By the time I was 15, I knew almost nothing about soccer.
I knew what it was just as much as any person who has been through an elementary school physical education class. You put some people on a field with a ball and they kick it around until they get it past the goalie and into this huge net. Arms weren’t allowed, but any other part of your body was fair game. Oh, and there was something about using the inside of your foot rather than the point of your toe to kick the ball, but that always felt weird so I still kicked with the latter. That was the extent of my knowledge.
So in the summer of 2006, as the world gathered to watch the FIFA World Cup in Germany, I was clueless.
At the same time as the group stages were ending, my family was preparing for a weekend trip to Marco Island, Florida. We’d been going to the same Marriott on the same island for the same Cuban-American Certified Public Accountants Association conference every summer since I can remember, and I was looking forward to playing in the pool with my college-bound brother while my dad maintained his CPA certification.
As we pulled into the Marco Island Marriott, I noticed a lot of people were wearing strange, brightly-colored T-shirts, a far cry from the palm tree-covered ocean resort attire I was used to seeing on the vacationers. They all had names and numbers on the back, similar to jerseys, but they didn’t look like any sports jersey I’d ever seen.
A few minutes later, as my parents were standing in line for check in, my brother walked across the hall to the hotel bar. I didn’t notice he was gone until I heard a collective “Oh!” followed by sigh. I turned around and saw my brother standing by the bar surrounded by a sea of people wearing those T-shirt jerseys. They were all captivated by the TV. Tuned to ESPN, the hotel bar was showing 24/7 coverage of the World Cup.
I joined my brother and turned to the TV just as France scored its second goal against Togo. The bar erupted in cheers, its patrons jumping out of couches and high-fiving their neighbors. I was confused when the man standing next to me jumped up, hugged both my brother and me and started screaming. I’d never seen people get so excited about watching a game, and I couldn’t help but smile and hug this strange man back.
Needless to say, I hadn’t the foggiest idea as to what was happening. I just saw players running around, a ball flying across opposite ends of the field and heard the humming of fans singing soccer chants.
My parents had to bribe me with chocolate chip cookies from the front desk before I left that hotel bar, but as soon as we reached our room on the fifth floor, I lunged for the remote and flipped to ESPN. Despite the complaints of hunger from my parents, I wouldn’t leave the hotel room until the 15 minutes left in the second half were over.
A hug from a stranger and jumping up and down screaming with my brother was all it took for me to fall in love with soccer. I was captivated by the fans. Each game was like experiencing the whole spectrum of human emotions condensed into a span of 90 minutes.
The way fans chanted for their teams throughout the whole game was mesmerizing. I’d never seen a crowd devote such loyalty and hope to a team even if they were down by three goals in the 80th minute. From my experience on a varsity basketball team that only won two games in its history, I knew how easy it was for the crowd to lose hope when their team was being demolished. The way soccer fans cheered for a team as little-known as Togo seemed magical to me.
Each shot on goal would elicit such a gasp of excitement from the stadium only to be followed by screams of “no!” or a sighing “aw…” when it bounced off the goal post. But the best part was watching a passive crowd turn into a volcano of joy when a ball slipped past the outstretched arms of a goalie into the back of the net.
It was hard not to get caught up in the craze. Being a soccer spectator was an intricate dance, and I couldn’t resist the pure adrenaline of screaming until my vocal cords shredded or jumping into the arms of a complete stranger just because Spain scored on a penalty kick.
For the rest of my stay at the Marco Island Marriott, I spent less time trying to stay afloat in the deep end of the pool and more time sitting on the hotel bar couches, cheering alongside complete strangers and watching the World Cup unfold.
After the World Cup ended, I was sad to see soccer wasn’t exactly on the list of things Americans wanted to watch, but I eventually found channels like GolTV and Fox Sports En Español that were happy to show South American fútbol all day long. And so ended my 15-year drought of all things soccer.