccer is an incredibly physical game, as my middle daughter can attest. Rather than cataloging the various scrapes and bruises she’s received and statements she’s made during practices and games, I’ll offer an example from church.
During the Eucharist, she was getting antsy for the service to be over. As an eight-year-old, she’d fidgeted her way from the kneeler to the aisle, where other churchgoers were walking to receive communion. “Scout, stop flopping around,” I said. “You’re going to tackle someone.”
There Will Be Tackling, and You Should Watch It
She looked at me and said, “Tackle?” while making a very subtle motion with her elbow to indicate her preferred method of taking out an opponent. Soccer may be physical, but it’s less overt than football. That means slyly taking out members of the opposing team when you’re trying to get the ball back or head toward the goal rather than straight-up smashing them, unless you’re after a penalty card. (That both iterations of football involve tackling is another thing you can point out if Mr. Microbrew turns back up.)
While the World Cup has been more prevalent on social media this year, that proves nothing, since social media is not the real world. There is hope for the future, though. It is too late for you to catch the tournament from start to finish, but it’s not too late to catch the final, and the fever. Tune in this Sunday morning and check it out.
It’s on Fox and Telemundo, so you have your choice in commentary. It’s early in the day, and most of the country is currently baking in the summer heat, so there’s no need to be outside. The match will last maybe two hours, so it’s not a huge time investment. France is heavily favored to win, but Croatia is in the finals even though they shouldn’t be, so there’s the underdog angle. It’s the weekend, so you can have Bloody Marys or whatever. There’s really no argument against watching it, unless you hate, well, not America, but some country.
Soccer will never be American football, but it can find a place in your heart, particularly if you like games that don’t last four hours and feature more playing than talking. Just remember to keep that part of your heart warm, as the next World Cup isn’t for four years. In the meantime, it’ll help if you practice tackling those who want to argue about nomenclature.
This article has been corrected on which country won the first World Cup.