When I was young, I played the sport for some time. Somewhere in the midst of all that, and while attending a San Jose Earthquakes game in which George Best played, I met the legendary Pelé. This man was something beyond the sport. He was exceptional, exciting, astounding to watch play, yet as a person he was kind, patient, and loved fun. And to him, that’s what it was all about, this sport of football: FUN. As a result he exuded exuberant joy even just kicking about.
When the World Cup was played here in California, there was a buzz everywhere. You didn’t even have to know or like the sport to get caught up in the excitement of this world event. In preparing to make the world at home, different towns and cities “adopted” the various countries participating. The players from and fans of those teams would celebrate and hang out in their country’s town. My home town of Los Gatos adopted Brazil who became the champions that year. That was some intense revelry! I’d say it was not to be forgotten, but I’m pretty sure that many did just that the next day…
However, it wasn’t until I lived in Italy that I UNDERSTOOD. This game played in about any other country in the world (excepting perhaps Asia) is not a game. Not really. The intensity, the passion is beyond what an American can comprehend. Imagine taking our love for American football, basketball, baseball, and hockey and polarizing them all into one sport. Add to this fervor a regional pride like you’ve never seen here with rivalries going back centuries starting with skirmishes long forgotten. Then times this by ten, and you might begin to get the feeling with which this sport is followed and played worldwide.
It’s a lifestyle one follows there. In Italy, where I have first hand knowledge of the fierceness of their club rivalries and the riots that occasionally ensue, they even have a name for their national team – Gli Azzurri. When Gli Azzurri are playing, it doesn’t matter if the man next to you in the pub is a fan of one’s fiercest club rival, the frenzy and vigor of their love for their national team is so extreme that they are embracing and kissing cheeks in their extravagant joy or defending one another’s opinions when the team is not performing as expected.
It’s a crazy, wonderful, strange, and magnificent thing, this rapture for the exhilarating sport of football. I hope a few of you will catch it!
USA versus England on Saturday – the expedition begins!