It’s the carnival of the masses, but sometimes the only way to watch soccer is on your own.
I’ve drunk too much coffee. I do this every time. It’s forty-five minutes to kickoff and I’ve got nothing to do with my hands, and so I drink another cup. I’ve got nowhere to put my body. I am not at a bar. I am certainly not at the stadium. I’m not even with my friends. I am sitting, and now standing, and now pacing, and now sitting again, in my apartment. It is a half-hour to kickoff. I am chewing the inside of my cheek. Fifteen minutes. I wish someone would bring me a beer. They’re playing the national anthems. Time to shut the window, set the phone to silent. Someone, somehow, please grant me some other passion. This one is wearing me out. Quiet, please. I am a soccer fan.
I came to it relatively late. As a kid, I played the game on teams with actual jerseys, with friends in yards with trees for goalposts, but I’d never watched soccer as any proper fan does. No American back then could. Maybe you watched if your parents had a satellite dish in the backyard but I didn’t know any parents like that and in any event we would only have watched the channels with the naked women.
But then the World Cup came here, to the land of McDonald’s and Snickers and Visa and football with helmets. And so for weeks I sat, enraptured as, miraculously, we beat Colombia. As, predictably, Brazil beat us. Then, four years later, stomach black and blue from a hernia surgery, I was ordered to sit in the living room chair for a month straight, consuming games as if they were potato chips. Four years after that, I set the alarm and watched as we beat Portugal, and then Mexico, and as the efficient, ruthless Germans beat us. I learned that on the field, Mexico is the great enemy. I learned why Germany is Germany, why Brazil is Brazil. Four years after that, Ghana knocked us out. And, finally, four years after that, Landon Donovan (in his final World Cup, it turns out) knocked in an easy one against Algeria that I think about sometimes every two months, sometimes every two weeks. I was thinking about it just tonight. Now it’s four years later and so again I’m rooting for pulled muscles over in Germany, in Portugal, in, one more time, Ghana. Sorry, Ghana, but I wish bad things upon your soccer team. I don’t want you to die, of course, or get really sick, but maybe some light depression? Is that bad of me to wish for that? It’s bad, isn’t it?
Do I have a sickness? When I can’t fall asleep at night, I’ve got a system. My dad once told me to run through an elaborate, multi-stepped process—he sometimes pictures cleaning his muzzle-loading rifle—but the only thing that has ever worked for me is picturing a soccer ball skipping, bouncing, rolling along a pristine carpet of green grass. My favorite is a little chip from the former coach’s son, over a leaping defender, to the chest of a certain Texan, who slots a perfect diagonal ball to the foot of a certain small, sensitive, fast Californian who settles it with one touch before firing a low laser into the bottom corner. Sometimes, as I’m getting sleepy, it is not the Californian but me making the net billow, beautifully. Obviously it doesn’t make any sense but we’re not talking about sense here. I’ve never told anyone about this. I am a grown adult. I have a 401(k).
It goes like this: out there, in the world, are the games. From all of these games, played on those rectangles of flawless grass, come hundreds of little conduits, like threads of a spider web, from Germany and Italy and even from down the road in DC, and if you follow those conduits back, the conduits grow thicker and thicker, spanning mountains and diving under oceans and along bays and rivers until they meet somewhere outside of Baltimore, where they merge into one giant conduit. And then that conduit comes into my city, into my block, onto my apartment, where I sit, nervous, sipping cold coffee, watching. All of it seems just for me. There is the out there, where the games happen, and then there is the in here, where I am. They are two distinct worlds. There is no in-between.
