Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Moment
From the first time I stepped onto a soccer field and began dribbling the ball, cradling it with every touch and treating it with the same care that a mother treats her newborn, I knew I had found my passion. There are few joys in life that can rival 11 people working together as a single unit, stringing picture-perfect passes together, moving down the field like an elaborately choreographed ballet. The joy of the game comes from its beauty, from its simplicity. Nicknamed “The World’s Game,” soccer has grown to unthinkable levels of popularity all around the globe. However, in the United States, it is a forgotten pastime. Although it has risen in its recognition immensely over the past 10 years, it is still not considered one of the top three sports for Americans. Americans don’t recognize, or rather, don’t understand, that its simplicity is what makes it so popular in other countries. America has rejected soccer, while the rest of the world has embraced it.
I grew up knowing and embracing just one sport: soccer. I have been playing it for as long as I can remember. My brother began playing when he was about 7, and by the time I reached that age, I decided to follow in his footsteps. I started out playing recreation league, which is basically where all youth soccer players start their career. From here, I moved onto the club level, also known as “Travel soccer,” so-called because my team would play teams from all over the country, teams from up and down the east coast, and teams from all over Virginia. We also did our fair share of traveling to places like Arizona, New York and Florida for games and tournaments. About this time, as I was traversing my way through the journey we all know as Middle School, my dad got involved with soccer. He took a job as General Manager of the Richmond Kickers, a professional soccer team based in Richmond, VA. He has since moved on to become President of the Club, and is respected nationwide as one of the pioneers of the new soccer movement based on vertical integration; that is, soccer clubs being taught from the ground up, going from youth clubs to semi-pro teams and on up to professional teams, both for men and women. I went on to play for my high school squad, continued with my club team, and eventually was scouted to play for the Randolph-Macon team.
My meteoric rise to a love for the sport is similar to the meteoric rise of the sport itself around the globe. Soccer began to spread around the globe in the mid to late 1800s, a time when American citizens were beginning to exercise their newfound independence from their British counterparts. Free from the prejudices of the new world, American’s took their culture as a chance to stand alone, to do their own thing. They wanted to move away from many of the cultural aspects that had been forced on them in their former homeland, sports included. For this reason, they began to invent their own sports. Baseball, American Football (what we see in the NFL), and basketball all became the weapon of choice for sports enthusiasts. "Soccer remained a backwater in the United States, the game of the recent immigrants, and as such one that was frowned on by parents who wanted their sons to become good Americans” (Murray 15). However, the strongest instances of rejection came from immigrants from countries outside of England, where soccer, at this point, was virtually unknown. Support for the sport tended to be strongest in the areas where the inhabitants were of almost exclusively British descent. "It was strongest on the Atlantic seaboard, particularly in New England” (Smits 3). So although it was rejected by many, the more British of the colonies still enjoyed the game and hoped to bring its success in the homeland with them. This British influence was seen in other parts of the world as well. For example, in Calcutta, soccer was gaining popularity through its wealth of spectators, who would gather to watch the British soldiers play, and go on to form their own teams. Similar things were happening in Asia and Africa at the time, a result of British imperialistic ways. However, this development ended as quickly as colonialism ended, and the rapport of support that had been exhibited quickly filed out, along with the British, in all parts of the world (Murray 20).
I grew up, however, in the United States. A place where, generally speaking, soccer is a forgotten and often times overlooked sport, save for its popularity in youth programs. Inherently, sports fans in America are always looking for more; more goals, bigger venues, and better players. But soccer in America never had these proclivities to begin with, as their support came from wealthy businessmen who had made their money through other investments; that is, other sports. The first soccer league in the US, the American Football Association (founded in 1884), was a strong step in the right direction, but ultimately fizzled out. “The league was organized by people with no real interest in the game, and it was played by ‘foreigners’” (15). It had strong financial backing, but never was able to garner a healthy fan base. In turn, investors saw it as a money-losing venture, and turned their back on the sport. Meanwhile, investors were putting excessive amounts of money into sports such as baseball and football. The equipment needed to play these games far exceeded the costs of a soccer field and a ball, but the return was also far greater than in soccer.
