February 14, 2014
By Michael Lewis
A special Valentine to the most beautiful game
With Friday being Valentine's Day, my thoughts obviously turn to love.
We have many loves in our lives, whether it be our significant other, family, pets, friends and even sports.
Let's face it. I love soccer. I love the beautiful game. It will be forever in my blood.
I've tried to figure out why this game entrances me so. I believe I have part of the answer; the other part I'm still searching for.
It's about passion, enjoying a wonderful move, a marvelous goal. It's learning about history from the most unlikely of sources -- sports. It's meeting and interviewing some of the most influential people of our times. It's learning about this world up close and personal. Yeah, it is also about money.
Now, I'm not going to deceive you. One reason I love the sport is because it brings in an income (I am a fulltime soccer writer in the United States, which has to be an oxymoron). But my passion for the sport goes beyond just cold dollars and cents.
There is something about the sport that is as majestic as a ballet. It can be a crisp, beautiful cross-field pass from a visionary midfielder to a fast forward, or a striker living up to his or her position name by striking for a goal literally out of nowhere, or someone boldly attempting a well-timed and well-executed bicycle kick.
It doesn't matter if that bicycle kick isn't turned into a goal. I will applaud the beauty of the attempt.
Perhaps I am under a spell because of the fact that I never, in my meager attempts to play the game, ever got close to attempting what they play at the highest levels of amateur soccer in the U.S., let alone Major League Soccer or the English Premiership. And what's more, I never will.
Perhaps I am living vicariously through the Cristiano Ronaldos, Lionel Messis and Thierry Henrys of the world, who can do magic with the ball.
I must admit part of that passion is fueled from the fact I have gotten the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, from construction workers to doctors to attorneys (yeah, I noticed there are a few involved with American soccer). I am fortunate to have met and interviewed the likes of Pele, Sepp Blatter, Ibraim Silva -- who invited me to his apartment when he played for the Rochester Lancers to partake in some homemade Portuguese cuisine -- and a 12-year-old kid who organized a youth soccer tournament to raise money for cancer.
I am in love with soccer because it has given me an education about the world and history I wouldn't necessarily get if I covered pro football or baseball.
I learned about the Croatia-Serbia crisis a good decade before it dominated the front pages (thanks to the Toronto Metros-Croatia and the Serbian-dominated Lancers). I learned about how Russian Jews got out of the Soviet Union in the late 70s and early 80s thanks to Rochester Flash forward Mike Lashchev. I learned personal details about the war in Lebanon in 1979 thanks to Abel Bissar, a forward who traveled to the United States to tryout with a North American Soccer League team.
I learned firsthand from George Weah about the great hardships his people in Liberia had been forced to endure during a war in 1996. I witnessed the mass of humanity that celebrated France's unlikely World Cup triumph in 1998, which was the second largest outpouring of people and emotion on the Champs-Elysees since Liberation Day in 1944. I learned about Nazi labor camps from a U.S. college coach, San Francisco's Steve Negoesco, who wound up stuck in one some 60 years ago.
I also learned about how and why former Cuban international players wanted to defect to the U.S.
That's only the tip of the iceberg, but I think you get the picture.
Soccer also has afforded me an opportunity (again, an education) to see parts of the world I never dreamed of visiting first hand.
Let's see: I have been to Antofagasta, Chile, one of the driest spots on this planet, where water has to be pumped in. I have visited the slums of Guatemala City, where wide-eyed children extended their hands for money (how could you resist?) and Neza, a working class suburban city of millions just outside of Mexico City. I have been to Mexico City, which I saw for the first time only months after that horrendous earthquake in 1985, and to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, one of the most distressed economic spots on this planet.
I have visited Montserrat, parts of which devastated by a volcano; Costa Rica, whose beauty is partially defined by volcanoes (hopefully dormant) that ring its capital, San Jose; tiny Luxembourg, whose countryside is breathtaking; China, where there is an incredible dumpling restaurant in Shanghai; Cuba, well, I don't think I have to elaborate, and South Africa, getting the opportunity to see the Cape of Good Hope and Sowetto and to go on safari.
I have to admit that there also is something else about soccer that entrances me. I just can't put my finger on it. It is something elusive, something about the sport that is mysterious, just as a woman can be.
When I figure that out, you'll be the first to know.