It happened to me.
After a lifetime of indifference, I have squandered the summer watching grown men chase after a ball.
A professor of American literature, I do all the predictable things such people do: during the academic year I read, teach, and grade papers, and during the summer I read, write, research (and sometimes teach). My 14-year-old daughter, Maya, and 12-year-old son, Cyrus, know this about me. Cyrus, who loves soccer, long ago resigned himself to the fact that though his mother will show up dutifully at his games, she understands little and cares less about sports. He has even grown up without cable, without ESPN.
Long ago and far away, there was cricket. But even while my dignified father’s face transformed into a barometer indicating how Pakistan was doing in some International Test Series, my own contribution to the national fervor did not get beyond fleeting crushes on individual players.
But this Californian summer, while countries played in the World Cup tournament’s group stage, I sat through three matches a day for five days straight, and the only thing that tore me away from the TV was a drive down to San Diego to get my mother and aunt, who were visiting from Pakistan. After they left, I missed only one match in order to ferry Maya to her writing workshop, reminding myself to keep sight of parental priorities. I have not been altogether irresponsible: I did inform the editors of the anthology for which I’m writing a scholarly piece that they would have my revised essay when the World Cup was over.
In the two days between the Round of 16 and quarter-finals, when no matches were scheduled, I became a model of efficiency. I ran errands and made appointments, thinking deeply and carefully so as to avoid collision with the upcoming quarter-finals. When Maya’s summer high-school course began, I contrived to carpool in ways that would allow me to watch the semi-finals uninterrupted.
How did this happen?
One could point to the addictive nature of sports. Or chalk it up to a middle-age identity crisis. The need to fill the void my father’s death has left behind. Or to my philosophy that life is only as interesting as the degree of interest you take in it. Why not take interest when we had invested in cable for the express purpose of watching the matches? After all, Cyrus had just qualified for a competitive soccer team.
And yet. None of these explanations accounts for the intensity, the passion, the intellectual preoccupation that the World Cup became for me. Even before the tournament began, I fell in love with the Brazuca ball, handmade by gifted, underpaid rural women in Pakistan. There’s something about that arc, about the ball’s trajectory from the painstaking hands of these anonymous women to the cleats and clout of Messi, Robben and Ronaldo. I’ve seen images of these women—heads covered, eyes focused, and slender brown hands holding a ball that will be kicked around by millionaires in stadiums throughout Brazil, the world watching but not thinking of them. There’s a lesson there in gender, race and economics; a lesson in global inequities, yes, but also in global interdependencies.
Mostly my thoughts center on smaller things: I’m awed by the World Cup’s power to evoke strong, conflicting emotions in me and challenge what I thought I knew about myself. I, who bristle at nationalism, have savored the amusing manifestations of nationalist sentiment in the stadiums. More, I’m deeply stirred by the anthems preceding the game. My sympathies bewilder me: I start out supporting Belgium in honor of my husband and children’s ancestry, but the moment the Algerian players press their foreheads to the turf in a grateful post-goal sijda, my father’s face flashes before me and I root for the Desert Foxes instead. Indeed, I discover that all my loyalties are alarmingly fluid. I cheer for Portugal against Germany, the U.S. against Portugal. I support the Americas over Europe because colonial history hovers palpably over the field—unless, irony of ironies, the European country in question is England, where I spent my childhood.
And then there’s the existential dimension to the World Cup. I know nothing about the Iranian team but am crushed at its elimination from the tournament—and Australia’s, Ghana’s, Chile’s, and Costa Rica’s—because in the end no amount of energy, brilliance and dedication could save them. I learn that soccer is about as fair as life, that shooting stars take all. And sometimes the shooting stars fall to earth with a thud: Neymar with a fractured vertebra, Jozy Altidore pulling a hamstring. There are also shocking examples of the moral frailty of human beings on the field: deliberate head butts, punches and bites by grown men for the glory of winning. Sneakier strategies—a dive here, a foul there—to see what one can get away with because referees are fallible, and even indisputable replays have no power to rewrite the wrongs. What is done cannot be undone.
Nothing prepared me, however, for the tournament’s spectacles of defeat. One team’s victory depends upon another’s loss. An obvious fact; don’t all our privileges come at somebody else’s cost? Yet I didn’t expect to see that social dynamic played out so nakedly on the field. To be routing for Brazil against Colombia in the quarter-finals but stop short of celebrating at the sight of James Rodriguez in tears. Then to be moved by Brazil’s David Luiz comforting him, urging the crowd to acknowledge the Colombian star, exchanging shirts.
2010 champion Spain’s early defeat by the Netherlands seemed harsh until we witnessed Brazil’s unraveling at Germany’s hands in the semi-final. I’m still processing this one—not tactically or technically (because I lack that sort of knowledge), but emotionally. The shock of five goals within 18 minutes was reflected in the horrified faces of fans throughout the stadium, who experienced the relentless pummeling viscerally. Children covering their eyes, sobbing, as their idols crumbled around them. By the apocalyptic 7-1 end, it was David Luiz’s turn to cry, to beg his nation’s forgiveness for having humbled them in so appalling a spectacle. For me, much of the heart went out of the World Cup after that. Three days later, Brazil’s well-deserved loss to the Netherlands in the third-place match sealed the sadness, silencing any possible narrative of redemption.
The day of the final between Germany and Argentina was the first time our family had ever invited friends over to watch a sports event. I waited to see where my loyalties would emerge, content with Germany’s eventual victory.
It was all over by 3 p.m. Pacific.
Since then I have returned to reading, writing and teaching matters. To being the person I know myself to be. And when the FIFA World Cup happens again in 2018, Cyrus will be a junior in high school and Maya about to take flight for college. Family life as we know it will come to an end as the tournament ends. As all things must.
But this year, for once Santa will not have to hear my rants about the commercialization of Christmas. If he’s any good at his job, he’ll know to come down my chimney bearing a bonafide Brazuca ball.