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World Cup 2018 fever finds an unlikely patient

The last time I played soccer I was in ninth grade. I took a pass from a kid I’ll call Leon, who was the star athlete at our high school, and with the net wide open, I proceeded to kick the ball halfway to the nearest McDonald’s.

“You suck!” Leon yelled.

I never played again.

So you might be surprised that I am heavily into the World Cup. I am surprised myself. I am definitely not one of those people who lectures fellow Americans about how important soccer is in the rest of the world, and how we are just spoiled athletic luddites spinning around in a sugar high of junk sports, how if we only studied soccer, the real football, the beautiful game, we would see how poetic it was and how superior it was and what a metaphor for life it was and blah, blah, blah, puke.

To use a word Leon often used: bull. Americans aren’t soccer crazy for four good reasons: the NFL, the NBA, the NHL and Major League Baseball. These are four world-class leagues that no other country has and that chew up the calendar so completely that in October all four of them are going simultaneously. Who has time for Ronaldo when you can’t even watch LeBron, Brady, Trout or Ovechkin?

(And I’m not even mentioning college football or basketball, which are all but religion in certain parts of the country.)

So no, soccer is not a holy grail for me. It’s not a cause. Yet here I am, in front of the TV, watching three games a day. And I can’t pronounce half of the players’ names.

Root, root, root for… Iceland?

Why this latent interest in the World Cup? I’ve never even been to one. For all the sports I’ve covered in my life, I never tried to score credentials to this event, figuring four minutes of watching strangers kick a ball up a lawn was more than I could handle, let alone four weeks.

The closest I came was a visit to Brazil, when my hosts took me to a Saturday soccer match between two local teams. The stadium was packed. The fans were chanting before the game even started. As we walked to our seats, in the cacophony of people singing “Ole-ole-ole-ole!”, I saw a huge metal grate that went floor to ceiling between two sections.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It separates the rooting sides,” my host said. “So we don’t kill each other.”

Interesting, I thought. But still not a reason to watch the entire 90-minute game, let alone, as I find myself now doing, four to six hours of soccer a day.

I could chalk it up to what I call Olympics Hypnosis, which, once every four years, turns Americans into crazed experts on things like figure skating or gymnastics, sports we otherwise couldn’t find with a telescope. During the Olympics, you’ll find us arguing over our morning coffee, “What’s wrong with that German judge?” or “Did you see that triple Salchow? Oh my god!” We are passionate, if ill-informed, as we root, root, root for the gold.

But let’s be honest. We’re root, root, rooting for the home team. The Olympics captivate Americans because we like to win. We especially like to win against countries we don’t like. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But we can’t do that in this World Cup. Because America isn’t in it. Our team didn’t qualify. We crapped out during qualifying in October, with a final loss to — I’m not making this up — Trinidad and Tobago. (And don’t say “No fair! That’s two countries!” No, it isn’t and the total population of both islands is about the size of San Diego.)

So there’s no nationalism involved. My passport plays no part in my interest. Heck, I’m watching Nigeria play Iceland and I don’t even know how you get to Iceland. Go north, I guess.

A look into a different world

So what is it that has me taping 8 a.m. games and avoiding ESPN until I watch them? What is so fascinating about 32 teams playing in 11 Russian cities over four weeks, in matches that, admittedly, can end in a 0-0 tie?

Part of it, for me, feels like peeking in on the outside world. It’s a bit like going to an art house cinema and watching a French movie that made millions overseas, yet gets a week on screens over here. “So that’s what the fuss is about,” you tell yourself. You finally get it.

I recall, on many trips to Europe, being in small restaurants where the staff totally ignored us because they were focused on an old television hanging in the corner, with a fuzzy image of a big green patch and small bodies running up and down. “What is so damn interesting?” I would say to my colleagues.

And now I feel I know. You’re watching the world at war — with no bloodshed (unless you screw up for Colombia, but that’s a different column.) And it’s not just that the players wear their nation’s uniforms. It’s that they play with a style that you can almost identify with that country. Brazil moves the ball with gravity-defying passes, nearly joyous in their execution (much like a day on a Rio de Janeiro beach). Japan plays methodically. Costa Rica develops its attack slowly. England tries desperately yet often suffers bad fortune.

Considering that many players spend most of the year in other countries with club teams, the fact that they can get back together and resume a particular style suggests they grew up with it, the way American kids, no matter where they are, could pick up a football and throw a deep route.

So you get a peek at 32 approaches to the same game. I like that. There are also certain undeniable joys to the TV watching experience that slam dunk the NFL or NBA parallel.

For example, once a World Cup game begins, you never break away until halftime. Not a single Chevy truck or Budweiser Clydesdale.  You actually feel like you have a seat at a sporting event, not an audience testing room for commercials. And the clock runs. No timeouts. (Compare that to the last two minutes of a college basketball game, which can take a week.)

In two hours, the game is over. Always. Who doesn’t like that?

It’s true, there is a lot of whining. Soccer players like to go down with the slightest push and make a face like someone is removing their wisdom teeth through their eardrums. But honestly, have you watched LeBron James anytime a whistle doesn’t go his way?  It’s the same face. The same arguing with the refs. As long as the clock keeps going, who cares?

All I know is, I’m enjoying this tournament, half a world away, more than I ever thought I would. Maybe it’s the time of year. Maybe it’s that the Tigers are Detroit’s only team going, and they’re just…going. Maybe I’m getting older and appreciating anything that seems new.

Or maybe I’m just flashing back. But when I see a Croatian player take a pass and have a free shot at the goal, and he kicks it a mile high over the net, I want to find Leon, wherever he is, and say, “Oh, yeah? What about that?”

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

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