I mentioned in Friday’s post that I grew up as a soccer kid.
On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve yet disclosed the fact that I’m Italian, although it’s obvious to anyone who knows my last name. Both of my parents are of Italian descent, which makes me about as Italian as you can get - except that I’m not olive-skinned, Catholic, hot-tempered, sophisticated with the ladies, or overly attached to my mother. But other than that, I’m as Italian as they come.
So when Saturday’s World Cup game between the USA and Italy rolled around, I knew that was a game I had to watch.
I honestly had torn feelings about who to cheer for. I still remember the pictures of Le Azzurre on my bedroom wall, but my conscience wouldn’t forgive me if I cheered against the Americans. My compromise was to just settle into the easy chair and enjoy the spectacle.
Of course, along the way I couldn’t help some random observations that I thought might apply to my own interests:
• Child companions: As the players walk onto the “pitch” before the game, each of them holds the hand of a child, who also accompanies them for the singing of the anthems. It’s a win-win situation for everybody involved. How jazzed do you think those kids are to be a part of a World Cup match? How cool must it be for the players to know they are giving some kid a memory they’ll cherish forever? It’s also symbolic passing of the torch from one generation to the next, getting kids more involved in soccer. Because apparently the 50 million American kids already playing soccer isn’t quite enough for us to develop into an international contender.
• National anthems: I don’t care what the sport is – I get chills when I see athletes stand under their flag as national anthems are played at sporting events. And I can honestly say that chill-wise, Saturday’s anthem ceremony was completely off the charts. As I saw the Azzurre linking arms to sing, and listened to 20,000 people thunderously belting out the words to “Inno di Mameli”, I thought to myself, “Gosh, those people are amazingly passionate with national pride.” I got choked up just by the sight of it. Then the US anthem played, and the stadium voices were just as strong, if not louder. Watching our players standing with their hands over their hearts, knowing how nervous they must be, realizing the importance of the moment...as far as I’m concerned, there isn’t a more dramatic scene in sports. And, um...is it dusty in here? I think I have something in my eyes...
Finally, before the opening whistle, the captains greet each other to exchange flags and gifts. It's a true display of international friendship. I know a lot of people knock the World Cup for being dull, stifling, and low scoring, but at least give them credit for this: when it comes to pre-game ceremonies, it may be the greatest show on Earth.
• Injury amplification: I think I’d like to try this sometime: if I’m in a race and having pain due to stomach cramps or blisters, instead of stoically dealing with my issues, I’m going to handle it World Cup style. I’ll drop to the ground, roll over three or four times, and scream like I’m having labor pains. I’ll get some rapid medical attention, eventually stand up and walk a few steps, and then start running again as if nothing happened. And nobody would bat an eye at this.
Could you imagine what mile 24 of a large marathon like Rock ‘n’ Roll would be like if this were the standard code of conduct? It would look like a battlefield scene from a Civil War documentary. Hmmm...maybe that’s what it takes to get better TV ratings for running. We should think this idea over.
• Post-goal celebration: Goals happen so infrequently in soccer, that players make sure to savor the celebration. It’s like extra style points are awarded to the most creative, expressive, unique celebrations after a goal. After scoring against the United States, Alberto Gilardino trotted to the corner flag, knelt on one knee, and mimicked playing a violin sonata.
Actually, a couple of famous runners have tried similar stunts. Hicham El Guerrouj frequently played the air guitar after winning a 1500m race. More famously, Maurice Greene once mimicked pain in his feet after winning the 100m dash, then took off his shoes as a buddy of his ran over with a fire extinguisher and sprayed them. For whatever reason, the track community tends to see these actions as corny, but soccer fans just eat them up. They are two completely different cults of personality.
• Red and yellow cards: This is a fantastic disciplinary technique. When a player misbehaves, the official may give him a yellow card warning, or send him immediately off the field with a red card. A player with a red card cannot be replaced on the field.
It’s swift, frontier style justice, and extremely effective. In fact, when my son was misbehaving later that afternoon, and bickering with his sister, I gave him a red card and sent him to his room. His sisters had to play one man down until dinnertime. (For those of you keeping score at home: yes, this was 8 hours before Father’s Day. Don't come to this blog looking for a role model.) It diffused the situation quite nicely. I can’t believe it took me so long to steal this idea.
• The Group of Death: How does soccer come up with such cool nicknames? Sure, the United States is in a qualifying group with three other good teams – I get that. But isn’t that moniker exaggerating the talent pool just a bit? Remember the 100m final at the Athens Olympics, with Shawn Crawford, Maurice Greene, Justin Gatlin, and Asafa Powell? Why didn’t anyone think to call that the Race of Death? You think NBC isn’t kicking themselves that they didn’t come up with that one? Sometimes it’s all about the presentation. People might not tune in to see “World Cup Soccer”, but if you tell someone to watch the Group of Death, they just might check it out.
Fittingly, the USA-Italy match ended in a 1-1 draw, providing everything I could ask for: a closely fought match, Le Azzurre still in control of their fate, a glimmer of hope for the US squad to survive group play, and a thoroughly relaxing afternoon for me. All four teams in the group play on Thursday (7:00 AM Pacific time), and all four have a chance to advance.
So if for some reason I’m late in posting on Thursday…it could be because I’m stuck at home in the easy chair, cheering for my two favorite countries as they go their separate ways.
June 19, 2006
I mentioned in Friday’s post that I grew up as a soccer kid.