While on vacation in Florida three weeks ago, I had a chance to see something awesome.
After returning from the beach, my family and I went to a restaurant called Harry’s Sports Bar and Grill. Do you know that place you always wanted to have as a kid, a joint that sold steaks and burgers and was covered with TVs and sports memorabilia? That was this place. There were TVs in every booth, on every wall and even two in the floor. You read that right: In the floor.
The day we happened to go, the U.S. men’s soccer team was playing Belgium in their round of 16 match-up. The place was full to the brim so my parents asked me to go in and call them when a table was available. While the rest of my family didn’t get to participate in the events that followed, I did and they were some of the best from our vacation.
I don’t consider myself a diehard soccer fan. I grew up playing like every other kid and then switched to another sport just like every other kid, but I’ve been getting back into it, watching the 2010 World Cup and covering the Waynesburg University men’s soccer team for the paper and broadcasting the sport for the county’s sports radio station. It has a faster pace in college and the scoring is more prominent, making it more of a hockey contest on grass minus the sticks rather than a boring afternoon on fine-cut grass like another sport we all know. It’s grown on me a bit and I followed the World Cup and my favorite team, Germany, as best I could around my work schedule. Germany, if you didn’t know, won it all for their fourth World Cup title in their World Cup-record eighth finals appearance and I would hope you’ve heard of the team’s thrashing of favorite Brazil 7-1 in the semifinals, which has already been called one of the biggest upsets and greatest matches in World Cup history.
I missed the first half of the U.S. game because we were at the beach but came into Harry’s Sports Bar and Grill at around the 70th minute. The whole place was in an uproar, a crazed crowd limited only by their body’s ability to digest alcohol and the laws of gravity. All were at the edge of their seat with the mounting trepidation rising inside each of them, goalkeeper Tim Howard continuing to impersonate a Secret Service agent as he stopped shot after shot from reaching the holy twine on his way to one of the best goalkeeper performances in World Cup history. The oohs and ahhs echoed through the place, broadening the bounds of the acoustics.
My family does not understand the religion of soccer. They do not understand how soccer can transcend past the field of play into such a commitment. They are not the only ones. I’ve met plenty of people who feel the same way. America is a country that soccer has failed to ensnare despite the prophets who visit the land such as Landon Donovan, Mia Hamm, David Beckham, Abby Wambach and Clint Dempsey. Legends like Michael Jordan and Kareem, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays, and Joe Montana and Barry Sanders are praised throughout all 50 states and continue to live as enduring legacies in the hearts of both young and old as the names of soccer stars disappear from our memories like the last blockbuster that didn’t bust anything but the producers’ wallets. All of these stars will leave this world one day but will never be forgotten, for their names are already engraved in the American books of history. A soccer player has yet to accomplish this feat. Aside from Pele, the greatest futbol player of all time to the sport’s most loyal subjects, many Americans cannot name you another competitor in the sport. Whether that will ever change or not is to be determined.
What is factual is the religion of soccer is gaining new followers every day here, especially come every fourth summer. To grasp the full gravity of it, you cannot view it. You must be a part of it. Like more established and more worthy religions, watching church on TV and going to it are two entirely different experiences and to try to compare the two is not only unorthodox but unfair. Observing a sporting event on TV avoids commitment, especially when you are viewing it by yourself, but watching with a crowd of people offers the fan experience and atmospheric tinge we all look for.
That day I got to be a part of that in a way I’d never been a part of a sporting event before. Everyone is huddled together, eyes glued to the screen. All employee obligations are void and any plans you may have made for the afternoon and evening are postponed. Everyone shouts at the screen, yelling the number of the open player, some his name. They frantically point at him as if their finger’s direction affects the whereabouts of the ball. Any uneventful passing is met by fan analysis of the last couple minutes, all negotiating with each other what needs to be done to tip the scales in the United States’ favor, only to have someone point at the screen again and yell something inaudible that draws the attention of the fans and reenergizes the mass. This is what the religion of soccer does. Strangers are now friends and sports commentary compatriots.
The people in Harry’s Sports Bar and Grill that day turned into a people, the persons into a person. White became black, black became white. Republicans and democrats, rich and poor, convicts and priests, We All watched that game. What the game of soccer did was bring a group of people of various backgrounds, races and social statuses and united them as one people with one goal: to win. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else affected that goal.
In a country where our politicians constantly squabble and fail to compromise in favor of the greater good, where our social order continues to weigh more partial to one side, where racism and non-acceptance continues to hamper a country that goes by the mantra “land of the free”, we were for once, as our founding fathers put it, We the People.
In that raucous abode, We All felt that game.
We All watched that game.
We All bore the sting of that first goal against us.
We All bit the bitterness of the second.
We All thought we tasted redemption after the first of our own.
We All shook our heads in defeat and disbelief.
We All only lasted a few hours that day because after the game’s conclusion, the crowd dispersed, becoming individuals and returning to their lives rather than remaining a camaraderie. There I remained, not only because it was time to eat, but because I still wanted We All. I think we all want that unity with our friends, with our family, with our people, with the people, but some of the things that make us us, like the stack in our wallets, the church we go to or the party we affiliate ourselves with get in the way of that. To become We All you don’t have to be less of yourself, you only have to be more of us. Don’t brag how much you make and don’t judge others for not believing what you believe. We All is a belief and an ideal that can be known and popularized by many things but for now it is popularized by one thing. That one thing involves a ball and two teams of 11 people on a pitch. That one thing is soccer and if you take the time to look at it with others, you’ll see just how much it’s capable of.