I knew I was an addict when I was 14 years old.
It was 1998. I had just returned to the United States from a month-long invitational soccer camp in St. Jean de Luz, France, run by former French national team manager Jean-Michel Larqué. Two days earlier, Zinedine Zidane’s France had beaten Ronaldo’s Brazil to win the World Cup – on their home soil. In the aftermath following the final whistle, the entire country went crazy.
Businesses that should have been open were closed, throngs of people filled the streets bedecked with French flags, air horns and similar fanfare. Highways were backed up with traffic as people who were listening to the match on the radio literally left their cars to celebrate with their countrymen. Cafés, restaurants, bars – or any venue with a television – were showing the Final, and when the French won there was an audible roar that swept through every big city and small town. Crowds of people, young and old, spilled into the streets joining thousands of others. Strangers before, perhaps, but no longer. The scenes of pure, unbridled joy were in a word: breathtaking.
For a while, I thought I would never know that feeling. To be honest, at that age I had not yet developed a fervent support for any soccer team, national or club. Sure, I’d been to a few Metrostars matches (when they still played in Giants Stadium at the Meadowlands), but I simply had not invested myself emotionally in the success or failure of any club enough to be living and dying with every win or loss. Now, I wanted to and needed to so immediately upon arriving back in America, I set about doing exactly that.
Despite Major League Soccer garnering relatively favorable support in the first two years of its existence, many fans of the game (myself included) had turned their attention to the professional leagues in Europe. Renowned for their talented players, many of whom had just featured in the 1998 World Cup, some teams had been in existence for almost 100 years – maybe even longer. More impressive still was each country’s particular hierarchy of leagues. Over time, separate leagues had been developed to accommodate the amount of clubs and each club’s respective level of talent. Operating in a promotion or relegation system, teams could be elevated or demoted based on their overall performance from the season’s beginning until its end. The same system exists today and while this is a very cursory explanation of how European soccer leagues are structured, it was rather intriguing as a 14-year old who had just been introduced to the concept.