As someone who spent nearly a decade watching sports for a living, I can tell you without pause that if you like sports at all, you should be watching World Cup soccer.
Now, first off, I won’t call it football. It may be football to the rest of the world, but here, to all of us, it’s soccer.
Soccer is a sport most people my age didn’t grow up playing, watching or caring about — especially in rural North Dakota. It was reserved for bigger schools and foreigners that randomly played on TV. The most I knew about soccer as a kid was that New England St. Mary’s won some sort of title with a team consisting mostly of foreign exchange students.
If you don’t know much about the World Cup, here’s the quick and dirty version: For one month every four years, teams from the top 32 countries in the world assemble for the greatest single-sport tournament on the planet. Think of it like the Olympics in that you’re cheering for your country, but different because you’re only rooting for one team instead of multiple athletes or teams.
On Tuesday, the U.S. faces Belgium in the Round of 16 — and we’ll be the underdogs. Aren’t you the least bit intrigued to find out why Belgium is favored over America in a sport?
If not, that’s OK. If there’s one thing I’ve learned while growing to appreciate soccer is that some people just don’t understand the game, or care too. And that’s fine. Some people don’t like football (the American kind) but can’t get enough of hockey. No one is judging them either. There was a time in my life — not all that long ago — when I didn’t know the difference between a corner kick and a midfielder. Do you?
I was introduced to the game in college by a soccer-playing roommate and work colleague through video games. Right away, I thought he was crazy and that the sport was stupid. But I soon began to understand the game and the reasoning behind the tactics, and appreciated its simplicity. It’s probably the easiest sport to learn, which is why every country plays it and several of them have top-tier leagues and teams. In a world of seemingly never-ending strife between nations, that’s pretty cool.
But like I said, some haters are always gonna hate.
Cue uber-conservative pundit Ann Coulter, who caught hell from the sports world this week (including those on the right) when she wrote a bombastic — and largely uneducated — column equating our country’s gradual acceptance of soccer to the decline in U.S. society. While there are things happening in the U.S. that I don’t agree with, I think there’s one thing we can all agree on — white, black, left or right, any and all of the above — and that is to leave sports out of it. If you want this country to work and for the divides to come down between us, sports need to exist and be allowed room to grow.
Back here in North Dakota, you can see a surge in the sport’s popularity. Players’ bar was full Sunday afternoon as fans watched the U.S.-Portugal game. Some people — including myself — let out huge cheers when the U.S. scored. On the sporting side, there have been several evenings this summer where pickup soccer games take place outside of the West River Community Center, and interest in youth leagues continues to grow.
About five years ago, I asked if Dickinson would ever have a high school soccer team. Laughter and an abrupt “No!” was about the only answer I’d get. Then, two years ago, a Dickinson High School soccer player won the West Region’s senior athlete of the year honor — while playing for Bismarck Century.
The continuing population influx and demographic shifts here make me think it won’t be much longer before our high school becomes one of the last Class A schools in the state to start soccer teams, which would be just fine. It’s an inexpensive sport and helps give more kids a chance to play. And in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?
So, if you want, give soccer a try and learn about the sport. Who knows? You might like it.