I'm 10. An American boy. When I walk into my first English sweet shop in Coxlodge, the tiny ex-mining village of my ancestors, it's like entering a strange, exotic parallel universe. There's candy, but it's all different: Smarties, Crunchy Bars, Gob Stoppers. There's newspapers, but they have pictures of naked women in them. This totally blows my little 10-year-old mind. Pretty women with naked knockers right there in the newspaper! What a world! And there, on the counter, is a box full of unopened soccer cards.
My little heart soars as my pulse spikes. Some of my earliest and most exhilarating memories involve my mom rewarding me for good behavior by buying me baseball cards. They're one of my earliest attachments to a culture that was bigger than me and my family. An identity in the world. A way of defining myself by belonging to American institutions like Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle and the Yankees. These iconic ballplayers are the heroes of my very early Wonder Years. Larger then life figures with extraterrestrial skills and talents you can count on in your hour of most dire need. Men who, even when limping, bloodied and bowed, triumph against seemingly insurmountable odds, and bring glory to you, your team, your tribe, and your country. These cardboard images of the best of the best were talismanic objects that stood for an ideal of American Manhood.
Be prepared, brave, noble, kind, help your fellow man and be good to your school, your girl and your mom. So in that little sweetie shop outside Newcastle, I'm practically trembling with excitement as I plunk down my 10p (even the money's different! big huge gigantic pennies!) and grab a pack. A whole new set of heroes unfolds before me. Bobby Moore, Gordon Banks, Bobby Charlton. I read about their superhuman exploits. The bone-crunching tackles, the rocket laser goals, the humanly impossible feline-like saves.
That's when I first fall in love with soccer. Later that afternoon my budding romance is consummated with a bunch of local lads playing soccer in the little hardscrabble patch of scabby grass behind a block of industrial flats. Again I'm entranced by this parallel universe I've fallen into. These kids are just like the kids I play with back in America, only instead of pretending to be Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays, we pretend to be Bobby Moore, Gordon Banks, and Bobby Charlton.
Now I'm 52. An American man. When I walk into my local soccer store in New Jersey, my heart still does a little hop skip pitterpat jig of joy when I see a box full of unopened soccer cards on the counter. $2.50. That's what they cost now. As I start to open the first pack I have a mad flashback of that Coxlodge sweet shop of my ancestors when this is all it took to make me madly in love with life. To my mom rewarding me for being a good boy by buying me packs of baseball cards. To those Men who were the Olympian Gods of my childhood. At 52 I don't rip open the pack anymore. Now I savor it. Take my time. As I uncover the first card I'm flabbergasted and gobsmacked. It's Landon Manchild Donovan, arguably the greatest goalscoring threat America has ever produced. He's the very first card in the very first pack. It is clearly a sign from the soccer gods. Obviously they're telling me that Landyman is going to have a huge World Cup. I immediately make him my pre-World Cup favorite to win the Golden Boot for most goals scored in the tournament. If I was a betting man I'd lay a wager on that right now. When I look at the next card I'm both awe and dumb struck, can hardly believe the information my eyes is feeding my brain. It is... Tim T-Ho Howard, arguably the greatest goalkeeper in the world today. Mouth agape, eyes googly I'm like: These are the first two cards of the first pack I buy of 2010 South Africa World Cup soccer cards, are you kidding me? I've stated publicly that I think America's going to win this World Cup. People scoff. Mock. Ridicule. Deride. But I don't care anymore. I've never been able my entire life to muster any kind of religious belief. And I have tried. God, how I've tried. I envy those people who can believe in a religion that gives them spiritual ease and peace. A benevolent God, a Heaven full of angels and puppies and unicorns and all the people you've ever loved, who come running up to you in slow motion with open arms and hearts when you die. I don't know why, but from since I was a little kind I believed that we create our own heaven and hell right here on Earth. I've never seen any evidence of what an afterlife might be. I believe in science. Matter is neither created nor destroyed. So whatever I am will turn into something else. I've just never seen any proof of what that something else might be.
But in New Jersey last week when I opened that pack and I was blown sideways by the first two cards being the two hotshot superstars of American soccer, it struck me with a transcendent ecstatic flash that this ridiculous irrational belief I have that the United States is going to win this World Cup gives me great comfort. Sweet solace. Soccer succor. On June 12, against England, our former imperialist, colonialist oppressors, USA opens their World Cup 2010 in South Africa. Join me won't you, and dive into the peaceful waters where awaits the blissful baptism of a true Believer. I know the more mojo, hoodoo and juju we can send through the power of our collective will to Team USA in South Africa, the more likely it is for our dream to come true, to see Lando and T-Ho hoisting the World Cup over their heads and forever basking in the pantheon of soccer gods with Booby Moore, Gordon Banks and Bobby Charlton.
David Henry Sterry is co-author, with Alan Black - San Francisco legend and notorious soccer lunatic - of The Glorious World Cup: A Fanatics Guide, featuring internationally renown soccer junkie Irvine Welsh, soccer crazy best-selling author Po Bronson, and the best soccer writer in the world Simon Kuper. A laugh-out-loud ride of a guide for the fanatic in all of us. http://www.davidhenrysterry.com/category/books/