It’s game day in August. No, I’m not talking about the NFL, which would typically be nearing the end of preseason. Neither am I all jacked up about the restart of the NHL Stanley Cup or NBA playoffs, especially after my hometown Pittsburgh Penguins failed to qualify, losing a five game series to the worst team in the bubble-centric format, the Montreal Canadians. Baseball? Nope. I’m talking about soccer (or futbol, to the diehards, but I’ll go with the Americanized “soccer” for this piece to avoid confusion with American football). I’m writing this as Bayern Munchen and Lyon play a UEFA Champions League semifinals match. With hockey and basketball dominating the primetime sports channels, I’m watching the Spanish-speaking broadcast, so I have no idea what they’re saying, but I don’t necessarily need to. Ah, the beautiful game.
Like everything else, the COVID-19 pandemic halted all sports for a time. But as the human race began to cope and adapt to the new socially distanced normalcy that the coronavirus brought, soccer became the first pro sport to return — first in Europe, then stateside, with the MLS is Back Tournament, which started July 8 and took place at Florida’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. And I can’t get enough.
Before I get all “Green Street Hooligans” here, my soccer experience and fandom up until this point is minimal at best. The height of my soccer playing “career” spanned those cherished years when Capri Suns and Dunkaroos were considered proper post-game nourishment. I don’t even remember which position I played back then, but I do remember we were the Raptors because dinosaurs were cool. I had delusions of grandeur of becoming the first Jurassic soccer player, as I spent a good three weeks walking everywhere on my tiptoes pretending to be Reptar and making dino noises. In preparation, I studied “The Land Before Time” because “Jurassic Park” gave me nightmares.
We also had an end-of-season banquet at McDonald’s where we were all ate a bunch of chicken nuggies and were rewarded trophies even though we didn’t win a game. In other words, a proper Millennial childhood.
My parents like to tell a story about my days on the pitch. I must have been tasked with playing defense, or maybe they threw me in goal, anyways I had no clue what to do, so I ran up on the ball like a baby Beckham. The official immediately stopped the game and walked me back to my proper place, where I proceeded to sit in the grass, pick at dandelions and pout until I got a juice box. Score.
The first half just ended with tournament favorite Bayern up 2-0, and I’m looking at what I wrote, asking myself why the hell I’m musing about my childhood athletic failures — but there’s no time to second guess it. The 15 minutes between halves goes fast and the action will start again soon.
Childhood obesity forced me to trade in my soccer shoes for American football cleats, which I wore through college. But as a fan of sports and competition in general I’d always get wrapped up in the World Cup, especially Italy’s 2006 championship and the United States women’s national team’s 2019 top finish. Pittsburgh has a team, too — the Riverhounds, now of the United Soccer League Championship — but I didn’t pay much attention to them growing up until I landed a catering job at the team’s new stadium on the city’s South Side. The passion of the Steel Army — the team’s supporter club — caught my attention more than anything. They were all having so much fun making a racket and chanting.
I dove into the Pittsburgh soccer scene even deeper when I picked up a freelance gig covering the city’s proper English soccer pub where all the footballers hung out. Piper’s Pub welcomed an eclectic mix of punk rockers and Mexican nationals, English expats and young hipsters with supporter scarves. As much as pints were central to the celebration, the early morning openings in showing English Premier League matches were just as raucous. After that magazine feature I had a different appreciation for the beautiful game. The endless motion. The skill. The nuance. The stamina. The crowd’s contagious energy. The civic pride.
Watching the MLS and Premier League matches recently made me a full-fledged soccer fan. I decided to throw my support behind the Wolverhampton Wanderers, also known as Wolves, which happens to be Robert Plant’s hometown club. I’ve even subscribed to the Birmingham (England) Mail’s daily Wolves email updates. The Wanderers were knocked out of the UEFA tournament by juggernaut Sevilla during the quarterfinals, 1-0, though the boys from England’s West Midlands gave the Spaniards a scare. The pesky play of Wolves had me on the edge of my seat for 90-plus minutes. I can’t wait for the club’s 2020-21 Premier League fixtures to be announced Thursday. The new season is set to kick off next month.
For now, I’m sitting by myself watching Bayern dominate play. The Bavarian side scored a third goal, and the broadcasters went wild. Soccer celebrations are so over the top, but if I had to run 10-plus miles a match I’d probably take my shirt off and hug everyone in sight, too, whenever I found the back of the net.
After three minutes of stoppage time, Bayern takes it 3-0. It’s the last semifinal match. The Sunday final will feature Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern. One more beautiful game.