The act of watching soccer, for me, is also the act of shutting everything else out
Ideally, there are no viewing parties. Ideally, there are no bars. Ideally, I watch alone. When Michael Bradley, bald head flashing, marauded through the penalty area to knock in the tying goal against Slovenia, I was sitting in the corner of my apartment, clenched, suddenly unclenched, ecstatic, screaming, alone. When Brek Shea scored the Gold Cup winner against Panama, I lay sprawled on my couch, half-awake, watching a pirated internet feed while I was supposed to be catching up on work. And I was alone. When Michael Orozco bumped in the winner at that friendly at Azteca, I was pacing the apartment, carrying around the laptop, very alone. I wouldn’t call it fun, this intersection of soccer and me. Rather, it is a duty, something from which I cannot turn, ninety-minute chunks of my quiet life that are made loud not by noise, but by a furious internal screaming that sounds like the steady tightening, with a wrench, of a big nut.
I’ve tried it the other way. I’ve watched in bars, but the beer loosens me too much. Who made that beautiful long pass? How did that guy for the other team get one-on-one with our goalie? It is impossible to properly keep track. There is, after all, somebody talking and I’m expected to say something back. I’ve watched with friends, in other living rooms, on other television sets, but there is food to be ordered, there are the conversations, and I cannot properly watch. Even in here, with my television screen, my laptop, there is the possibility of distraction, of, in short, life, and so I plug into the headphones, I plug into the screen, into the big conduit. The act of watching soccer, for me, is also the act of shutting everything else out.
For those stretches of ninety minutes, I am a selfish person
The fact is: I am not fun to be around when there’s a game on. I do not like to talk. I do not like to be talked to. In fact, I would much prefer it if you were in the other room, or in another apartment, or on another block. Please don’t text me. Please don’t call me. Please don’t do anything. Whatever it is, it can wait. Please. I realize that, for those stretches of ninety minutes, I am a selfish person.
Or for longer than ninety minutes. Because not only have I got the game to watch, but I’ve got a lot to read. Before the game, there are the previews, the strategy discussions, the injury updates, the announcements of the lineups. During the game, there are running commentaries, Twitter feeds, live chats. And afterwards is the feast: game stories, player grades, photos that I could click through for whole minutes if the US lost, hours if they won. I don’t want to talk about it. I only want to absorb, while sitting on my couch. I am one set of eyeballs, one set of ears, one ultra-sensitive receptor plugged into that thick conduit.
I see the photos of masses of flag-waving fans, crowded into parks or huge bars, watching big games on big screens, and I don’t know how they do it. They look happy, surrounded by family, friends, fellow fans. They’re all wearing the same colors. They’re waving flags, or they’re clinking glasses, or they’re throwing beer on each other, or they are, to a person, holding their heads in their hands. It looks like fun, or at least, if not fun, a perfectly fine way to share a game. They say they enjoy it. And I believe them, in the way you believe someone who says he enjoys doing math. I hear it, and I suppose it’s true, but the notion is so foreign to me as to be calculus.
And so, a cup of cold coffee perched on the armrest, here I am, players lining up for the pre-game photos, the lineups on the screen, a six-pack in my fridge, cold but untouched. Somehow, inexplicably, on the outside, the world keeps on clicking forward. Though the windows are closed, I hear a police helicopter chugging overhead. Still, cabbies honk on Calvert Street. Still, somewhere, it’s true, a dog barks. Two dogs. A hundred dogs. As the players take their spots—I see we’re in a 4-4-2, no surprise there—I wonder: these people, they have something else to do? It strikes me as stupendous, unbelievable. I feel as if my ears may begin to emit smoke. Someone, outside, laughs. Two people laugh. The feed switches to a crowd shot. There are plastic cups of beer. There are crazy, colorful wigs bouncing as the fans themselves bounce, and I wonder: those fans in the stadium, they’re having fun? Thirty yards from where they sit the game is about to start, and they’re enjoying themselves? They’re smiling? It is incredible.
The referee in the bright-yellow shirt, hair slicked back and shiny, checks his wristwatch. He points toward one goalie, and then the other. I sit up straighter, the long muscles in my back suddenly tight. The referee puts his whistle to his lips. I take a sip of coffee. It is bad. I take another sip. It is still bad. My hands clench. I am all closed fist, tight jaw, eyes as wide as they can go. I hope, but I fear. I can’t help it. I can’t help any of it. Please, please, please. The referee blows the whistle.