Alessandro's Worry: Americans Will 'Get' Soccer

I am an American and I am no sports fan. But I am here to tell you - contrary to popular American opinion - that soccer is great.

Growing up, I was the guy you sort of dreaded would wind up on your team during physical education. I've never read the sports page. To the extent I thought of soccer at all, it seemed just another imbecility for sports fanatics to talk about.

But since 1991, I've lived in Italy. And during the 1994 World Cup I had a startling transformation.

You can't live in Italy without noticing that Italians are big soccer fans - practically no other sport exists for them. I was curious to see what there could be in this silly game that made the city of Rome look like a ghost town whenever a major match was on TV.

So I went with Alessandro to the home of his friends one night to watch one of the 1994 World Cup matches. There were a dozen of us crammed into three corners of a cramped living room - the Italians screaming, gesticulating, laughing, and endlessly analyzing while Alessandro, in his best English, explained to me what was happening.

To my stereotypically bored American eye, it was a bunch of guys nudging a big white ball back and forth across a field. Yawn. But as I watched the Italians going wild over this performance, something clicked.

At the World Cup level of professional play, I discovered, teams are usually both so competent that one largely succeeds in preventing the other from scoring. The result is a kind of ballet back and forth across the field which, because it is unchoreographed, promises every moment to take an unpredicted turn.

Goals in soccer, I also learned, are not common: Final scores are always something like 2-1, 3-4, or even 0-0. So the player who scores has performed a miracle. A soccer goal well-done is thrilling.

I remain unrepentantly tepid about sports, but I now understand soccer fans. Some of my happiest hours in Italy, in fact, have been spent watching "Mai Dire Gol" (Never Say Goal), a curious melange of comedy skits having nothing to do with soccer, video roundups of all the goals, as well as amusing soccer mishaps, made by professional teams that Sunday, and clips of absurd comments made on competing programs by sportscasters and athletes. All this receives commentary from three hilarious off-camera personalities, known as Gialappa's Band, whose voices tumble over each other in characteristically Italian excitement.

WHAT I learned is this: Don't be so sure you're a soccer hater until you give it a try. But that's what Alessandro is afraid of. The Americans, he says, are the best at everything. If they get excited about soccer, there's no hope for countries like Italy any more.

It makes me wonder: What would happen if millions of Americans tried watching a soccer game with the same curiosity I had four years ago?

* Richard L. Wentworth, a former Monitor staff editor, is a freelance writer in Rome.

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