In my mind, there are two types of soccer fans in the world. There are those born in countries where soccer is the predominant sport, who swear allegiance to a particular club team from an early age, and follow league play as dedicated fans regardless of what time zone they are living in.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are those that have seen a SportsCenter Top 10 highlight of Ronaldo or Messi, remember that there was a movie about David Beckham and stay up all night playing FIFA on XBOX. For the record, it is typically the latter type that you see at a bar on the night of US games decked in American flag gear and cheering really loudly.
You can probably already tell which group I fall into, especially given that I am calling the sport “soccer.” I am guilty of being “that guy,” who once every four years brings out the patriotism and “USA” chants. It is probably no surprise then that the emotion I felt as I watched the US concede a 2-1 lead in the last 20 seconds of stoppage time against Portugal last week was something more along the lines of annoyance than heartbreak.
The fact that I only felt annoyance started to bother me in the next few days after that game. After all, emotion and sports usually go hand-in-hand for me. I remember the feeling of never wanting to watch tennis again after Nadal beat Federer 8-6 in the 5th set of the 2008 Wimbledon final.
I remember storming out of my dorm after watching my childhood favorite Auburn football team lose to Florida State in the final 13 seconds of this past year’s national championship game.
And lastly, I remember the feeling of being in attendance as Stanford men’s basketball lost to Dayton in this year’s Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
All of these moments were lows in my sports-watching, arm-chair-quarterbacking career. So why wasn’t the US’s devastating tie against Portugal heartbreaking for me as a sports fan and as an American?
At first, I wrote it off as a lack of caring about soccer. Maybe the aforementioned sporting events are ones that I just genuinely care more about. However, after sitting on this issue for a few more days, I do not think that is the case at all. Besides, during the Olympics, I certainly get very emotional about sports such as curling and the 10m air rifle event, which I know even less about than soccer.
I think that the main difference between my passion for the previous sporting events and for the World Cup is that I do not believe the US has a realistic chance of winning the World Cup (statistician Nate Silver currently gives the US a 1.5% chance). After all, why care at all if the US will lose at some point in the tournament anyways?
This is the mentality that I have had throughout the World Cup, which has prevented me from truly enjoying the experience of watching the games and tweeting out phrases such as #IBelieveThatWeWillWin (although I am not sure the latter is too much of a bad thing).
However, when you really think about it, what kind of sports fans would we be if we abandoned hope every time our teams did not have much of a chance to win championships? I have heard that there are still people who cheer for the Milwaukee Bucks and Jacksonville Jaguars. If true, then that has to serve as evidence that sports fans do not only care about winning and losing, but rather there is some overarching sense of community and camaraderie that draws fans to tie their emotional happiness for a few hours to their teams’ performances.
Take the landmark and grossly underrated 1993 film Cool Runnings. When the Jamaican team crashed its bobsled in the final run and was out of contention, we saw Junior’s dad and countless other Jamaican fans cheering for the team purely because they were proud of their country. There were no comments about how the team would fail to medal or how many helmets Yul Brenner might smash in the locker room, but rather, the only emotion was an enjoyment of the moment. I think we can learn from the wise screenwriting that we saw from this blockbuster film.
So here is my resolution ahead of Tuesday’s match and the rest of the World Cup: who cares if the US does not have much of a chance to win?
What matters is that we, as fans, support our team throughout the thick and thin of the tournament.
Rather than reciting old quotes about how the underdog always has a chance, or referencing overused examples of famous sports upsets, I think the point is that our emotional investment in a team should not rest in that team’s chances of winning or losing. Otherwise, we would all be fans of the New England Patriots, Miami Heat, New York Yankees, and Floyd “Money” Mayweather.
Going forward, my advice to myself and to all US fans, regardless of whether you follow soccer on a regular basis, is to start caring about the team, as they represent our nation on an international stage in a great tournament. Much like the Olympics, the excitement that the world experiences over this tournament every four years is hard to put into words.
Where else do we see coaches writing notes to employers to let their employees watch games during the middle of the work day? Where else do we experience the theatrics of watching players dive in penalty boxes and use their teeth to win position? Where else do we feel like we could do a better job than the referees? Ok, the last question may not be unique to the World Cup, but come on—how many more atrocious calls are we going to take!
Rather than thinking that the US will eventually be out of the tournament, let’s try to enjoy the atmosphere that each game brings as much as the Mexico coach likes cheering for his team. Let’s enjoy the lead-up to the games, the awkward Landon Donovan interviews and the social media storm that each game brings with it.
After all, we will have to wait four more years for all of this to happen again.
Shawn Tuteja already has one game of football securely in his heart, but he is trying to make room for another. Support him in his efforts at sstuteja ‘at’ stanford.edu.