In order to boost the popularity of soccer stateside, there have been several recent attempts by major broadcasters, bloggers, and just your average fan on the street to shed light on the sport. While FOX showed its first set of live Premier League games on the free-to-air network last year as well as broadcasting the final day across its family of networks, the Free Beer Movement uses social media and a blog to encourage current fans to convert others.
While I didn’t have to buy someone a beer to get him or her to watch a match, in the spirit of blending camaraderie and brews, I spent Saturday watching the first set of the Group of Death matches at this year’s Euros — Netherlands versus Denmark, Germany against Portugal — at a local Irish pub with a native Irishman and his friend.
The optimal viewing experience would have been to attend during Sunday’s Ireland against Croatia match (considering the result, probably the better for not going), but three neutrals holed up in a bar on a sunny afternoon made me realize there’s nowhere I would rather have been.
Amidst Guinness, Stella Artois, and Newcastle Brown Ale, soccer was strategized and cultures contrasted. We lamented the missed chances by the Dutch’s Robin Van Persie while trying to decide if Arjen Robben is a choker. We made fun of Cristiano Ronaldo’s magically-in-place, greased up mane and wondered if Saturday’s victory is the start of Die Mannschaft’s blitzkrieg on this tournament.
For a fan of soccer who has no friends that share his love, Saturday was a little slice of heaven. I was finally able to talk strategy with someone who not only understood it but could argue with me. I could talk trash about Mario Balotelli and take bets on what minute Pepe would get his first yellow card. But after joking about wives, American culture, beer, and soccer, I came away with two very important gems that made this more than just a day spent with new friends:
Getting not only a European, but historical, perspective of the teams and an understanding of the weight of expectations, I realized this is the second most important tournament behind the World Cup. And I actually felt a little bad for the teams that will inevitably be shown the exit door in a couple of weeks.
Secondly, I got a cultural perspective.
Upon hearing my friend say that when Ireland plays he won’t drink because he needs his full concentration, I was floored — I had watched Team USA begin their World Cup Qualifying the night before while cooking dinner. Perhaps maybe even more for Ireland, due to their failure to qualify for major tournaments, this one means a lot. His apprehension about the next day was palpable. But he swore he would be seated in the same spot come Sunday afternoon, watching the game unfold.
Comparing this passion with his statement that America should be commended for its place in the world rankings, I came away with mixed feelings.
I thought, “We’re America! We always have great athletes and a renowned will to win. Why can’t we bring home the World Cup?” Then he pointed out that our system for culling talent doesn’t compare with most other major soccer countries while the sport languishes behind the “big three” of football, basketball and baseball.
I realized that we need high expectations, but until the sport grows, we won’t be able to make the next step. We don’t have the passion, countrywide, that Ireland does. We won’t pack bars to watch our country play in a continental tournament (in fact, it’s highlights package is usually one of the last items to be shown on ESPN’s SportsCenter) and we won’t stop our lives to travel and watch them play.
But, as two strangers sat down opposite us, unfamiliar with the tournament, our conversation made them curious. We gave the lay of the land about the Euros and the Group of Death. We shared some basics of the teams and their strategy. And wouldn’t you know it, by the time Mario Gomez headed Germany into the lead, they were standing up and clapping just like we were.
And on days like Saturday, I realized that soccer can make it here. And I’m glad to be able to share the love with anyone, no matter if they are American or not.