Occasionally, I have a good friend who has something special and insightful to share with my readers. My long-time friend Nadya has been a soccer fan for years and, with World Cup semis upon us, figured it was a good time to share that love with you all.
My relationship with soccer began when I was five. I accompanied my dad to AYSO registration, where perhaps overwhelmed by my future soccer stardom, I loudly announced which jersey in particular I would be willing to make famous. Nevermind that AYSO in all its 1980s glory and simplicity required the reversible goldfish orange and white jerseys lacking number or any other identification. My first uniform was bottomed off with white cleats. This was well before most standard cleats were anything but black with white logos or lettering. Before a player’s boots were as flashy as his (or her) joga bonito moves.
I scored my first goal that season. It was neither beautiful nor sly, was not scored after an angle-defying center or launched with incredible strength from thirty yards out (I don’t think our field even measured thirty yards). And it certainly wasn’t due to the marshmallow shoes. But it was enough to propel me into a thirteen-year monogamous relationship that was as tumultuous as it was rewarding and lovely. I ended the formal dimension of the relationship when I left for college where I found a new football to enjoy, though only from the sidelines and often with mistaken notions of rules and misidentification of team mascots. My first love was very hard to forget and even harder to not deeply miss, especially every four years when nations around the globe would meet on the grand month-long stage of the World Cup and my affection and nostalgia returned with fervor. My old love and I would rendezvous with renewed passion.
This summer is no different, the tryst taking place in my tiny home in Albuquerque and thousands of miles away in South Africa. It’s equally comfortable and new, much like celebrating the anniversary of any love. You revisit it with a reinvigorated commitment, remembering all the reasons why you loved so much, the qualities that first attracted you and the other reasons, usually quite different, that keep you there. It’s not that the love disappears in the interim, but like any familiar comfort, it gets displaced, relegated to the background for reality-checks when it seems the magic is gone.
And boy has the magic returned. In 2006 I supported La Furia Roja, the Spanish national team, and adore them again this year, even with their occasional mediocrity. (David Villa, I’ve reformed my stance on soul patches, please call me!) But I’m not a one-team woman (that’s not a Sapphic euphemism), certainly not when the competition is but every four years and each showing brings surprises.
I was rooting for the US, yet also jubilant with Ghana’s pass to the quarterfinals. I love them for their ambition and intensity and because they were the remaining African nation team after the group round, in a tournament played in Africa. It seemed only just that at least one African country have the opportunity to represent with the expected greats. I’ve jumped up and down on my couch, shouted technical advice, chided the dramatics of diving, clapped, cheered and nearly lost my voice, never so much (yet) as during the US-Slovenia and Ghana-Uruguay games, two important matches that have generated dialogue among the rest of the soccer-caring world about how flawed and in need of change is this great love of mine.
The honeymoon is not yet over, and I’ll continue to love soccer well past the echo of the vuvuzelas. But as much as I’m also frustrated with the erroneous arbitration, I’m more annoyed with the growing argument that soccer needs fancy technology and retroactive video review. As the Cup goes into its final rounds and refs continue to make calls that we, watching on television, can tell in a moment are grossly incorrect, the argument grows louder. It was especially vociferous after the US was denied not one but two goals, goals that were beautiful in their skill, drama, and validity. And the US wasn’t the only team to suffer at the hands of these imperfect humans. England/Germany and Mexico/Argentina also had their own shockingly questionable refereeing that one might argue altered the pre-ordained course of each game.
I could support the argument that video playback technology is counterintuitive because part of the purity of the game is human error. There’s also the valid stance that retroactive decisions made with video review during a game would alter the pace and flow of the sport.
Instead, I will state that I reject the idea of video technology because it damages the equality of play among communities. That equal playing field, so to speak, is at the heart of the game. Soccer is a world sport, and though invented as an organized game by the Brits, it is far and wide across the globe still a third-world sport. As such, soccer is a game that can be watched, learned, enjoyed and played "officially" even in the poorest of communities. Introducing expensive technology would divide the design of that game into one for the well-funded and one for the disadvantaged.
I'm not saying there can't be
evolution in soccer. I’m also not
blind to the reality that soccer has reached a commercialized level with even
Didier Drogba of the Ivory Coast earning ridiculous sums of money with multiple
endorsements. That Drogba, a
Goodwill Ambassador to his home nation, is known for donating his exorbitant
fees to sustainable development in the Ivory Coast ($4.5 million for building a
hospital) is perhaps telling of the social responsibility of and in soccer, even
among its wealthier players and supporters.
As the popularity of soccer maintains and grows (even here in the US), it will continue to become more and more commercialized—that is the marketing and marketable relationship between televised sports and status. With that comes conforming a sport to the inconsistent attention span of a first-world population accustomed to multi-tasking its focus between numerous advanced toys of technology. The argument for video technology in soccer is thus not merely an argument for fair play but one for modernizing soccer at the commercial level, enhancing it for first-world consumption and manageability. For an entity to endure it must evolve. But the fundamental quality of soccer as world-equal must also persist. Any changes made or technology added must be unilaterally beneficial and applicable. Soccer as a sport that transcends worldwide economic disparity cannot be bifurcated on the basis of economy. The kind of fair play we should focus on is that of maintaining the sport as the accessible, simple game it is.
One option suggested for better real-time arbitration is goal line refereeing: adding two refs behind the net to determine would-be or shouldn’t-be goals. Human technology is more easily employed and integrative the world over. It’s at the very least a step in the right direction, embracing both progress and equal opportunity.
In the meantime, I’m still duly devoted my love. This is perhaps the only part of my respect for soccer that functions retroactively. I’ll adore the game intensely until the last man leaves the field on July 11, and then I’ll refocus on my immediate reality once again, the affection still there but appreciated more in review.
But in 2014? Renewing vows in Rio.