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I don’t know if you’ve been watching the World Cup, but if you’re at all interested in sports, you should probably try to catch at least one game. Even if you’re not at all into sports, you probably should. Sure, there are a lot of things about soccer that doesn’t jibe with American audiences: it’s a low-scoring sport played by people you may or may not have heard of whose names you may or may not be able to pronounce, for one. Secondly, there’s the whole issue of games of huge significance—matches in which the winner advances to the next round, and the loser goes home—where two teams battle for 120 minutes getting settled via penalty kicks. It’s tense for sure, but inevitably kind of leads to feel-bads for the fans of whoever comes up short and perhaps a bit anticlimactic for casual observers such as myself. Another thing that probably turns Americans off to soccer is that we don’t seem to be all that good at it. In fact, one thing that’s missing from the 2018 tournament is Team U.S.A., which failed to qualify. Is it a metaphor for our shrinking position as a world leader? I don’t know. I mean, Russia is hosting the World Cup, so there’s probably some sort of pithy comment I can make about that, but I think I’m going to pass this time. Honestly, I don’t have the energy to make a tenuous tie between the World Cup and the current state of our politics. Right now I’m just happy to enjoy the World Cup for what it is, a true spectacle of sportsmanship—even when dudes are over-dramatically throwing themselves to the ground at the slightest contact in hopes of drawing a penalty.
The whole thing is theater, right? Each team’s supporters are singing their fight songs, all done up in makeup and/or outlandish costumes. I guess it fills the long lapses in which seemingly nothing happens, even though the players rarely stop moving. But when something does happen, it’s explosive and sometimes even magical. Take for instance Uruguay striker Edinson Cavani’s game-winning goal against Portugal in their round of 16 match on Saturday, June 30. The game was tied at 1. Portugal’s center back, Pepe, who must be really good because he goes by just one name, had scored just seven minutes prior to draw the match even. In the 62nd minute, Uruguay’s goalkeeper sent the ball deep down the center of the playing field. A player on the Portuguese side flicked the ball with his head, inadvertently onto the feet of a streaking player on the opposing team, resulting in a modest breakaway chance for Uruguay. Midfielder Rodrigo Betancur fed the ball to Cavani, who quickly struck it with the side of his right foot and sent it on goal.
Honestly, it didn’t look like much to me when he shot it, but I really only follow soccer during the Mens and Womens World Cups, so I’m far from an authority. Cavani, however, who I guess you could say has a lot more expertise in these matters than I do, was already in mid-fistpump as the ball approached Portugal’s net. He was right to be stoked with himself. At some point in its flight, the ball curled like a Frisbee and snuck perfectly inside the far post, past the outstretched goalkeeper’s hands.
The crowd lost its shit. Cavani launched himself into the air like a triumphant fucking Pegasus, and play-by-play commentator John Strong was so taken by this sudden and unexpected turn of events that he could do nothing but just bellow the striker’s last name, lingering on the last vowel like he was just brought to rapturous climax. I mean, I don’t blame him, because it was fucking amazing. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, dude. I won’t judge you.
ESPN UK posted a great video on YouTube showing fans in both nations, gathered in Lisbon and Montevideo, Uruguay, reacting to each goal. Much like the game itself, the video is sort of an emotional rollercoaster—the exaltation, the harrowing disappointment, the anticipation. The neat thing about soccer is that the players don’t wear all the hats, helmets and gear that they do in most other sports. You get to see their faces, too, and as far as the World Cup is concerned, they seem to be as invested in the outcome as their supporters.
That’s really what’s so enthralling about this event. The whole world is watching—rich, poor, dude from Reykjavik with the Icelandic flag painted on his face wearing a viking helmet (congrats on your first World Cup, guys!). And though the competition is fierce, and yes, the athletes sometimes get pissy with one another (which is also a good reason to watch), all the singing, cheering and unbridled passion of the thing is enough to melt a hardened heart. Leah Singer, a photographer and multimedia artist and wife to Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, wrote on Instagram, “Even if you don’t usually follow soccer, watch the World Cup. The emotion this game stirs in people all over the world is as beautiful as the game itself. For my sons, it has taught them tolerance, love, commitment, empathy, perseverance. Everything we need right now.”
Soccer was the first sport I ever played as a kid. I played for my parish’s team. I loved running and kicking the ball around in the grass on Sunday mornings. I scored one goal in my “career,” and I remember it so vividly, still, because it made me feel like a fucking Pegasus. Thank you to Cavani and Co. for reminding me of that.