I always was blessed with the best in soccer equipment as a child. I bought high quality cleats and shingaurds, even when I was only playing soccer recreationally. The teams I played on always had several fields from which to choose from, whether for practice or for match play. Because of my dad’s stature in the Virginia soccer world, I was able to train with a semi-professional team as early as my 16th birthday. I was able to work with the best coaches, play with the best players, and train on the best fields. Basically, I was spoiled. However, this is not something that I have experienced in solitude. Most all of the players that I have competed with have been given the same advantages. Despite soccer’s low level of recognition on a professional level in the United States, the youth programs do not have this problem. In fact, a lot of money is put into the youth program, if for no other reason than because parents want to make their children happy. These children enjoy much of the best equipment that money can buy, because their parents are willing and financially able to pay for it. Because of this, they are also likely to take these advantages for granted. Personally, I never even thought about the money that my parents were putting into my love of soccer. I never thought about the fact that a club team like the one I played for had costs per season of well over $400. Add to that the cost of soccer cleats (upwards of $100), balls ($80 per), shingaurds ($30), and uniform costs (way too much), and you’ve got the recipe for excessive spending. Multiply all of these costs by the amount of seasons I have been playing (14), and you begin to understand how much money goes into a typical soccer player’s life in suburban America. I never thought about how much financial obligation and backing goes into the sport, and, in truth, I took it all for granted.
Almost all children in America take it for granted. It is no secret that the youth of America, or rather, the middle-to-high income embraced youth of America, are spoiled. Moreover, it can be said that an enormously high percentage of youth soccer players come from these middle-to-high income families. It is rare to see inner city kids finding any real success with the sport of soccer. Rather, they turn to sports like basketball and football, sports that they know if they ever hit it big can make them superstars. Rich superstars. Rich, famous, genre transcending superstars. Soccer does not garner nor command this kind of respect and veritable command over our culture, our ways of life. This is not the case in most European countries. American media has an enormous amount of influence on the lives of the United States citizens. It can dictate fashion trends, stylistic attitudes, and in a broader sense, our culture. This media chooses to focus on Hollywood; on the stars of blockbuster movies, on the stars of music, and on the stars of television. To a lesser extent, the media focuses on sports stars, but the only true sports star to transcend his sport and affect the culture of a country in such a strong way was Michael Jordon.
The media is much different in a place like Italy, where soccer is without a doubt the number one sport. “Indeed, soccer is Italy's answer to Hollywood, with a business turn-out of close to $6.6 billion a year, without counting TV rights, merchandising, sponsorship and advertising sales” (Serafini 1). Here, the stars of European soccer teams are the stars of the country; that is, they influence fashion, culture, and most importantly, the media. Soccer kings like David Beckham are able to sell products like Michael Jordon was able to sell them in the United States.
However, media influence is not the only reason that soccer has taken off in other parts of the world. Indeed, one must look at the cultural reasons to fully encompass the rise of soccer around the globe. Even with strong financial support in the United States, soccer failed to garner any real fan backing, and in turn, failed to gather enough money to cover its costs. In most European countries, this is not a problem. Huge amounts of money go into soccer, but huge amounts also come out of soccer. But in areas such as the poverty stricken nations of Africa and South America, it is not the money that causes them to reject or accept soccer. Rather, the sport has garnered an elitist status. It is THE game. It is their passion, it is their pleasure, it is their life. Look at this excerpt, taken from Cameron Duodu, a soccer player and journalist from Ghana.

What Duodu is trying to explain is that the ease of play for which soccer is known is a strong reason for its acceptance in the nations of the world that do not rely on media or status. Certainly, money can help build things like stadiums, complexes, and equipment, but that is not what soccer is about. Soccer is about that moment of connection, the zen-like feeling that only soccer players understand. The moment when they step onto the field and realize that it is no longer simply a person playing a game. It is something much bigger. It is a cultural beacon; a thing so powerful that it can mold people, communities, nations, and in a broader sense, the world.
