The Beautiful Game

Beckham prepares for a set piece. Wow: Beckham...
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Whenever the ball flew toward our goal and a score seemed inevitable, Jesus reached his foot out and cleared the ball.  ~Author unknown, from an article in Rio de Janeiro’s Jornal dos Sports

Moving from Northern California in April, 2000 to the mist swept mud and daffodils of springtime London upset every aspect of my life.   I struggled to acclimate to slate gray days, congested urban living and 6000 miles of separation from all that was familiar.  We had crash-landed on a foreign planet that was a mass of contradictions – history, tradition, bourgeois gentrification and blue collar working class grit.  England was a fierce tribal culture whose allegiances were brilliantly imbued in the rich palette of its colorful football club jerseys.  In an ancient land of Saxon cathedrals and Norman churches, very few of its citizens actually attended Sunday worship service.  Football had become the theology of choice for this secular, post-industrial power.

Soccer had always seemed to me a boring half-sport of gnat like foreigners flopping and feigning injury at the slightest contact.  As a parochial American, I believed that time would bring the rest of the world to our standard of sport – American football and baseball.  I could not imagine powerful American athletes abandoning their shoulder pads and batting gloves to play a game that allowed a tie as a final score.  A tie to an American is the equivalent of kissing your sister.  Watching European football was as exciting as painting a fence.

We descended into a nation filled with great expectations.  The English were once again preparing to invade Belgium and Holland to compete for European bragging rights in Euro 2000. Sixteen countries participated in what many felt was the truest test of national capabilities and perhaps, a leading indicator of relative strength heading into the long awaited 2002 World Cup. England had qualified for the Euro 2000 tournament and was somewhat optimistic to have drawn Portugal, Romania and Germany in its bracket.  Only two teams would advance to the Knock Out Stage round of sixteen.  Midfielder David Beckham, captain Alan Shearer, forward Michael Owen and the ancient 36-year-old goalkeeper, David Seaman, anchored the British squad.  The majority of the national team played for the three most popular football clubs in the Premiere division – – Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool.

On the designated days of the national football matches, the entire emerald island of England shuttered its doors and opened its pubs.  It was standing room only as bars spilled raucous patrons out on to the uneven cobble stoned sidewalks.  Enormous roars and gasps could be heard echoing down every mews, court and close as 70M people were united.  It was as if it was 1939 again and the country’s honor and security must be defended at all cost.

Within weeks of our arrival, my eldest son was suddenly wearing a Michael Owen jersey with its prominent red cross of St George.  Our neighbors across the close Paola and Arnaud were a house divided – as her Italian and his French banners competed for the affections of their two-year-old son. The city of London revealed its complex DNA as legions of immigrant vendors, shopkeepers, workers and ex-pats brazenly broadcast their loyalties and predictions.

The English team had a disastrous first round – falling to a surprisingly talented Portugal, recovering to beat an aging but tough German squad 1-0,  only to collapse in a must-win game with Romania 3-2.  England had not won a major championship since 1966 when Bobby Charlton led the UK to its last World Cup at Wembley Stadium. Euro 2000 was my walk across the pitch of national football mania and with it came the yawning maw of a carnivorous UK press that devoured their struggling national squad with the precision of Jack the Ripper.

Despite seeing their team not advance into the round of 16, British fans stayed glued to their tellies as they focused on the remaining teams – -many of whom were populated with personal fan favorites who played professionally in the UK’s premiere division. The French, anchored by Arsenal’s Thierry Henri and Juventus striker Zinedine Zidane pushed their ways into the tournament finals with a win over Cinderella semi-finalist Portugal and their prolific scorer Nuno Miguel Soares Pereira Ribeiro aka “Gomes”.  Italy, on the feet of Francesco Totti and Filippo Inzaghi, danced, flopped, gesticulated and headed its way through Romania and a thrilling overtime win over Netherlands on penalty kicks.

The stage was set for the Euro 2000 final match between the Gaelic greyhounds and the animated Italians.  On July 2 in Rotterdam, the Italians struck first on a Marco Delvecchio bullet past the bald and brawny French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez. France tied the game in the final minute of the match vaulting the two clubs into overtime.  45 minutes into overtime, French striker David Trezeguet became a national hero as he took a crossing pass from Robert Pirès and won the tournament for France.

