Football Fever for The Uninitiated

Daniel Brooks

As an American, football fervor came to me late in life. A deep knowledge and understanding of football (not the American variety) came late. In fact, it never did. I know the basics, and that’s about all. It doesn’t stop me from loving the game, especially when the World Cup comes around. This is an event that, more than any other competition, unites the world. Everyone drops their differences and focuses on the great game. Sadly, until very recently, the United States was the only country who did not join in fully on the fun. That’s changing. Nevertheless, in many parts of the USA, the World Cup is something that happens in the rest of the world. American living in the states get a warm feeling whereas elsewhere in the world, football fans are on fire.

I played football while I lived in Manhattan in the late 80’s. We’d get together in Riverside park with football players from every corner of the globe for pick-up games. We had South Americans, Europeans, Africans, Haitians, Jamaicans and footballers from behind the iron curtain, often playing to the beat of a group of musicians who would sit on the sidelines of our dusty field and play out Latin music on steel drums and other instruments. I could run long distances, being in fairly good shape, but was unable to run very fast, handle the ball very well or pass it accurately. I was able to kick the ball long distances and knock people down when they ran into me. A special position on the field was given to me called “gringo defense”. I was placed on the left side of the field, I mean pitch. My job was to try and position myself in front of the opposing team members, take the ball away from them and if possible, cause them to run into me and fall down. If a ball ended up in front of me, I was instructed to kick it down to the other end of the pitch without trying to pass it to anyone in particular. I became skilled at hitting the ball with my head. It was great fun. Thinking back, I enjoyed playing football more than any other sport I’ve ever tried, despite being hopeless at it.

Some of the players who showed up in Riverside Park in NY were highly skilled and a few had played at the semi-pro level. One was from Russia who could kick the ball harder than anyone among us. I’d always try to get on his team because if he was on the opposing side, from time to time I’d put my anatomy at risk by blocking his shots. These would leave bruises. Especially impressive was the brute strength of the better football players among us. The Russian guy wasn’t very big and many of the others I played with were skinny and short but they were fantastically strong. They punched well above their weight when they kicked the ball.

Unlike American football and basketball, I learned that a near miss in football is examined and re-played nearly as much as a goal. At first this came as a mystery. Why the excitement about a goal that almost happened? Eventually I learned that when a team is pressuring the opposite side, they are making shots on goals. This involves a great deal of complex strategy, about which Americans like myself know very little. If the shots on goal are close, that means the side that makes the shot is hopefully building up to make a goal, causing excitement to build. Normal football fans around the world understand all this strategy and examine a near miss with great interest. I try to do the same thing, noticing the very many near misses in the spectacular win by Russia in their match with Saudi Arabia. This gave me hope that all these missed shots on goals would lead to a win, which eventually happened.

Some elements of the game of football seem odd at first, to the uninitiated, such as the art of falling down in pain, followed by an immediate recovery. This would happen while we played football in New York. Some players would drop to the ground, writhing in agony. Within minutes, they’d be up on their feet again. These were often the same players who would kick or shove the other players when no one was looking, followed by arguments. Falling down in pain can be seen in matches at the highest level, such as the World Cup.  A player suddenly collapses on the ground, grimacing and holding on to some part of his anatomy, usually his shin. A medic or two runs out onto the field and usually sprays something onto the injured player’s leg. After that the player painfully comes to his feet and limps around, while the cameras are pointed at him. Then he starts playing football, running at full speed. I have noticed these kinds of short term injuries happen when certain countries are on the pitch. It didn’t happen in the game between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Perhaps these two countries are less injury prone.

The pure joy of the player who scores a goal, especially in championship games such as the World Cup, is one of the things I like the most about football. Sometimes the player who makes a goal sprints away, clenching his fists with his mouths wide open and his eyes bugged out. Some fall on the ground or jump up in the air. If the pitch is wet, some might skid along on the ground, on their knees. The other players jump on top of the one who made the big goal. During the Russian match with Saudi Arabia, Artem Dzyuba scored a goal with a header, 89 seconds after entering the game as a substitute. The expression on his face when he made the goal was priceless. It was a look of joy mixed with relief and a touch of madness. The crowd went wild which was, perhaps, the point.

At football games, people sing. This is something I learned at the first game I went to in the UK. It took place in 1979 when I went to a match between Arsenal and Liverpool on about the coldest day possible in North London, just a few degrees above freezing in the driving rain and wind. No one cared at all about the weather, as far as I could tell, and everyone kept themselves warm by singing. This is something I’ve never seen at any other kind of a sporting event. About the only song sung in the US during a (US) football game is “who let the dogs out”.

During the World Cup, pride in country is an acceptable thing. It’s not about nationalism or patriotism. It’s simply pride, expressed in a fanaticism for the game and many a prayer that the team will win. I parked myself outside of a coffee shop in central Moscow to see Russia beat Saudi Arabia, and watched pride in country manifest itself.  Mexicans in massive sombreros could be seen walking down Tverskaya. Some of them were singing Mexican football songs. I saw a group from Saudi Arabia, wearing green. Several Russian fans went by, their faces painted in the colors of the Russian flag. Everyone seemed supremely happy.

My own loyalties lie with whomever I’m watching football. If I’m sitting with a German, I root for the Germans. If I’m with someone from Holland, I root for the Dutch (a bit more than the Germans). Naturally, when among Russians, I feel their glory or pain when their team wins or loses and I am behind their team 100%. I’ve learned that different countries have their own expectations of their national teams. As far as I can tell, such countries as the Germans, Italians, French, Dutch and Brazilians are only happy if their team goes to the final round in the World Cup and if they don’t win the championship every decade or so, something is wrong and a coach needs to be replaced with a more expensive one. Other countries, such as the England, believe their rightful place is in the final round but they don’t really believe they will make it. The Russians are skeptical this year. As far as I can tell, the Russian fans will be happy if their team manages a few decent wins and doesn’t disgrace the country with an embarrassing loss to a weak team. If Russia goes to the final round, the country will go wild. This explains the relief and celebrations in Russia when their team made short work of Saudi Arabia in their 5-0 victory.

Needless to say, if the US team makes it as far as the World Cup, that’s something to celebrate. This year, they didn’t, having been eliminated after losing 2-1 to Trinidad & Tribago. Not a very good result but when expectations are low, all that can be said is – it can only get better from here on out. Hopefully by 2026 the US team will step up to the plate when the World Cup comes to North America. That however is the wrong metaphor. The plate is stepped up to in baseball.

Bringing all of this excitement of the World Cup to Russia’s regional cities was a brave move. I know many long-term foreigners living in Russia who have never been to such cities as Volgograd, including myself. Soon that will change and Volgograd will be discovered. I am confident every city in Russia where the games are held has received extensive tonnages of asphalt on their roads and have been newly refurbished and painted. This has certainly taken place in Moscow. What happened in other Russian cities? Probably not much.

Now visitors from all over the globe will be surprised by something that Muscovites have noticed for a few years now. While the economic situation in Russia is nothing to write home about, the country is being spruced up. One can only hope it stays that way. As much as football is a wonderful, elegant sport, the country as a whole should not be improved for the sake of sport alone. In any event, the games are a great start. The country has no choice but to take what it can get.

Now, I have to go. I’ve got to get all my errands done, including the purchase of an adequate quantity of beverages, before the football starts at 1500 hours this afternoon. I’ll decide who I will root for when each match begins.