You may have noticed that I'm a passionate follower of the World Cup. I'm sometimes asked by people in Europe how I, an American, became such a fan and know so much about the tournament and the sport in general as Americans are not generally known for being so passionate about the game of soccer/football/calcio. I don't know how it happened, I've just always loved the sport I guess. So since the World Cup is currently underway, I thought it might be interesting to do a blog series looking back at my own personal history of the World Cup through the years, maybe it will help explain why I go completely batshit crazy for a month every four years.
The first time I remember ever hearing about the World Cup was in 1982. I had just turned 11 and although I grew up playing several sports, soccer was always my favorite. Not surprisingly it was also the one I was best at. Around that time, one of our public tv stations, Channel 11, used to show a German League ("Bundesliga") match every Sunday morning and I was glued to the screen just mesmorized by what those guys could do with a soccer ball. I'd spend every Sunday watching teams with names like Bayer Leverkusen and Eintracht Frankfurt and idolized players like Toni Schumacher and Rudi Voeller, often trying to mimic them in our Saturday morning games on dusty old Brickyard Field. Back then, Germany was all I knew about professional soccer because of channel 11 and also because my first coach, Bill Morris was a German guy and used to talk about them as the gold standard. In the summer of 1982 I was playing on a town traveling team and at one of our matches one of the fathers, Mike Kaberle, yelled across the field to another father the words that started it all for me:
"Italy just beat Germany to win the World Cup!"
I was shocked. I didn't really know what the World Cup was but I did know that there was some kind of big tournament going on because I'd heard Bill Morris talking about it. I had taken for granted that Germany would win of course because they were Germany after all. So the fact that there was a country out there who could actually beat them, wow, I couldn't believe it. There's a sizeable Italian population in Boston ("The North End") and I remember the nightly sportscast that night showing scenes of them dancing in the streets, waving flags, singing songs and just going nuts. We have a rich sports tradition in Boston and I grew up following the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins and had even seen the Celtics win a championship by that time but I'd never seen anything like that. At that moment, Italy, to me, became the magical land of soccer, a place where they ate pizza and spaghetti and played soccer day and night. I still liked Germany but in my mind, Italy had replaced them as king. It didn't matter that I knew none of their players or had never even seen them play; they'd beaten the powerful Germans.
Not long after, Channel 11 stopped showing Bundesliga matches. Back then there was no internet or cable which meant that places like Germany and Italy might as well have been on another planet. We had a "pro" league in the US, the NASL, but by the early 80's it was becoming a farce and was never shown on TV and anyway, the Boston team was so bad that I seem to remember them relocating to Jacksonville somewhere around that time. The US had not qualified for a World Cup since 1950 so there really was no national team to speak of. In fact the only US player I knew back then was Ricky Davis and that was only because he had been in a freaking soap commercial. Years later I would look back and wonder how different things would have been if I'd been born in a soccer-mad country and had world class players to grow up emulating. As it was I would have to wait 4 more years to be reminded that there was a whole different world of soccer outside of the Litchfield Youth Soccer League...
Up next: 1986.