Look at what is happening in countries like Ghana or Togo, where the sport of soccer is tied closely with nationalism, and in general, with life. Upon hearing of Togo’s advancement into the current World Cup, “President Faure Gnassingbe declared the Monday after the momentous victory a national holiday” (Price 2). One could never imagine a birth into the World Cup being cause for a national holiday in the US, but then again, no sporting event would elicit such a response from our own President. This simply shows the degree to which the sport has achieved in other countries; that is, it is no longer simply a sport, but rather an exercise in the true achievement of mankind and the ability a team has to capture so much more than any individual. They dream of that certain moment when soccer becomes more to them; whether it be through a perfectly placed, curling, bending, swerving shot striking the back of the net or through a personal experience that will forever change the way in which they look at soccer.
I never knew this moment when I was younger. As a child, I just played soccer because I thought it was fun, and I always believed I could use the exercise. Add to that my diminutive stature, and soccer just seemed like a good fit. I was often teased by classmates, who would describe soccer as a “girly sport,” where no physical contact occurs and no harm will ever be seen among players. One broken collarbone, two broken noses, and a fractured tibia later, I am now aware that these claims were without merit. However, this does not change the fact that the perception of soccer in the United States is that it is not a sport for “real men.” Parents don’t mind their young children playing it, but will always encourage their efforts more towards sports like basketball, football, and baseball. These are “American sports.” I bought into these views as a child, and always wished that I had been 6 inches taller, so that I could be a “real man” and play “American sports.”
However, my views changed in the summer of 2003. My mother was trying to determine some sort of family vacation that we could all take. As it turned out, her sister (my aunt) had a son who was planning a trip with a few classmates to Ecuador. Although I consider myself a traveling guru, the country of Ecuador did not quite pique my interest. However, after speaking to my cousin, I learned that along with this trip would be a week spent traveling around the Galapagos Islands. At this point, my only thought was “Where do I sign?” I had always been interested in wildlife, and this vacation seemed like a dream to me.
The Galapagos Islands are one of the most diverse series of islands on the entire globe, where the animals range from penguins to flamingos to enormous turtles. Each island is essentially a world of its own, and for this reason, I felt like this was a chance to explore something that I might never see again. I saw this as a chance to see the evolution of…evolution.
When we arrived on Santa Cruz, the largest island of the Galapagos, and the vibrant center of human activity, I could feel something big on the horizon. From here, we would be traveling by boat to the various islands that were located throughout this incredible archipelago. Each day passed, and each day I learned more and more about the Islands, about the South American cultures of our tour guides and staff, and about life in general. My way of thinking would forever be changed, my views forever altered, my mind forever revolutionized.
The moment came on the second to last day of our journey. We arrived at a tiny, uninhabited island called Rabida. This island was known for its amazing beach, which was comprised of a deep burgundy color. This color was a direct result of the immense volcanic activity that had become a staple of this island. As we neared the beach, moving slowly so as not to disturb the sea lion population that was resting nearby, I saw a large clearing of land with two unmistakable objects: Goals. There, less then 100 feet from the beach, was a soccer field. Here we stood, in a place where no human footsteps were seen except for those of tourists and tour guides, and in a place where to my utter amazement, a soccer field was present. The crew of my tour boat, myself, and two more tour boats that had obviously known when this game was going to occur, all gathered near the field and took off our shoes. One ball was present, a crude and slightly flat Kelme ball that would never pass for game-worthy in the United States. They spoke Spanish; we spoke English; but at this point, communication was unnecessary. We were here to play a game; a game that we all enjoy, and a game that brought us together; not as tourists and staff members, but as people.
I came back from this trip a changed man. I had learned, through personal experience, the effect that the game can have on people, with no regards for culture, race, or social status. First-hand, I had experienced something so immense, so mind-blowing, that I would never think about the game the same. Sitting here and writing this, I feel like the things I experienced should have made me do something more for the sport. I should be acting as an ambassador for the sport, going door to door like a Jehovah’s Witness and proclaiming the greatness of soccer. I should leave in my wake an immense sea of converts, a group of newly found soccer nuts that understand and embrace the game the way that I have. Instead, I simply continue to play the sport. I do little more than enjoy the same game that I have been enjoying since I was seven years old. I do not try to change other people’s ways of thinking, because, in truth, I am too indolent for such a massive task. I am lethargic, I am spoiled, and I am listless. I suppose that is just the American way.


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