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Joshua David Stein Headshot

World Cup: Give Me Something to Believe In

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In the wide world of sports, football, or soccer as we Americans call it, is the game most foreign to me, the game with the most danger and the most glitter. I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia called Rydal. My afternoons consisted chiefly of reading or martial arts. Though now, I can add literate black belt to my CV; then, I was in quiet awe of the kids from nearby Elkins Park who'd arrive to school wearing impossibly shiny soccer jersey's and baggy Umbro shorts. Their last names -- Farrell, McGinley, Beatty -- were printed in bold white letters across their backs but their jerseys might just as well have read Cool, Confident and Manly. My favorite shirt, on the other hand, was one commemorating the appearance of Halley's Comet in 1986. At recess, they were the ones first picked and more often than not, the captains. I became an expert at Oregon Trail and played it an hour per day, on our schools Apple IIe's. From the computer lab window, the soccer field was a tableau of glistening athleticism and wholesomeness. Frozen for an instant, one could pick out the striations on the boys' -- and the occasional girls' -- prepubescent quadriceps, sweat beadlets flung off their heads and coolness -- like heat waves -- radiating outwards. I had just attempted to ford a river and my oxen had drowned. Soccer 1, Oregon Trail 0.

Soccer has never lost its allure nor its haughtiness. Even approaching soccer is difficult. Discussion of the game is hampered by the croissant dilemma. When ordering the crescent shaped baked good in domestic cafes, is it acceptable to pronounce it like the Frenchmen who invented it do, softening the r in to a w, hollowing the eh to ah and doing away with the t all together? Or, if you do adhere to standard Gallic pronunciation, are you just an pretentious prick? Similarly, the game we call soccer -- from a variant on association football shortened to assoc. then to soccer -- -is, to the rest of the world, football. Football, the game of heavily padded helmeted warriors competing for first downs, touch downs, is called American Football by the rest of the world's inhabitants, their voices tinged with derision for American exceptionalism. By saying soccer one is subscribing to this exceptionalism, by saying football one bows to international pressure, something any red-blooded American is loathe to do. Better just to call it The Game.

Every four years the nations of the world, at least those belonging to FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) the Game's governing body, compete at the World Cup. Unlike the Stanley cup which you could drink out of if you wanted to, the World Cup isn't really a cup at all. It's a 14.4 inch, 11 pound sculpture made of solid gold with a semi-precious malachite base depicting two figures holding a globe Atlas-like above their heads. While it may depict, two figures at the "stirring moment of victory," in the words of its designer Silvio Gazzaniga, it represents dominion over the world. Unlike the World Series or the NBA World Championship, the World Cup involves more than just the United States. The stakes are higher. The wealth even more unequally distributed and the soccer pitch often, the only level playing field on which the countries compete.

The World Cup 2006 is in its infancy. We're now in the group stage. Paraguay, Costa Rica, and Poland have stumbled. Argentina, England and the Dutch are advancing. No great shakes. The other day, I woke up at 8 to catch the England v Paraguay game. I headed over to Le Zucco, a French hole in the wall near my house. The owner, a vrai Parisien, fixed me a cup of coffee and we watched the game together, on a small screen and in Spanish. That I didn't understand the commentary didn't matter; that we had grown up world's away was immaterial. We sat at the bar, hung over, avid and alone. The game-winning goal was scored within the first five minutes but it didn't matter. I stayed for the whole match. I wasn't going anywhere. Finally after all these years, I was part of a team. And when the game ended, England victorious, we shook hands, "two athletes at the stirring moment of victory."