— Mike Ditka
Former NFL player, coach
and TV commentator
(b. Oct. 18, 1939)
Four years ago if you’d asked me to watch a soccer match my reply might have been, “Couldn’t I just get a colonoscopy instead? At the very least, the preparation would keep me on the edge of my seat.”
Like most Americans, that was my loveless affair with what Europeans and apparently the rest of the world called “futball.”
“Man, that ain’t football!” I’m sure I once roared into the TV screen, one hand holding the remote and the other balancing the bowl of popcorn on one knee.
Chances are I didn’t really say “ain’t” and the popcorn might have been chips instead; or, a pimiento cheese sandwich. Could have even been Pop Tarts, the snack of champions. But in the world of soccer, much less the world of World Cup, food is more of an intangible. In that sport, folks care more about good games than good food.
Like I said, not so terribly long ago the very idea of watching a soccer game ... yeah, yeah, I guess they’re called matches ... made me want to dust the furniture. At least, with a can of Pledge in one hand I felt like I wasn’t wasting the day.
That was then.
Four years ago I opened my mind ... and eyes. When the World Cup came along, I gave it a chance. In the beginning, it was always a few minutes here and maybe a few more there. It was never an entire half nor could I imagine sitting through an entire 90 minutes, not to mention those irritating two to five minutes of “additional” or “stoppage” time.
But with each game ... er, match ... I paid closer attention to what was going on. I even tried to learn some of the lingo. But I wasn’t very good. I kept wanting to Americanize it to sports with which I could better relate.
For instance, one announcer referenced the “passing” by a player. I saw no quarterbacks on the field nor did I see anyone touch that round, black-and-white ball with anything other than feet and heads. I did figure out when they hit the ball with their heads it was called a “header.” But I never understood why kicking it with a foot wasn’t a “footer.”
Another time an English-speaking fellow from England ... funny thing, Brits speak English; Americans speak American, just an observation ... excitedly cheered a score for the team that trailed 1-0. He called it an “equalizer.”
“Huh?” I quizzed, nestled deep in the recliner of the empty living room. “Score’s tied. It’s one-up, buster.”
And it stayed that way till game’s ... match’s ... end: 1-1.
“Just what I expected,” I complained to the big screen. “It’s a big ol’ long soccer game, and it’s a big ol’ slow tie. Big whoop.”
Then I heard the Brit’s voice again, “... And it finishes in a draw!”
“Draw?” I mouthed. “This ain’t boxing. And I don’t see no gloves. Tie! Tie! It’s a tie! In America, we call it a tie!”
In another ... match, one of the players in a brightly colored uniform was doing some fancy footwork with the ball. Admittedly, I was impressed. You couldn’t tell foot from ball, so in sync was his control. I could have sworn I heard the TV guy call it “dribbling.”
I looked and looked. No LeBron James. No baby ... not anywhere on the screen.
I slowly shook my head, might have even mumbled a word of sarcasm. Perhaps two.
On another occasion I gulped when a tanned fellow in pretty shirt decked this other guy wearing all white. And he did it from behind.
“Clipping!” I charged. “Clipping! Fifteen yards!”
Next thing I know some referee is pulling a yellow card out of his trousers. And that poor fellow in all white? He was writhing in pain in the middle of that prairie of two-toned grass. First his torso twitched, then the rest of him kind of jerked from one direction to another. He might have been foaming at the mouth, I can’t be sure. His eyes could have been rolling into the back of his head, I’m not certain. But it was pitiful. I feared he might not live.
But two waterboys rushed into the TV screen carrying a stretcher. One sprayed a white mist onto the injured player’s leg. It was magic spray. The player leapt to his feet, all signs of injury now just a memory. And the guy in the colorful shirt who had knocked him down was arguing with the referee who was holding that yellow card in his face. Had this been a baseball diamond, I might have reminisced to the late Billy Martin.
On the sidelines some guy, must have been the coach, was jumping up and down, red in the face and screaming in the direction of the referee holding the yellow card. He must have gotten over it because the game carried on.
On another occasion a thin, sweat-drenched player tripped a guy on the other team. Just as I started yelling for a flag and an automatic first down, the announcer ripped into the tripper and confirmed “... a foul will be charged.”
“I would hope so!” I shrieked. “And flagrant at that! Make it two free throws ... and a technical. Maybe even ejection! You can’t just trip somebody like that!”
And the athlete who was tripped ... oh my, get on the horn and call orthopaedics! He may never walk again! Curled in fetal position and burying grass-stained knees into his chest, this poor man’s face wore a look of anguish like somebody’d just said, “... Your mother-in-law’s movin’ in!”
Understanding the lingo was hard enough — not to mention the British announcers — but I never figured out why the goalkeepers ... goalies ... safeties, whatever, didn’t wear the same color uniforms as their teammates. Just seemed wrong.
I scratched my head more than a few times during the World Cup four years ago. But I learned. I evolved. And I became more tolerant.
Now that the World Cup has returned, I’m getting even better. I’m learning more terms. But when the refs signal “off sides,” I still find myself waiting for the 5-yard penalty. And when an announcer roars in disbelief at a player’s “strike,” I take a ho-hum attitude because I know the guy’ll still get two more swings ... at least. But that’s on me. These funny-speaking broadcasters know what they’re talking about. I don’t.
Truth is, you can’t help but be impressed by the physical conditioning of these athletes. These guys run up and down a field that’s 120 yards long or longer depending on the stadium. In American football, that’s back of the end zone to back of the end zone and it’s about 80 yards wide compared to the gridiron fields over here of only 53.
That’s some serious sprinting. And they’re doing it for 45 minutes at a time.
I still don’t understand the substitution rules or how many timeouts you get or what songs those huge crowds are chanting. It always reminds me of that scene in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” when the swarms of brightly robed folks from northern India point to the sky as the source of a haunting alien lyric.
Rest assured, it ain’t the Tomahawk Chop.
But I do pride myself in learning this much. In last Sunday’s match, the U.S.A. team had fought back in the second half to take a 2-1 lead over Portugal. But with only seconds remaining in “additional” time, a Portuguese superstar kicked a perfect “cross” (in American, that’s sort of a lobber in front of the net) and a hard-charging teammate speeding for the American goal punched the ball into the nylon cords with the top of his head in what I assume is known globally as a classic “header.”
“It’s ending in a tie?” my wife exclaimed.
“No,” I clarified while clearing my throat with confidence, nose tilted slightly into the air. “It ends in a draw. That last header netted the grand equalizer.”
“Huh?” she frowned.
“I’ll explain later.”
Rising from the recliner, I puffed my chest, carefully aligned elbows to lower ribs and pompously egressed the room.