It is 11 pm on July 13th, and I am finally heading home after a 10 hour shift. I buckle my seatbelt, throw back two Altoids from a tin in the glove compartment and connect my phone to the car’s sound system. Blasting “Them Changes” by Thundercat, I swing my car off the curb and turn down Meridian Street.
If you read the title of this article, you are probably wondering how a situation so benign as driving home from work in East Nashville in the dead of the night could have anything to do with the prosperity of football in the US. But you see, neither did I.
Rolling through a stop sign halfway down the street, I noticed that the lights above the community center tennis courts were on. A group of 20 kids from the ages of 12 to 18 were gathered around a makeshift field that was made up of two adjacent sides of parallel tennis courts and two miniature half dome training goals. They wore jerseys from all of the European leagues. There were Neymars, Dybalas, Pogbas, and Ronaldos. Under the lights, on one side of two caged in tennis courts, across the street from a row of projects, these kids were playing like their heroes.
“I must be in an Adidas commercial,” I thought, searching for camera crews. My first thought was one of total stupefaction. I drove in a circle around the park, wondering if it could be true. The stories of legends like Ronaldinho and Pele growing up in Favela’s, playing soccer with a melon rind as a substitute for a ball do not have an American equivalent. Instead, youth soccer is dominated by loud, brutish parents whose goal is to make the beautiful game a stressful chore. Here, however, the kids were enjoying the game. They were shouting at one another while the ball skidded across the court, laughing at their mistakes and celebrating each goal with one another. Enjoying the game the way it is meant to be played. Two goals, two feet, one ball. The way showcased by the 2018 World Cup, the largest international sporting event, taking place on the opposite side of the globe.
This tournament had been a landmark of my own summer. Stranded in the anxious loneliness that fills the brief interval between high school and college, I anchored my attention in the cup. Simply put, I was overwhelmed by the tournament – caught up in the fervor of a nation 5,000 miles away – my support for England led me to believe – for a half second - I that “it” was coming home. “It” referring of course to the World Cup Trophy, as serenaded in “Three Lions” – a tribute to the heroic failures and anticlimactic dreams that fill the pores of every English fan whenever their nation takes the field.
My nation, our nation, the United States played no part in the 2018 World Cup – a tournament being hailed as the greatest of its kind. The beautiful game arrived in Russia – the country so opposite to the intrinsic glories of the game – and put on a spectacle. Free kicks, own goals, stoppage time winners, the Germans… losing. The World Cup was alive. And the sport of football was looking sexier than ever on its biggest stage.
All of the glory and excitement, however, was not welcomed with open arms from every country across the globe. In the US, low ratings in the group stages, the lack of the US National Team, and Landon Donovan’s pitiful grasp at relevancy that saw him encouraging fans to root for the US National team rivals – Mexico – all made the World Cup feel farther away from the US than it actually was. The 2018 World cup didn’t take place on the opposite side of the globe – no – it kicked off in a spaceship thousands of miles away from earth. Every soccer fan from Europe, Africa, South and Central America, and Asia had won passage to experience this spectacle of spectacles that would be piloted by the most recognized athletes in the world. However, the US could not pinch together enough to buy a ticket on board – or at least they weren’t willing to wait in line for one.
I’ll use another analogy here if you still haven’t gotten the picture. If you have, feel free to skip this paragraph. The US was like the kid who gets picked last for football during recess, but instead of being begrudgingly accepted onto the team with the last pick, this kid was pushed on the floor and told to go home, only to have his mother (American sports like Basketball, Football and Baseball) roll up in a Mercedes G Wagon and shepherd him home to safety.
I must admit, I am a convert. A sacrilegious figure in American sports fandom who would happily prefer to spend Sunday morning watching the Manchester derby or even a mid-table thriller such as Crystal Palace vs Southampton than spend Sunday night watching the Cowboys play the Eagles. The missionaries of my conversion are Martin Tyler and Ray Hudson. The sources of inspiration are the flashes of brilliance from Messi and Hazard who wield their hips the way Van Gogh wielded a paintbrush. My obsession has been captured by the egos of Zlatan, Mourinho’s sermon like press conferences that seem a cross between the sermon on the mount and the Nurnberg rally, and, of course, the abs of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved this world cup. But it was also a constant reminder that my country is still refusing to buy a ticket.
This sense of distant loneliness was present in my living room as I watched nearly every minute of the World Cup. And, it was also present in my mind as I got in my car to drive home from work on July 13th. I work at an upscale restaurant in East Nashville, TN. The restaurant is on a street that is lined with projects, churches, and a community center. A 5 minute drive from the heart of downtown, the “eastside” seems like the wild west in a city whose many districts and neighborhoods are being swept by gentrification.
Watching the game from the seat of my car, I felt a deep welling inside of me. Yes it was late and I had just finished an exhausting shift, but I felt like either tearing from my car to join the match or rolling my windows down and shouting “finally.” I would go so far as to deem the experience religious – and I don’t think I’m getting carried away.