A crowd of several hundred people has gathered in a town square between a church and a school in the colonial city of Cuenca, Ecuador, where our family is vacationing. The World Cup has brought them together to follow the fate of their national team, competing in Brazil. Ecuador scores to even the game, and the crowd goes wild.
I turn to look at my daughter, who’s the reason I know anything at all about this great sport.
She was just 5 years old, I think, when we started bringing her to weekend soccer gatherings in our small Maryland town. All the parents did. Practices and games were pretty much alike, as maybe a couple dozen kindergartners chased a ball around the field as if it had a gravitational pull. It would be years before she – and I – would realize that traveling away from the ball would be more useful than running toward it.
For those countless weekends, I got my own exercise by “running the line”: helping the referee determine whether the ball went off the field and who had touched it last. Was I ever tempted to give the advantage to our team when the play was close? My daughter’s teams probably suffered as I bent in the other direction.
As the 5-year-old grew to high-school age, our weekend activity continued. She fought to be on the team with the most interesting and team-oriented girls, and was finally accepted. She scored the occasional goal. I kept running the line and started to understand and be thrilled by this game, which was so different from the baseball I’d grown up with in the Bronx.
Back in Cuenca, the Ecuadorean team lives to fight another day, and our vacationing family continues to follow the tournament in bars and markets as televisions sprout everywhere. Back in the States, we find ourselves in a pizza joint near home with a dozen Greeks, watching their country play Costa Rica, the announcers on the satellite channel babbling in Italian. We’ve arrived just after the miraculous goal that tied the game in the 91st minute, and there’s shattered glass on the floor, an artifact of the fans’ brief moment of triumph. No sound at all when Costa Rica wins the final shootout.
Of course, people from all over the world have brought their passion for soccer to our country. But most Americans would never be soccer fans, the conventional wisdom went. Too boring. Nothing happened. A 1-1 tie after 90 minutes with no breaks and no commercials? Not for us.
Then our kids started to play and everything changed.
Photos – Cuenca: Steve Mencher; Soccer ball promo image: © BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons
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