Kicking and Screaming

Illustration by April Guzik

Soccer recently entered my world in the form of bright colored jerseys worn mostly by my cultural influences in Houston demanding that The Blonde Side take notice of one of the greatest, most powerful sports of all time. To find a collective group of athletes that could respectively take their shirts off and give 28 year-olds hot flashes is a laborious chore, unless of course you look at the anatomy of soccer players across the world. It gives new meaning to “The Beautiful Game”. Beautiful men using their beautiful legs to kick a beautiful ball around in well, a beautiful game.

To show my respect and sincere newfound loyalty for the sport and their diehard aficionados, I shall call it football and only football from here on out which is how the rest of world (read, everyone but the U.S.) refers to the grueling sport. I’ve also been warned that I’d be classified as a lifelong charlatan if I tried to speak keenly about the sport and continued to refer to it as soccer.

Soccer, I mean Football, has proven to be a common language among many cultures, especially those of lower income blue-collared families. Not to say football is only for poor folk, but all you need to kick a ball around is just that, a ball. You can play in the street, the yard, or a parking lot and it doesn’t require the typical sanctioned polo equipment one might buy from the neighborhood country club. The multiple rags to riches stories are nothing short of inspiring. Google Texas’s own, Clint “Deuce” Dempsey, who learned to kick the ball outside his East Texas trailer park in Nacogdoches with his immigrant friends and is now one of the most highly regarded international football players around.

Many countries hoist their flags in honor of the sport, not the other way around. It’s an unalienable right for many nations, but moreover a sense of pride to rest their nation’s loyalty. The athletes are in top physical condition and are paid by the boatloads; hence the reason the FIFA World Cup (Federation Internationale de Football Association) is a coveted must-see event. Like the Olympics, the World Cup happens every four years during the summer. Unlike the Olympics however, it isn’t an anticlimactic event, creating entertainment for reasons other than “look how small that gymnast is! I bet she doesn’t even have a period.” Men have been known (I can vouch for this) to set their alarm clocks for a 3am game just so they won’t miss a kick. And this is after the invention of DVR mind you. How many of you would wake up at 3am for the finale of ‘So You Think You Can Dance’?

The history of the World Cup began in 1930 where Uruguay beat Argentina at home (U.S. placed 3rd). A total of 18 tournaments have been held (if you do the math you’re missing a few, but that pesky World War presented a larger problem) with Brazil holding the most wins at five and are the only team to have played in all 18 tournaments. Current champion Italy beat France in 2006 and has won four titles with Germany winning three.

The world cup is a bracket style tournament similar to March Madness – the March Madness of the world on steroids, but similar nonetheless. The three years preceding the tournament are known as the qualification phase, which determines which of the powerhouses and underdogs will have a chance at the title. Over 204 nations tried to qualify for this year’s tournament, but the tournament involves only 32 teams, which are separated into eight groups of four (points are accumulated by wins: 3pts, ties: 1pt and losses: 0 pts). The top two teams in each group move forward in the tourney to the “Sweet 16” where the “madness” begins with one-game playoffs to the championship game.  This year’s matches will take place in beautiful venues all over South Africa.

Football is a game of exuberant passion played by fiery mortals. The 1950 World Cup took passion to a brutal suicidal extreme after the Brazilians who seemed to be the far and wide favorite lost to Uruguay and stunned the 200,000 in attendance. The Brazilian win was such a sure thing more than 500,000 shirts donning the inscription “Brazil Campeón 1950” had been pre-printed and SOLD, gold watches bought, and limousines reserved for the Brazilian champions.  Parties were prepared and newspapers had already laid out their celebratory front-pages.  The Brazilian national bank had even printed a commemorative coin with the triumph. After the loss, the Brazilian goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa was blamed for the goal for many years after. So much in fact, he was largely despised in all of Brazil, and in an interview in 2000 bitterly said, “The maximum punishment in Brazil is 30 years imprisonment, but I have been paying, for something I am not even responsible for, by now for 50 years.” The only story that rivals in similarity is Finkel and Einhorn’s “laces out”. On a much more serious note, Columbian footballer, Andres Escobar Saldarriaga was shot and killed in what is believed to be retribution for his own goal in the 1994 World Cup where he deflected the ball into his own net, and as a result losing to USA and eliminating Columbia in the first round. It is reported the convicted shooter, Humberto Castro shouted “Goal!” after firing each of the shots (mimicking South American commentators).

The game is a part of every nation’s history. If that alone doesn’t convince you to take interest, take solace in the fact that you’ll be following in the footsteps of over 715 million people who tuned in to watch the final match of the 2006 World Cup held in Germany (almost 10 times the number that watched the Super Bowl that year). If you’re slow to the draw and still don’t have an interest in the month of delicious manly mayhem, picture Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo (age 25, position forward, salary $18mil), the stud TMZ recently reported Kim Kardashian was in bedroom cahoots with. (Also linked to Paris Hilton, but my research didn’t indicate which sultry skank was the one with the sloppy seconds.) ‘Nuff said?

The host country (South Africa) starts off the tourny with the first game against our southern neighbors and football maniacs, Mexico. Don’t be surprised if you don’t get top knotch service at your local Mexican restaurant on June 11th. The opening match will be at the newly renovated Soccer City, the largest stadium in Africa with a capacity of more than 94,000 (no clue why it wasn’t named Football City since I thought the reference of soccer was a sin).

In case you still don’t want to watch the World Cup (note, being ostracized from a social life for well over a month), here’s a little tidbit for you to throw out to your sports friends to help you save face: Eight plastic water bottles go into making each jersey. The result is a shirt that is 13 percent lighter than previous uniforms. This year’s Cup will be the United States’ sixth consecutive finals appearance.

Researching the World Cup (and players of course), has given new meaning to the phrase “Kicking and Screaming”- athletes kicking the ball and me screaming for them to take their shirts off.

To learn about the 32 teams vying for the cup, visit Fox Sports ’32 Teams in 32 Days’.

Special thanks to Jose Perez and Vanity Fair’s ‘Fair Play’ blog for schooling me on the other football.