It was during some important game in Germany in the late 1970s that a friend who wasn’t watching it on television observed, “What I don’t understand is people who have done nothing but sit in front of a television for two hours and then get up and say they won something.” I was in a position to hear this comment because I wasn’t home watching the game either.
Though I lived for three-and-a-half years in a country that is one of the greater soccer powers on the planet, I never saw a single game, or even part of one, either live or on television. That changed only after I returned to one of the world’s lesser soccer countries and had American children. Little did I suspect that they would lead me into an intense 16-year association with soccer that began when my daughter was 7 and ended only last month, when my son played in a post-season all-star game as a high school senior.
So what have I learned as an inveterate non–sports fan in half a generation as a spectator? First of all, I have not learned to recognize offsides, though it’s been explained to me dozens of times. I have a vague idea of the concept, though I still cannot figure why the defenders wouldn’t just stay in the middle of the field so the offense could never get any closer to the goal than that. But posing this question to a real soccer fan is like asking someone in I.T. why I keep getting “unresponsive script” messages that cause my computer to devote all of its attention to making the little twirly color wheel go round and round until I force the browser to quit. There is an answer, but I have slightly less chance of understanding it than I would an explanation of the distinction between the inessive and illative forms of the locative case in Lithuanian grammar.
Nor have I learned to detect penalties or decipher the referees’ hand signals for them. It always baffled me when fellow spectators would be able to spot the difference between a natural, unavoidable collision and an intentional trip well enough to challenge the refs about it (though I did notice that there was rarely any dispute when the call was in our team’s favor). From my point of view, all calls seemed random and inexplicable, so I had no basis for complaint.
But I have learned not to read a book during the game, except at halftime. It is clearly impossible to predict when something important will happen. Like the time I went to the restroom just after the half, because I figured it would be less crowded there once play resumed. While washing my hands I heard a huge cheer go up from our side of the stands. When I got back out to the crowd I learned that my son had just scored the goal he would later identify as the highlight of the season, if not his entire soccer career. Fortunately, he was understanding about me having missed his big score. “That sounds like something that would happen to you,” he said with an indulgent look that showed a deep familiarity with my complicated relationship to sports.
Through my children’s interest in soccer, I was even able to atone, at least a bit, for my lack of interest in the sport when I lived in Germany. When we visited there a few years ago, I took the kids to a major-league game. I took along a sheet of German soccer vocabulary to help me keep track of what was going on, but the only terms I learned were nasty names for the ref. Rostock, the home team, lost that game to Bremen 4-0 and had such a bad season that they were kicked back down to the minors the following year. I hope they did not hold me personally responsible for this.
And last summer, after the U.S. was eliminated from World Cup play, I began following the Germans. I even listened on German public radio via the Internet when Germany played in the semifinals against — oh, who was it, now? I can’t remember. Not that it matters. We lost.
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