Bend it like Berkeley

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Less than a minute into the USA-Ghana match, and a small earthquake had already hit Pappy’s Grill.

As Clint Dempsey dribbled past John Boye and shot into the far corner to give the USA a 1-0 lead, a hundred people began to scream, throwing half-empty cups toward the ceiling. I was enveloped in a bear hug by the stranger next to me as chants of “U-S-A!” began to flood the floor. Once the euphoria dissipated, I noticed a row of despondent patrons with their heads in their hands. It was only then that I realized that a group of Ghanaian fans had been sitting in front of me for the past half hour.

This was my first time experiencing the World Cup in college, a community that’s home to a concentrated group of international students, some who live and breathe the sport. I watched each match surrounded by an eclectic group of people with different national allegiances and varying levels of dedication to the game. It’s difficult to resist the excitement of the World Cup when it permeates a college town so thoroughly. Just like I’m unable to miss even one snap of the Super Bowl, my eyes were glued to the TV, unwilling to look away for a moment.

I have no valid explanation for why I didn’t fall in love with the beautiful game earlier. I’ve watched each World Cup for as long as I can remember, and most of the Saturdays growing up began with my soccer-loving dad scrimmaging with a group of friends at a nearby field. But none of these memories gave me a sudden and inexplicable appreciation for soccer. I could hardly expect this year’s World Cup to be any different than the last three.

Imagine my surprise when I found myself waking up at obscene hours to watch matches involving teams whose names I could barely pronounce — I’m looking at you, Bosnia and Herzegovina — and methodically looking for biographies of the U.S. national team. The drastic difference between now and four years ago was how immersed I became in the international culture of college, where it became clear that the World Cup occupied the minds of nearly every Berkeley student in July. It’s obvious from the sudden influx of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo jerseys and from the crescendo of different languages everywhere you turned.

Americans are accused of being the quintessential bandwagoners, only giving a damn about soccer every four summers. How many really knew who Tim Howard was or overreacted to Landon Donovan being left off the roster by virtue of Donovan being the only name we could recognize? There’s a dichotomy between how frequently most Americans disregard soccer and how frequently we’re unwilling to admit it.

It’s bizarre that the United States, where sport is such a significant part of the country’s infrastructure, has been unable to embrace soccer despite decades of opportunity. It’s difficult to understand why so many of us have adopted a casual indifference to a sport that is a crucial piece of the global framework.

Will I begin to follow Major League Soccer now that the World Cup has concluded? My year is already divided into the acronymic four seasons: MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL. But maybe I’ll begin to set my sights on the Premier League or start giving association football the attention it deserves. I can’t predict how long my love affair with soccer will last, but it may never have begun had I not watched the World Cup in a place that thrives off of its diversity.

Contact Michelle Lee at [email protected].

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