After religiously following the last three World Cups, I must admit that even a week before this year’s tournament I couldn’t have been less interested. The United States was out and, apparently, so was I. Honestly, this wasn’t a sentiment I expected, but I also hadn’t expected the US men’s team to be absent. The one big driving force for American viewership was gone, and so were all the watch parties, crammed bars, blocked off streets, and goal celebrations.
Every time I thought about the World Cup, it felt like there was something missing for me. So there I was, a week before Russia was slated to open the cup against Saudi Arabia in front of a home crowd, thinking—meh, maybe I’ll catch the final.
For some context, I’m not just the average American whose only interest in soccer manifest every four years. I’ve been an ardent supporter of a lower league English team (Queens Park Rangers), and I absolutely love everything about large international sporting events such as the Summer and Winter Olympics and both men’s and women’s World Cups, so it was a surprise to me that I didn’t care. I didn’t know what other countries were there, which groups were drawn, when the game would be played, or even the exact date of the opening match. Even thinking about it now, I’m disappointed in myself, because this has so far been the most entertaining World Cup I can remember.
Despite being so unenthused, I couldn’t resist for one major reason; narrative.
For the average neutral fan of any sport, narrative is everything, and this World Cup has been overflowing with it. Of course, we all love the beauty of the game, dissecting tactics and analyzing the statistics, but that’s never been what the World Cup is about.
Nobody watches international soccer because they’re going to see the best play. It’s a bunch of guys who only play with each other a handful of times every year. It’s not going to look like Real Madrid versus Barcelona. The World Cup isn’t even entirely about supporting your own country. There are far more than 32 countries and it is somehow still the most-watched sporting event on the planet.
Why did it get me hooked? Narrative.
For me it started out small, literally. Reyka Vodka started running ads for the Iceland national team, which I didn’t even know was in the World Cup. I know it has been covered to death, but let’s address it one last time since they were eliminated. Iceland’s population is close to .01% of the United States’ population! There are more people where I am writing from here in Indianapolis than in all of Iceland. I don’t care who you are rooting for, that is incredible. I found out Iceland were in and, just like that, a small part of me was in too.
From there I started checking the games two days out only to realize Portugal and Spain were playing each other in the opening round. How was I so stupid to keep myself from knowing this? Who doesn’t want to watch the current European champions with the second-best player in the world play their next-door neighbors, biggest rivals, and 2010 World Cup champions? It was a must see, so I checked the start times, and of course I was working during all of the weekday games. Just like that, now I was frustrated because I couldn’t watch a match in World Cup.
There were early reports that Telemundo Deportes was beating FOX Sports when it came to number of viewers for the World Cup. Part of this leads me to believe that is because, like me, many English-speaking Americans have no team and are disinterested whereas there are several Central and South American teams participating, and Hispanic populations in the United States tend to care more about soccer in general. But, there is also another variable here. Telemundo Deportes is livestreaming every game for FREE. This is something I found out as a coworker was huddled over his phone during lunch, watching Russia destroy Saudi Arabia.
Even better, the first two rounds of games have lined up perfectly so that they are ending right as we go on break, go to lunch, and get home from work. Mind you, I work in construction, so imagine several construction workers from different trades wearing construction yellow, huddled around each other watching the World Cup. That was not what I was expecting. Even guys that don’t like soccer have started to get into it.
So now every day at work when we aren’t watching, we’re listening or following the World Cup in some way, asking for updates as we pass, speculating about who will make it and who won’t. We are all drawn in by the narrative.
Suddenly, I didn’t even care that the US wasn’t in it. Actually, I may enjoy the World Cup as a whole even more since we aren’t because I can finally enjoy the other games unbridled in a way I couldn’t when I was putting all my energy into my team. I have watched almost every game so far, and that is something I don’t usually do until after the United States gets eliminated.
This World Cup has already been excellent. There have been eighteen games so far where a goal has been scored after the 85th minute! Several of those have been in the final matches of group play, and ended up deciding which team would advance. Not only did Korea refuse to give in after being eliminated, they decided they were going to drag current World Cup Champions Germany down with them in the most thrilling way, scoring two goals after 90 minutes. There have been high scoring games, great goals, drama over VAR, and only one 0-0 match so far.
So many stories, so much narrative.
Funnily enough, this seems like the World Cup that would be most appealing to the average soccer-hating American.
I would say it’s too bad that the US aren’t in it, but the last thing we needed is for our trainwreck of a national team to bring everything down. Regroup boys and come in strong for the next cup, this one is doing just fine without you.
As we get into the knockout round of the tournament, things are about to get really interesting. Tensions are high and alot is on the line for some of the biggest names in the sport. I correctly predicted the winners of the last two World Cups, and while I’ve guessed Brazil for this one, I honestly don’t have a clue what will happen.
I do know that I feel sorry for any other American fans who fell into the same trap as I did, and if you are reading this now and haven’t been paying attention to what has been going on in Russia, do yourself a favor and watch as many games as you can before it’s over. You won’t regret it.
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