Photo: EPA/Rungroj Yongrit

An American footballer gets into the World Cup

Hey, sports fans! Okay, I know that not all of my readers are into sports and that’s just fine.

I fully understand that there are other facets to a full and rewarding life and even to a tragic and disappointing life, such as family, friendship, career, health, culture, art, politics, education, religion, environment, language, entertainment, cuisine, and Wordle; and I appreciate that. However, right now, something called “World Cup” is going on and it appears that millions of people from every continent (except Antarctica where, for some reason, there aren’t many teams) are passionately interested in finding out who wins the football championship of the planet.

Already there’s an element of confusion among the many recent and growing number of American residents over here with the term ‘football’ itself. I mean, isn’t it called soccer? Well, no, it’s not, except in the States, where, for some reason, a game where the ball is seldom kicked, and almost always reluctantly, is simply called football, while a sport that emphasizes the use of feet is known by a term invented by some linguistically inventive students back in the 1880s at the University of Oxford.

In an attempt to distinguish between rugby football and association football (American-style football was just getting started), they shortened the latter to “assoccer”, which was later cut down even more to “soccer”.

There’s apparently a number of different football-style games played around the world including Australian rules football, but that only adds to the bewilderment. For some reason, the Brits didn’t ultimately embrace the term “soccer”, but the Americans did.

What the American public has not done is become big soccer, er ah, football fans to the extent that they are preoccupied with their American-style football. There are some various reasons for this, which can be explained in relative cultural terms.

It seems that most American fans like to see some scoring and so a nil-nil tie is disappointing for them. Famous American football coaches had this to say on the subject. Vince Lombardi, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” And Bear Bryant, “A tie is like kissing your sister.”

Games also go on for a long time (90 minutes), way beyond some concentration spans and then, of course, there’s “flopping”. That’s when an athletic, in-shape soccer player falls over in agony when hit by the breeze of a passing opponent. Sometimes it almost seems like they’re pretending to be injured in a fraudulent attempt to gain a foul call by the referee. Fans from the good ol’U.S. don’t think that is right.

Of course, my British friends have their concerns with what they like to call the NFL. They think there is way too much standing around in between plays, while both rugby and soccer are much more free flowing with fewer stoppages. Possibly a valid point. They also think the games take too long and, in this case, I have to admit they’re right.

Television has taken over how games are conducted, so there are as many breaks for commercials as possible, which turns a game with a running time of 60 minutes into a four-hour money-making situation.

The other quibble many British have is between rugby and football (not soccer) in terms of the equipment the players wear. Ruggers only wear shorts, a shirt and boots, while the Americans are outfitted in full body armor, they point out, implying that rugby players are tougher and less afraid.

I’ve played and coached both, and I can assure you that all that so-called protection allows for much more violent collisions and so American footballers end up enduring even more punishment.

And finally, almost all British fans have a real problem with Americans calling their baseball championship The World Series, since only professional teams from North America are eligible. There too they have a point, but I digress. Back to an actual real battle for a World Cup.

Slowly but surely, I have gotten into international soccer and particularly this edition of the World Cup. Moving to Portugal helped, since this relatively small country is a dominant powerhouse with arguably the best player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s fun to watch and Portugal is our adopted home.

It might be interesting to note that actually American football brought my lovely wife and me to Portugal and the Algarve in particular in the first place (there I go, digressing again).

To make a long story somewhat shorter, in search of a new adventure, I attained a position coaching an amateur American Football team here in the Algarve. There are approximately 10 such teams in a Portuguese league, which admittedly is quite small time and not well known.

As the offensive line and special teams coach, it was a challenge trying to persuade young metro males to “really hit”, when the sport they played previously gives out yellow cards for bumping into each other. My players did think they looked cool in their uniforms. It was fun for a while, but I moved on.

To even add more interest in this world-wide tournament for that growing demographic of American expats, the United States has a team in contention.

The Americans didn’t even qualify for the previous competition being beaten out by tiny Panama. To be honest, even when I tried to be engaged, I found it difficult to support what struck me as a bunch of whiners, who also didn’t play very well. After all, how could you lose out to a country that had a smaller population than many counties in individual states.

This time around however, the US team is young and energetic and talented. While their recent 0-0 tie with England probably didn’t inspire the conversion of many non-fans to the most popular sport in the world, it did show that the American kids could play pretty even with a strong side.

These youngsters will hopefully gain some useful experience from this go around, so they’ll be ready for the World Cup when it abandons the deserts of Qatar and moves on to being hosted in North America. Maybe then we can change the name to the World Series of Soccer.

So, what has changed? Why aren’t I still talking the talk of a know-it-all sports fan, whose opinion is the only one that counts? “Nothing ever happens. They just run back and forth and become easily discouraged and keep kicking the ball all the way back to their own goalie time and time again. Nobody likes a tie. Jumping up and actually letting the ball hit you in the face is silly.” And on and on.

Well, my wife and I watched Portugal play Uruguay during the group stages. These were two talented teams playing in an important game and I cared who won. Come to think of it, millions of sports fans across the globe couldn’t be totally crazy and follow a sport that has nothing going for it. What finally occurred to me is that the main appeal to most fans of the game of football is that it is indeed difficult to score. Come to think of it, I find National Basketball Association games quite boring with 110 to 102 being a typical score. Everybody scores all the time.

When we were watching Portugal play Uruguay, my lovely wife and I were on the edge of our seats, even when the Portuguese team went up 1-0. All Uruguay had to do was score and really put the game in doubt. When Portugal finally got a second score, we were able to relax and feel victorious.

Then the US played Iran and scored a goal before halftime. The second half was a real nail-bitter with the brave Iranians having several tries at goal but narrowly missing. We weren’t able to breathe until the game ended.

That’s when I began to understand how even a nothing/nothing game can be exciting since the anticipation of the next score can be nerve-wracking and exciting and consequential. Now during the knockout stage on the way to the championship, literally every success and failure on the field matters.

What I still don’t understand is why there’s always a soccer game on every TV in every pub and café at all times in Portugal. If you’re not a fan of either of the two teams playing, why does it matter? I always say it’s no fun if you don’t have a horse in the race. You can be a fan of more than one club, but not all of them.

Speaking of fans, my heart goes out to English fans, who always seem worried no matter how well their national side is doing. I guess they expect ultimate disappointment rather than having supreme hope for success. All, and I mean all, English fans hate shootouts. So if you’re watching with some Brits, try to keep quiet if the regulation game ends in a tie. Shootouts put them on a razor’s edge.

So, as long as the USA, Portugal and yeah, good ol’England are in the World Cup competition, your good pal Pat will be a “football” fan.

By Pat the Expat
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For the previous 10 years, Pat lived in Panama which used to be rated above Portugal as a top retirement destination (but not any more), where he wrote a column for a tourist publication.