This week sports fans around the globe will turn their attention to the most watched athletic event in the world — the soccer World Cup. In remote villages and urban centers, close to 1 billion fans will stop what they are doing and find the nearest accessible television set. Except in the United States. While the enthusiasm for soccer here has grown, its fan base pales in comparison to the Super Bowl, for instance.
The philosopher Paul Woodruff suggests that, to be a good spectator, you need to know how to care about what you are watching. Here are some suggestions for developing a deeper appreciation of this monthlong competition.
If you are new to soccer — what the rest of the world calls football — familiarize yourself with some of the key players besides the two most famous stars, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi. Many great players play for club teams during the regular season in the top football leagues where the big money is made — Spain, England and Italy — but return to play for their national teams during the World Cup. Check out Eden Hazard and the dark-horse but talented Belgian team or the dynamic midfielder Luka Modric on Croatia’s squad. If either of these two teams advances out of the initial stages, Hazard and Modric will be the primary reasons.
Get a sense of the skills that are required to play the game well. Watch for the players who display a great “first touch,” the uncanny ability to stop and control a ball kicked at high velocity with the gentle touch of a foot. Hard-kicked balls careen off the shoes of less artful players toward their opponents, diminishing their team’s opportunities.
Pick a team to support before the tournament starts and stick with it. But whatever your choice, don’t be a team jumper, hopping from one team to another depending on who is winning. Worldwide soccer tradition compels an early life decision about whom you are with. Once you’ve committed, you never walk away from your team.
If your team advances, wish for the best possible opponent, not for a weak link or a team decimated by injuries. If honor, as the classical Greek philosophers insisted, is a critical part of a person’s identity, then the best athletes want to achieve victory against a worthy foe. The best spectators do too. Honor and courage are intimately linked.
The World Cup is a communal event, which, unlike baseball’s World Series in the United States, actually involves teams and fans from around the world. It’s an event that should be shared with others, not watched at home in isolation.
There are many restaurants throughout Southern California where a given country’s supporters will gather to share food and triumph or suffer heartbreak and defeat with their team. Cheer on the American team at your local hamburger and beer joint. Then find places where “foreigners” gather and join them to watch their national squad. You’ll be welcomed with open arms and regarded as a friend. In the process, you’ll also find out where the Uruguayans, Ghanaians or Chileans like to eat.
Watch the matches with the understanding that the game itself is better than any one individual who plays it. Games worthy of playing can never be played perfectly. Difficult games — and soccer is one of the most difficult despite its simple rules — are examples of what the theologian John Dominic Crossan calls “experiments in disciplined failure.” They are a way of acknowledging and preparing for the limits that life imposes on us. Develop empathy for the teams and individuals who fail, because the experience is universal.
And finally, despite the fact gambling syndicates are always attempting to reach corrupt players and referees, understand that the vast majority of these athletes desperately want to win for their country and their team and will put their bodies in harm’s way to succeed. The athletes are measured against the greatest practitioners of the sport.
I don’t know who will win, but there is one prediction I can make with certainty. Watching the World Cup is an experience filled with the sheer delight of watching exquisite athletes perform. The ritual occurs only every four years. It is a sacred time that will be full of unpredictability, risk and audacity, elements that are at odds with so much of contemporary bureaucratic life.
A complete and satisfying ceremony requires witnesses who understand the rules and meaning of the performance, the social critic Christopher Lasch observed. Thoughtful spectators reinforce the value of sports for our culture, reminding us of the importance of discipline, hard work and exacting demands.
If you watch closely and with a sympathetic crowd, I’m convinced you will embrace the art and the battle that soccer embodies. In 90 minutes, the matches capture much of what is beautiful and joyous about life.
Kelly Candaele has produced documentaries about Real Madrid and FC Barcelona and the history and politics of soccer in Kolkata, India.