Tuesday, June 13, 2006 - Matthew R. Ranville
What's the big deal?
It’s the single biggest sports competition in the world’s biggest sport. At some point, an estimated 5 billion of the world’s 6.5 billion people will tune in to watch it. It’s the World Cup, the biggest stage for “the beautiful game.” Still not sure you get what the big deal is?
The wide appeal of football, what we call soccer, isn’t any big mystery. All one needs to play it, is a ball and any space. Really, any space at all. People play on the traditional pitch (uh, that’s a field for most of you), but they also play in gyms, dirt lots, parking lots, or even just by themselves by juggling a ball in place to see how many touches they get before it hits the ground.
I’ve done all of those, from playing organized futbol (I prefer the Spanish spelling) on an international sized field, to killing time in the back yard as a boy, counting touches of the ball. It was the game I grew up with, and is still very dear to my heart. If I have children, it will be one of two sports I will insist they try.
I couldn’t play more expensive sports most of my life, but even poor parents can usually come up with a ball. The first one I remember was a traditional looking one, made of synthetic leather pentagonal patches. Mine was red, white and blue, chosen at a time when all the Americans in my little world played “soccer.” I wore off the colours, and eventually the outer layer of leather on that first ball.
My second ball was bought as part of a group order my high school team mates were making. The coach talked all of the families into buying a ball so the school could get a discount on the order for the team. That ball cost an exorbitant $23. I was a freshman who really wanted to belong, and I had to press my parents hard to let me spend that kind of money on a ball, but eventually, I had my new leather wrapped friend, which lasted me the next four years. It’s a good ball, still in decent shape some 22 years later.
Since then, I’ve bought another ball. I bought a new one a couple of World Cups ago, and took it to the park to kick around with my wife, just because I can. Because there’s nothing like a new ball. Along the way, I acquired a US jersey, a very nice mini ball for juggling, and a collection of trading cards from when the US actually hosted the Word Cup.
After almost 18 years of not playing in an organized match, I watch the World Cup, or MLS, or even see pictures of a barefoot kid in South America or Africa dribbling a worn ball, and remember moments of personal triumph, team triumph, or just good clean fun. I was never a great player, but I know what it’s like to score a big goal; and I was never as poor as millions of kids around the world, but I know what it’s like to have a worn soccer ball be your prized possession.
And that’s the big deal. Five billion people will tune in because almost all of them have kicked a ball at some time in their lives. Besides things like eating, sleeping, and falling in love, it’s one of the most universal experiences in the world; something people on every continent play, accross skin colour, religion, or political leaning. Universal enough to have been played in a brief truce at Christmas between WWI soldiers from England and Germany. Universal enough to inspire truces in civil war torn countries like Ivory Coast now. Universal enough to make us stop and think about a time when we were just a kid with a ball.