Thursday, June 08, 2006

Cup o'soccer

Well, it’s been a while since our last update from 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters. So we emerge from our bunker in response to the tens of thousands of desperate e-mails from people wondering, of course, about our take on the upcoming World Cup.

Believe it or not, I’m actually participating in a World Cup pool, drawing on my vast storehouse of knowledge about the sport, my grasp of concepts such as Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal, Les Bleus, and eating orange wedges at half-time. I picked Duke to beat Connecticut, provided they can get by Togo.

My own experience with playing soccer (which is what we American journalists who are afraid of seeming like we’re pretending to be European still call it) was limited to three or four seasons with the Wheaton Boys’ Club, in Wheaton, Maryland. Most of us were pretty uninspired soccer players – except for the three or four guys in the league with names like “Stefano” who had moved to the area from Europe, and who didn’t join the league until three games into the season, after figuring out their mistake when they registered to play “football”.

I scored five goals one year, which led my team. But mostly I ran around, lungs burning in the cold autumn air, hoping to God I didn’t get smacked in the face with the soccer ball, which seemed to hurt more the later in the season it got, so that by the time November rolled around, I expended more effort bobbing and weaving away from the flying projectile than I did figuring out how to score.

Soccer was still a new enough concept to many of us in our area that the referees signaled goals as though they were touchdowns, and for a while teams treated kickoffs as though it were football – blasting them down the field to the other team, which – now that I think of it – was sort of a strange thing to do after the other team had just scored.

It was around that time that the NASL was in its heyday, and many of us youth soccer types wound up at RFK Stadium to watch the DC entry, the Diplomats, who – really – went by the nickname “The Dips”, play teams like the New York Cosmos, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and, of course, the dumbest team name ever, the New England Tea Men. (My fellow World Cup pool participants will be heartened to know that it took me something like another 15 years to realize that Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, and Giorgio Chinaglia did not actually make their soccer names for themselves in the NASL.)

So not surprisingly, I gave up soccer for roughly 15 years, until I was living in Rochester, Minnesota, and the sister of a friend found out that I had played soccer as a kid, and recruited me to fill in on her coed rec league team. I showed up at the field early one November morning, and quickly found out that playing four seasons in the Wheaton Boys’ Club had a great deal of caché with the team (which inserted me in the game as center midfielder) and did me absolutely no good playing against a team of mainly foreign-born doctors from the Mayo Clinic (all of whom, I believe, were named “Stefano”).

The opposition quickly jumped out to a closely contested 7-0 lead, and held onto it for the next 45 minutes – until I found myself in the clear. A breakaway. Only the goalie to beat. I sprinted into the penalty area, keeping the ball a few feet in front of me. The goalie broke one way. I juked the other and wound up to blast it into the net. Which is when I hit a patch of mud and slipped backwards, Charlie Brown-like, and completely missed the ball. I landed square on my tailbone, which has never quite recovered. The ball continued on its way, which is to say that it rolled happily into the right goalpost and bounced aside. Being a fake soccer player, I lay there for a moment, got up, and commenced gasping for breath for the next 15 minutes. Had I been one of my foreign-born, legitimate soccer-playing opponents, I would have writhed in obvious agony until drawing sufficient sympathy that I could go on with the game.

Since then, I’ve stayed away from playing the game. I watched the Women’s World Cup in 1999, which was fortunate, since it yielded me the correct Final Jeopardy answer when I was on the show that year. And I try to appreciate the beauty of the sport, except as portrayed by grimy kids playing it on cobblestone streets in TV commercials, which make the game no more appealing to me that I’m sure images of grimy kids playing stick ball interest Uzbekistani viewers in baseball. [Memo to the ad insutry: Okay, we get it. Kids in other parts of the world play soccer in the streets. This doesn't want us to drink more Gatorade. ]

But I’ll watch this year’s World Cup on TV, especially with the added interest of the World Cup pool in the back of my mind. If nothing else, it’ll give me a team to root for. Go Dips!

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