Unless you were vacationing on the far side of the moon last weekend and were disconnected from the Internet, you know that Germany beat Argentina 1-0 to win the quadrennial World Cup of soccer.
But if you were just “up in the air,” flying around Planet Earth on a commercial jetliner, you may have been one of an estimated 40,000 passengers who watched the “Battle in Brazil” via in-flight entertainment systems.
I didn’t see a single minute of the World Cup games in which the USA team played, and hadn’t planned on watching the final match. But while channel surfing during lunch on Sunday I couldn’t find anything else to watch on TV, so I ended up frittering away a good part of the afternoon waiting for at least one team to score at least one goal.
And that’s what happened. One team scored one goal in about two hour’s of playing time.
For me, it was slightly more exciting than watching paint dry, or grass (on a soccer pitch) grow, but just barely.
And it wasn’t my “Football,” even though it is for nearly the entire population of the world.
According to Wikipedia,
“Football refers to a number of sports that involve, to varying degrees, kicking a ball with the foot to score a goal.”
But that’s only partially true, because in what is known as “association football,” aka “soccer,” a goal can be scored by “heading” the ball into the net with your noggin. The only thing players can’t do in soccer-style “football” is touch the ball with their hands.
On the other hand (no pun intended), in “American football” the quarterback hands the ball to running backs who carry it in their arms and hands, or he uses his hands to throw the ball to receivers in the hopes that they will have “good hands” and catch it.
In that form of football, three points are scored by kicking the ball between the uprights and over the cross bar of the goal posts, while you get twice as many by using your hands to get the ball across the goal line and into the end zone.
And because the football in the American game is a prolate spheroid rather than round, it takes weird and unpredictable hops if it bounces on the ground, so booting the ball around with one’s feet as is done in soccer, would be totally ineffective in moving it toward the goal and scoring.
“American football,” of course, is what I knew growing up as a kid in Seattle. There was no professional football team there in the 1960’s; the Seahawks of the NFL made their debut in 1976. If you were a football fan, you followed the either the University Washington “Huskies” or the local high school teams.
Maybe soccer was played by those who attended private schools, but it was a game unknown, even by name, to public school students.
In 1969 when I was in the U.S. Air Force, I was stationed on the island of Okinawa, part of the archipelago of Japanese bits of land, large and small, in the western Pacific Ocean.
My roommate, Bill, had played soccer when he was living at home with his parents in Baltimore. He bought a soccer ball, and we kicked and “headed” it around the large expanse of lawn between the barracks in which we lived and the adjacent one. But we didn’t play “organized” games, so at that time I didn’t become a student or aficionado of the sport.
Sometime after moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1971, I attended a soccer game at Kezar Stadium, where the San Francisco 49ers had played “American football” before moving to their wind-blown home at Candlestick Park on the shores of San Francisco Bay. But I have no memory of which teams played, how many goals were scored, or even the reason that I attended the game.
So when by happenstance I tuned into Sunday’s World Cup championship game between Germany and Argentina, I was ill-prepared to decipher the strategy and tactics employed by either team. To me, it seemed that a bunch of men were simply running up and down the field, whacking at the ball with their feet and heads to pass the time of day.
And I had no idea whether players were assigned to “positions,” like “Guard” or “Center” or “Tight End” as in “American football,” nor did I understand while the game didn’t stop if there was a penalty called on a player or even when someone got knocked silly in a “head-to-head” collision.
I was aware that each “half” of a soccer game lasts 45 minutes, but still didn’t get why time displayed on the stadium (or television) clock wasn’t accurate. I guess it is up to the head referee to keep the “official” time on the field, until suddenly shouting “Game over!”
But there is one thing that is clear to me about both “American football” and soccer, and that’s the emotions of joy or despair that fans feel when their team wins or loses “The Big Game.”
During my first year at Ballard High School, our football team was undefeated during the regular season. On a cold, damp Thanksgiving Day, it played a cross-town rival for in the city championship game.
The West Seattle team scored first, and led 7-0. On a controversial call by an official, what looked to have been touchdown by our team was waved off, much like the goal that the Argentina team thought it had scored in the first half of Sunday’s World Cup game.
Les Mueller, the best offensive player on my high school’s team, had played soccer in his native Hungary before fleeing to the U.S. with his family after the Russians invaded that Eastern European country in 1956.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, he bulled his way over the goal line for a touchdown, and when a penalty on the other team during an extra point try moved the ball to the one yard line, it looked as though Mueller was going to run the ball into the end zone again to tie the score.
But Mueller was stopped in his tracks, and the score remained 7-6 in favor of our opponents.
Less than 15 minutes were left to play. Less than 15 minutes in the football season.
The field was such a muddy mess on that rainy afternoon, that if either team had managed to score more points, the outcome would have been been all but final.
The players pushed each other around in the mire, neither team able to gained much ground, or score again.
The clock ticked down. Time ran out.
It was over.
Mueller had accounted for the final six points in the game, just one less than we needed.
In Sunday’s World Cup final, Argentina scored just one less point than it needed.
As the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi, famously said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
What’s it like to suffer a bitterly disappointing loss, whether in “American football” or soccer?
The Argentinian fans know.
And so do I.
The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat.
You see it in the faces of the faithful supporters of the German and Argentine “football” teams as captured in this video from The New York Times.