From the Archives: A Rattlesnake, Soccer and the American Way

Still trying to come to terms with a USA-less World Cup, I decided to look back to a piece I wrote before the 2006 edition. This sort of navel-gazing is rarely a good idea. The single best thing about writing is that you get better the older you get.  Few people go the other way. That said, four years on, I don’t think this was half bad.

A Rattlesnake, Soccer and the American Way

When the Angel of Death comes down after me, I’ll smile and say, “I grew up without ever playing a minute of sanctioned youth soccer,” and this will make me a very unique individual indeed. Currently, as with every Saturday, there is a mass of little legs magnetically following a ball in the park below my window. For the eight- and nine-year-old mosh pit down there this is supposed to be a game, some character will hopefully be built and it will all be mostly forgotten by the time they are teenagers. This is the American way.

But as with other suburban touchstones like recreational drug use and limo rides to prom, soccer was not a part of the western Nebraska public schools curriculum. (Save that stuff for the big-city bedroom communities. The Ralstons, Millards and Bellevues of the east.) No one I knew played sanctioned soccer.

Our few recess experiments with the world’s most popular sport took place on a hilly dirt field that was 90 yards wide and 250 yards long. The entire back line was one giant goal and oftentimes four goalkeepers were employed to supply adequate coverage while entire classes teamed up, 20 or 30 to a side, to pepper the four poor souls with shots. Give up a goal and the offending keeper had to immediately punt, or “sky-bomb” in the parlance of the times, the ball back to the opposition as punishment for his or her futility. It wasn’t soccer, it was war, and that is something we understood. This is the American way.

***

In 1993, a foreign exchange student/invader arrived from Sweden and bunked up with a classmates’ family. His name was Peter Saal, and learning of his European proclivity to kicking things, he was quickly named the starting place-kicker for the high school football team and went on to routinely shank extra points. Frustrated by his failure with the oblong ball, he decided to try to spread the soccer gospel in our rural community. In a lot adjacent to the junkyard, four goals were erected and we were instructed to arrive each Saturday to learn the game.

I went and juggled and dribbled with every one else, but the game never really took. As one of the few mustachioed seventh graders, I was quite accustomed to exerting the puberty-power afforded me in the traditional American sports. A new game and level playing field didn’t interest me. Dominance did. I went on to set a junior high football world record for touchdowns scored on tight end reverses and Peter Saal went home, dejectedly dribbling a ball from the Stockholm airport to his Scandinavian home.

***

Twelve years, three World Cups and approximately 4000 shaves later, I’m ready for this year’s tournament. I’m excited. I’m a hypocrite. Somewhere Peter Saal is smiling. He has finally won the upper-hand and it is all because of a rattlesnake.

Living for three years with a roommate who exclusively watched the Fox Soccer Channel, I started to learn a bit about the game. I now know that standings are printed in “tables” and teams wear “kits” not uniforms and Palermo’s “kits” are pink and they don’t seem to care. (For me, the perfect example of the Euro-exoticism and élan that started to draw me to soccer.)

But even a newcomer’s fascination and desire to learn couldn’t help me make heads or tails of a mid-season Bundesliga table. I needed a rooting interest. I needed a war, and the marketing minds at Nike were there to pick me up.

Drawing on the surprising performance of the U.S. in 2002, our current top-five world ranking and a bit of historical moxie, the people at Nike launched their “Don’t Tread on Me” campaign for the World Cup 06. They crafted a brilliant logo with a rattlesnake coiled around a soccer ball, based on the Gadsden Flag, and I bought in, literally.

This is soccer as resistance, as politics, as national pride and when does a modern-day, free-thinking American get the chance to celebrate any of that? The World Cup represents the American West circa-1850 and the moon circa-1960 all wrapped up in one. The unconquered, final frontier. I was too young for the Miracle on Ice, but I’ll definitely be there for, what I can only hope will be called, the Phenomenon on der Pferderennsport.

Or will I? It is one thing to feel like a snake, hissing and rattling, poised to strike and quite another to be one and avoid being stomped by the boots of Italy and the Czech Republic. While the U.S. is currently ranked fourth in the FIFA World Soccer Ratings, nobody is really buying it. According to The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup the U.S. is 100-1 to win the Cup, which gives us as good a chance to win as Serbia and Montenegro and a worse chance than the Ivory Coast in their first ever appearance. (Whose median age according to the CIA World Fact Book is 19.1. They’re kids!)

But pay reality no mind, the World Cup is less than three weeks away and that is plenty of time to get lost in our founding fathers’ revolutionary spirit. I’ve already done my part to support the effort by purchasing the “DOTM” hoodie, hat and t-shirt and when they release the “super limited stash” of jerseys I’ll buy that too. This is the American way.

Come June 12 I’ll be decked head to toe in our nation’s colors and I will assuredly look like a buffoon. But for the first time I’m going to be part of world’s greatest sporting event.

***

It is believed that Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1775 of the rattlesnake, “she never wounds ‘til she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.”

It seems unlikely that the mighty Czech Republic will heed such warning, but right now there is hope that an America united will be able to rise up and sink its fangs into the ultra-developed calves of its oppressors.

Join, or Die.

Originally appeared on FOXSports.com on 5.20.2006

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