The tournament had been an unmitigated failure for the English.  British soccer fans were next to feel the sting of European media criticism for street brawls initiated by a few drunken hooligans. While it was a nadir moment for English football, it marked the beginning of my appreciation European football. I was hooked.

Over the next year, England fought to qualify for the upcoming 2002 World Cup in a series of matches and non-ranked, tune-up games known as “friendlies”. France had been guaranteed a spot and it was up to the English to grab one of the other 13 slots that were to be contested in over 100 matches across Europe.  In the year leading up to the World Cup tournament, 193 countries played 777 matches across five continents in their quest for a berth.

England’s chances were fading. In a final do or die match, the Brits had to depend on a German tie or loss to Finland and a tie or win against Greece to join the tournament.  The nation held its breath.  The press began digging a deep grave for the stoic and cerebral imported English coach Sven Goran Erickson.

The game did not proceed as planned. After a late goal by Greece put them back on top, 2-1, England was trailing deep into post regulation injury time.  As the press whetted their knives, midfielder and captain David Beckham unleashed a free kick that took off like a curling bullet – – defying physics as well as a confounded Greek goalie.  As the shot arced over the wall of Greek defenders, its topspin bent the ball just under the cross bar and England was in the World Cup.  The island shuddered and the popular phrase, “ Bend It Like Beckham” entered the world lexicon.

Two years later, the World Cup lived up to its incredible billing with 32 of the greatest teams vying for a shot at the champions finals match in Yokohama, Japan.  England made it through bracket F, known as the “Group of Death” – – Argentina, Sweden and Nigeria.  Across in Group D, a debutante United States fought its way into the quarterfinals only to lose to finalist Germany.  However, it was in this tournament that I became infatuated with a tanned squad of green and yellow clad boys who attacked the pitch with the speed of cheetahs, the grace of gazelles and the joy of children at play during a twilight alleyway football game.  They were the Brazilians – – a free spirited, handsome clan of kindred spirits weaving through opponents, precisely passing through keyhole lanes and moving like phantom winds that swirled down through these magnificent Asian football stadiums.

The Brazilians’ Ronaldo scored a remarkable 8 goals over the course of the two-week event, followed by an even more youthful and perpetually grinning teammate, Rivaldo who registered 5 superhuman goals.  It was in this tournament that our Brazilian baby sitter and part time journalist, Elaine Medeiros, shared that the Brazilians had an expression to describe football.  They simply called it, “Joga Bonito” or the beautiful game.

As the Brazilians went on to win their fifth World Cup, I came to appreciate the beauty, youth and brilliance of soccer.  It could ignite a nation and eviscerate its soul – all within a 90-minute match

My lens to the world changed across those endlessly pink twilight summers in England – watching this beautiful game.  As I attended Fulham and Chelsea football matches in the fall and winter, I became caught up in the sheer fanaticism of English soccer.  On the continent, I attended a game at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid to watch Real Madrid play archrivals, Barcelona. It was not just the teams competing but it was the hearts minds of the Catalan and the Castilian states.

As the World Cup builds to its crescendo over this week, I am excited and at the same time, homesick for Europe where entire countries stop and linger, smelling and reveling in the deep fragrance of youth – – its skill, passion and its mistakes – – all played out across a single soccer pitch.  Its beauty is in a perfectly executed header.  It is a magnificent diving save.  It is a blind pass and a misdirected shot on goal.  It is one man, possessing brilliant feet weaving between adversaries toward a crouching sentinel.  It is errors, yellow cards, flags and banners.  It is a child in an aquamarine jersey that simply says “Messi”. It is the grabbing, pushing and posturing of a corner kick.  Above all, it is the emphatic, glorious echo of an announcer in a foreign tongue screaming the universal call to open the pantheons to another national hero – –  “GOAL, GOAL, GOAL, GOAL, GOAL!!!!!”

It is time for another FIFA World Cup.  So grab your channel changers and set your Tivo. Soccer, like the world in which we live, is magnificent, messy, inconsistent, sad, brilliant, and unpredictable.  It is an anthem for our planet as hundreds of millions follow for a fortnight the rotation of a single ball as it courses toward a net.

It is, as they say, the beautiful game.

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