Monday, July 7, 2014


A fellow Canadian once commented that he wasn't interested in following soccer.  Surprisingly he was fairly young, not surprisingly grew up in Canada with little international experience.  Is the rest of the world crazy?  Or are we the only ones who appreciate talent and beauty?

Canadians of my age generally have had little experience with soccer (in fact "football" means something else entirely different and we are much more familiar with it).  My son played soccer, because it was cheap, safe and convenient.  I became involved as a volunteer.  Most volunteers shared my limited experience, but inevitably we did encounter soccer enthusiasts, usually having grown up with the game in another country.

I watched several attempts to make soccer a major league sport, but until recently the progress seemed  tied to immigrants, most of who complained that it was much better in the old country.  The young kids are enthused and drag their parents (some of whom may have been involved with soccer themselves).  The grassroots is now a power to be reckoned with and still professional soccer in English speaking North America has not quite made it...yet.

It doesn't take much awareness to see that soccer is the big sport in the rest of the world.  Still even they seem to admit that without American approval they aren't given enough respect.  American success in the World Cup will inspire many more and elevate its status.  Only cable stations covered the U.S. tying Portugal in a very exciting game.  They bowed out against Belgium in a brave effort with little non sports network coverage.

Flopping (feigning injury to attract penalties against the opposition) turns off Canadians and Americans.  As the British might say, it isn't cricket.  Amateur sports were supposed to be played by "gentlemen" who above all believed in fair play.  Professionals and increasingly amateurs today are looking for an edge beyond athletic skills.  That might come out as cheating on the margins and includes trying to fool the ref.  When it works and you win, you are admired.  Personally I still admire fair play, but I like it when my favorite team wins.

In Hamilton there are a lot of immigrants from Italy and Portugal.  My neighborhood used to be predominantly Italian (including my wife's family) but now is much more Portuguese.  Whenever Italy or Portugal won a game you could hear horns honking almost everywhere.  My wife and I would often walk over to James St only a few blocks just to see the parade of cars with flags and joy.  One year one Portuguese shop sold barbecued sardines and I bought one and enjoyed it.  For years I had ignored all the Portuguese restaurants, but became interested after a visit to Vancouver.

Flags are on cars and houses.  Portuguese don't want to miss this opportunity to flaunt their heritage but also Italians let you know they still are a power.  I have noticed a few Germans, not normally flamboyant, but do have some proud connections. Although I have spotted others they aren't as common as in past years.

Unbelieveable,  Italy and Portugal went out during the round robin and generated very little horn honking.  In past years the Portuguese looking for a good excuse switched their loyalty to  the Brazilians, their colonial cousins and I  have seen a little evidence, but not as much as in the past.

The Columbia team dance routine after goals got my attention.  James Rodrigues made a spectacular  goal and I understand he had made four others.  The other team that really got my attention was Costa Rica.  When I read the group they were in they were very easy to dismiss, but they defeated Uruguay and Italy and tied England (admittedly already eliminated).  For a little nation they reached unexpected heights, but their talent and their luck weren't enough.

The biggest surprise was the early exit of Spain and Italy and England all teams that had won previous World Cups and were considered amongst the favourites.  There have been some great athletic accomplishments, Luis Suarez (before the biting incident, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar.  Lionel Messi, recognized as one of the world's best footballers put on a few good displays.

Before the tournament got started Brazil was heavily criticized internally by those who felt that huge amounts of money should have been spent on alleviating poverty.  From the outsiders there was question of competence and safety.  From what I have seen they have produced some impressive stadiums and filled them with boisterous fans.  It is likely tourism will be boosted for the next few years and it is naturally one of the world's most interesting tourist destinations.  Rio di Janeiro is considered one of the most fun cities in the world.  But there is a lot more to Brazil than Carnival time.  The Amazon is one of the most important rivers in the world and has many hidden and beautiful secrets.  The capital Brasilia is inland away from the famous beaches.

The pace of the World Cup is something to be admired.  For the first two weeks you get to see 32 of the top teams of the world play three games each.  It is possible to lose one of the three games and go on to win the the final game, but the squeezing has started.  After the round robin half of the teams are eliminated.  Most of these tournaments are dominated by teams from Europe and South America and each time it is suggested that African or Asian teams will break out, but I can't recall any that really have contended.  The tension really does mount for the knock out games, most of which are settled by no more than one goal and many go to extra time or a shoot out.

As this is being written we are down to four teams, Germany, Brazil, Argentina and the Netherlands.  They all have a long soccer history  and their current crop of players are worthy.  Predictions are precarious.  I do anticipate some close, probably low scoring games with a high degree of athleticism, but any game could be decided by millimeters.  It has been an enjoyable run (at least for me).

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