By Michael Lewis
With Sunday being Valentine’s Day, my thoughts obviously turn to love.
We have many loves in our lives, whether it be our significant other, family, pets, friends and even sports.
Let’s face it. I love soccer. I love the beautiful game. It will be forever in my blood.
I’ve tried to figure out why this game entrances me so. I believe I have part of the answer; the other part I’m still searching for.
It’s about passion, enjoying a wonderful move, a marvelous goal, a memorable moment. It’s learning about history from the most unlikely of sources — sports. It’s meeting and interviewing some of the most influential people of our times. It’s learning about this world up close and personal.
There is something about the sport that is as majestic as a ballet. It can be a crisp, beautiful cross-field pass from a visionary midfielder to a fast forward, or a striker living up to his or her position name by striking for a goal literally out of nowhere, or someone boldly attempting a well-timed and well-executed bicycle kick.
It doesn’t matter if that bicycle kick isn’t turned into a goal. I will applaud the beauty of the attempt.
Perhaps I am under a spell because I never, in my meager attempts to play the game, ever got close to attempting what they play at the highest levels of amateur soccer in the U.S., let alone in Major League Soccer or the English Premier League. And what’s more, I never will.
Perhaps I am living vicariously through the Cristiano Ronaldos, Lionel Messis and David Villas of the world, who perform magic with the ball.
I must admit part of that passion is fueled from the fact I have gotten the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, from construction workers to doctors to attorneys (yeah, I noticed there are a few involved with American soccer). I am fortunate to have met and interviewed the likes of Pele, Landon Donovan, Bruce Arena, Ibraim Silva — who invited me to his apartment when he played for the Rochester Lancers to partake in some homemade Portuguese cuisine — and a 12-year-old who organized a youth soccer tournament to raise money for cancer in 1995.
I am in love with soccer because it has given me an education about the world and history I wouldn’t necessarily receive if I covered pro football or baseball.
I learned about the Croatian-Serbian crisis a good decade before it dominated the front pages (thanks to the Toronto Metros-Croatia and the Serbian-dominated Lancers in the seventies). I learned about how Russian Jews left the Soviet Union in the late 70s and early 80s thanks to Rochester Flash forward Mike Lashchev. I learned personal details about the war in Lebanon in 1979 thanks to Adel Bissar, a forward who traveled to the United States to tryout with the Lancers.
In 1987, the legendary Walter Bahr explained to me how he set up Joe Gaetjens’ historic goal on the very same field the United States upset England in the 1950 World Cup in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. I learned firsthand from George Weah about the great hardships his people in Liberia had been forced to endure during a war in 1996. I witnessed the mass of humanity that celebrated France’s unlikely World Cup triumph in 1998, which was the second largest outpouring of people and emotion on the Champs-Elysees since Liberation Day in 1944. I learned much more about Nazi labor camps from a U.S. college coach, San Francisco’s Steve Negoesco, who wound up stuck in one more than six decades ago.
I also have been fortunate to journey to Cuba three times and learned about how and why former Cuban international players wanted to defect to the U.S.
That’s only the tip of the iceberg, but I think you get the picture.
Soccer also has afforded me an opportunity (again, an education) to see parts of the world I never dreamed of visiting first hand.
Let’s see: I have been to Antofagasta, Chile, one of the driest spots on this planet, where water has to be pumped in. I have visited the slums of Guatemala City, where wide-eyed children extended their hands for money (how could you resist?) and Neza, a working class suburban city of millions just outside of Mexico City. I have been to Mexico City, which I saw for the devastation only months after that horrendous earthquake in 1985, and to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, one of the most distressed economic spots on this planet.
I have visited Montserrat, parts of which devastated by a volcano; Costa Rica, whose beauty is partially defined by volcanoes (hopefully dormant) that ring its capital, San Jose; tiny Luxembourg, whose countryside is breathtaking; China, where there is an incredible dumpling restaurant in Shanghai; Cuba, well, I don’t think I have to elaborate (hopefully, you will get an opportunity to visit that land someday), and South Africa, getting the opportunity to see the Cape of Good Hope and Soweto and to go on a photo safari.
I must admit that there also is something else about soccer that entrances me. I just can’t put my finger on it. It is something elusive, something about the sport that is mysterious.
When I figure that out, I’ll let you know.