Soccer can be your friend

Americans have a strange relationship with soccer. The World Cup is the biggest sporting event on the planet, and nothing else comes close to challenging it.

Even the Olympics, for all of its majesty, pales in comparison to the rampant following that occurs every four years in the World Cup tournament.

It entrances almost every country with national pride on the line as teams try to bring home the coveted trophy. Except, of course, for the United States.

We scoff at the world’s most popular sport, and while all other nations have tended to have to have their eyes on Russia this month (probably for nonathletic reasons as well), we sit and wonder when NFL training camps are going to start.

We don’t even call the sport by its proper name, football. We call it, pfft … soccer, and treat it like it’s an overrated waste of time. You know, like eating at White Castle.

Kids love to play soccer, and why not? When you’re little, you get to chase a ball around the field, whereas in baseball there’s a lot of standing around, and in football, you have about 30 pounds of pads on and you get pummeled on a consistent basis.

It’s really popular in Marquette with kids filling the small fields on Lincoln Avenue and the high school kids that play it are really dedicated to the game.

They also love it when their games get covered as soccer tends to be an afterthought to people up here.

That isn’t to say we haven’t been tempted to like it. When the U.S. hosted the World Cup in 1994, even people who didn’t typically follow the sport paid attention to it, and the same thing happened in 1999 for the Women’s World Cup.

If the U.S. is participating in the tournament, we definitely pay attention, although it doesn’t last long with the men’s team as it usually gets bounced pretty early.

However, like that brief flirtation we had with the metric system in the 1970s, our love affair with soccer is a quick one. It’s literally a summer fling. We say to soccer that “We’re glad we met” and “It was fun,” but then reject it by saying “It’s not you, it’s me.” That last part is probably true, though.

Yet I think if we paid a little more attention during the World Cup, we’d see what all the fuss is about. Just by watching one game, you can see how the tournament means almost everything to the countries that make it in, especially in Europe and South America.

Fox, and in 2014, ESPN, have shown footage of the different fan bases reacting to goals and victories, not just in the stadium crowd but back home. It’s pandemonium.

There’s high-fives and huge group hugs in the stands, while fireworks go off and flags are furiously waved in the air back in the homeland.

Meanwhile, there’s also clips of the losing fan bases. Seeing fans slump in their chairs, collapse on the ground in anguish and stand doing the “surrender cobra” pose (you’ll have to look it up) is heartbreaking to watch. If you thought an Olympic defeat was hard to watch, the World Cup makes your heart numb.

The teams are also entertaining. There was Iceland with its wacky antics, rampant support and scrappy unheralded participants — the goalie is a filmmaker and the coach is a dentist — and there’s Croatia, which pulled off some upsets to make it to the World Cup Final and became the team to root for with each passing game.

If you’re looking for a villain, you’ve got Russia playing under the watchful eye of its president, Vladimir Putin.

If you were looking for great storylines, you just had to look to the group stage where Germany got eliminated remarkably early and continued a curse that already plagued the previous two Cup winners.

When you combine passion, entertainment and interesting stories, it makes the World Cup an enticing experience to behold, even if it’s just on TV. I’m not the biggest soccer fan, but every four years, I’m intrigued by the spectacle of the Cup and by the time the quarterfinals happen, I’m almost completely invested in it. It’s impressive how quickly it can grab your attention.

We may never have a long-term relationship with soccer like we do with our version of football, which at this point is more like a marriage that we want to end due to emotional strain but aren’t willing to file for divorce quite yet.

However, I think if we watch soccer more and more, we can move past that summer-fling phase and maybe just be friends.

It’s the perfect relationship for the Facebook era and it’s one that we should embrace.

Flings may be fun, but your friends will always be there, even when you lose touch for awhile. Soccer can do that for you.

Just give it a chance America. You won’t be disappointed.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.