The Cup Overfloweth

The Cup Overfloweth
July 2, 2014 leonard slatkin

About 12 years ago, when my son was 8, he played soccer for his middle-school team. Every Saturday, as a somewhat dutiful parent, I showed up and watched this sport, which seemed as far away from the culture I grew up in as it is prevalent today.

Running up and down the field, trying to figure out how to kick the ball and not each other, seemed like a rite of passage for all those boys and girls. The parents were as fervent as their offspring, and it was this world of “soccer moms and dads” that helped forge some excellent friendships.

So it came as a mild shock to see Ann Coulter take on this sport, declaring it “a sign of the nation’s moral decay” and arguing that the major reason that the sport might be catching on in the States is “Teddy Kennedy’s 1965 immigration law.”

Most level-headed folks know that Ms. Coulter is constantly baiting her readership, and it is very possible that her remarks about soccer were meant as satirical commentary. But it did cause me to wonder why more Americans seem drawn to soccer these days.

During the first stage of this year’s World Cup, I had the opportunity to experience reactions on both sides of the Atlantic. It all started when the team from the U.S. looked very much like a contender, something quite unexpected by many pundits. Americans love winners, and even though they only came away with one victory in the first three matches, there was something fascinating about watching nations, small and large, going literally toe-to-toe.

As the 16 winners of their respective groups headed into the elimination rounds, it was time for me to head to Lyon for work with my orchestra there. When my wife and I arrived at our apartment, we discovered that our phone, television and Internet services were down. With just a couple of hours before the start of the France-Nigeria contest, we headed to a bar a couple of blocks away. The passion of the patrons was amazing. They had something to say after every touch, shot and defensive maneuver throughout.

Their response to the game was reminiscent of how college kids act when they watch their American football team on the big screen. In what was a very tightly contested match, the French scored with about 10 minutes left in regulation, and the eruption from the 60 or so people who had gathered was deafening.

I can see where Ms. Coulter comes by some of her thoughts. There are several aspects of the televised version of the sport that are distinctly un-American. Each of the two halves proceeds with no commercial interruption. Imagine that. If corporate ownership were on display to the viewing public, one can easily imagine the yellow and red cards being sponsored by Hallmark.

There is no half-time show, just a 15-minute break for the players to catch their collective breath and regain strength in their legs. Even if the end result, after what can be two hours of grinding it out, is 0-0, the World Cup has a penalty shoot-out. I used to wonder why they simply didn’t play until everyone collapsed, as they do in ice hockey finals, but this is different.

There are very few personnel changes in the lineup as the game progresses. It is truly survival of the fittest. There is also a bit of Hollywood involved, as various players have learned to become fine actors in feigning injury, trying to draw a penalty against their opponents.

After the match, no one rioted. There was no burning of automobiles. Horns were honked, and people partied in the squares and on the streets. It was all fun and most enjoyable.

My mind kept returning to the images of my son on the pitch. I am not sure if he enjoyed playing the game, but he certainly loved being part of the team. It may have originated elsewhere, but so many of the principles we as Americans believe in are embraced in this sport.

The next evening, the United States was to play Belgium. I asked the man sitting next to me at the bar whom he would be rooting for.

“The Americans, of course. The French hate the Belgians.” And then he winked.

Published on The Huffington Post, July 2, 2014