(Published on June 27, 2014, by The Oregonian, Newark Star-Ledger, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Cleveland Plain-Dealer and other Advance newspapers)
This is why you love sports.
That one play.
The one moment of transcendent athletic brilliance that you’ll remember your whole life.
In every sport, in every country, it’s there. That moment so improbable, sudden and spectacular that it turns everything upside down. Victory snatched from the fates, against odds stacked higher than your house.
If it’s for your team, it’s exhilarating. You scream because you don’t know what else to do. You jump up and down and hug the person next to you. Then you hug the next one, and the next. You search for words, but you don’t find them. That’s OK. You don’t need them. You have joy, and it’s enough.
If it’s against you, it crushes you. A punch in the stomach. Dumbfounded.
Now picture an entire country experiencing this. Holding their collective breath, waiting on the one big play that will answer their hopes or crush their dreams.
This is the World Cup.
It’s Guillermo Ochoa stopping shot after shot as Mexico stuns the world by holding Brazil.
It’s 21-year-old John Brooks scoring his first-ever goal for the United States and running around as shocked as everyone else that he just won his team the game.
— Max Henson (@PanthersMax) June 17, 2014
It’s American fans celebrating wildly from Brazil to Afghanistan and Seattle to Alabama.
This is the most innocent, joyous means of nationalism imaginable.
Maybe you’re not a soccer fan. You prefer the traditional big three American sports: baseball, football, basketball. Perhaps you think soccer is boring. You want more scoring. You hate watching Latin American and southern European players rolling around on the ground like they’ve been shot as they fake injuries to draw fouls. And what’s up with draws? How do you end a game without a winner? It’s so un-American.
Trust me, I get it. I grew up this way too. I was a three-sport high school athlete, and those three sports were the big three: basketball, baseball and (American) football. I coached basketball for a couple years. My brother coached football.
And yet I’m watching the World Cup like there’s nothing else going on.
How did I get here? How did I go from double steals, jump shots and cover-2 defenses to appreciating a good overlapping run by a soccer fullback?
Have an open mind.
In August 2006, I walked onto an asphalt playground with some friends in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Some Brazilian teenager was doing things with a soccer ball that I’d never seen before: balancing it on his back as he walked, backheeling the ball up into the air and catching it on top of his foot, tricky flicks of the ball. Finally, I saw it: This was “The Beautiful Game” people talked about.
He and his buddies invited us to play. We did.
I came home looking for a game, and I’ve been playing and watching ever since.
You don’t have to choose soccer over American football or basketball. You can have both. You can appreciate a hard hit on the gridiron as much as a beautiful Leo Messi goal on the pitch. It’s about agility and grace, power and speed, and dramatic moments punctuated with nationwide explosions of joy.
This World Cup has offered all of it.
Goals are up to their highest levels since 1970.
Giants have fallen. Italy, England, Spain — they’ve all gone home.
Underdogs Costa Rica, Greece and Algeria have advanced, with tiny Costa Rica knocking out two former world champions to do it.
Three teams from North and Central America have reached the final 16 for the first time ever.
Great soccer is being played.
And the United States national team remains alive. Team USA survived the “Group of Death,” as it was called. Few gave them a shot to advance against two of the best teams in the world, Germany and Portugal, along with Ghana, the team that had sent the Americans home in defeat from the last two World Cups. But the United States prevailed.
You may not be a soccer fan, but you understand the nature of great moments in sports. The Super Bowl, March Madness, the World Series. Overcoming the odds. David slaying Goliath. Big plays winning it all.
That’s why you should watch this World Cup. From here on out, there are no more draws. You win, or you go home.
It’s one thing to experience these moments for your local pro team.
Here, it’s your country against the world.