Soccer: More than just a game
How my experience covering the World Cup from Europe changed my perspective on the world’s sport.
Sitting on the shoulders of a fellow reporter, I was a couple heads above a crowd of people who were all staring intently at a video screen above my head. I was somehow holding three cameras – a Nikon DSLR, a GoPro, and an iPhone, which was balanced between my lips as I tried to capture a moment of longing in the crowd’s eyes with the other two cameras.
The score was 2-1, and there were mere minutes left in the soccer match between Belgium and Algeria.
As I was lowered to the ground, I looked around. From infants to old men, I had just bore witness to an entire human life cycle through thousands of people, watching, waiting. The Belgian fans were practically holding their collective breath, silently praying for the other team not to score before Belgium’s first 2014 World Cup match ended. I caught looks of anger, looks of desperation, looks of boredom, and more as I slowly shot my way around the front perimeter of the gathering.
The final whistle sounded, and the thousands of Belgian fans who had gathered outside of the King Baudouin Stadium erupted in cheers. Beer sloshed through the air and blanketed the shoulders of hundreds of patriotic citizens and visitors who had gathered at this public viewing in Brussels. I did my best to run through the crowd, holding the tiny silver GoPro camera above my head as I witnessed hugs, tears, screams and laughter. Celebratory music started playing though the loudspeakers at the front of the viewing area, and a baby was held up and swung back and forth, like a pendulum moving to the beat.
I have been in large crowds, both on other peoples’ shoulders and running by myself through them, but until I witnessed Belgium beat Algeria in their opening game of the 2014 World Cup, I hadn’t experienced the emotion that comes with such an occurrence. Having grown up in a music and arts-centered family rather than a sports-oriented family, I hadn’t ever felt the nationalism that is showcased when the world’s best compete for a little golden trophy. I watch the olympics every four years, but this was different. I was there, in the crowd. I was part of the experience, and yet we were still thousands of miles away.
The World Cup is a showcase of one sport, and though it isn’t as important to many teams with their own leagues (think Europe), it is the only time that the entire world gets together to watch soccer – or, as they call it across the pond, football, which brings me to the entire point of writing this: I just spent two weeks running around Europe, photographing live public viewings of World Cup matches and touring some of the top training facilities in the world. In about two weeks, I traveled to four different countries (The Netherlands, France, Belgium and Germany). I learned about the sport of football, and I learned about the training methods. I witnessed firsthand the amount of pride an entire crowd of people can have for a few guys who kick a ball into a net, and I have learned to appreciate soccer as more than just a game…because it is more than just a game. It can be everything from a pastime to a lifestyle; fans can be completely invested in the sport or are visitors looking for something cultural to experience.
The elite training facilities that I was able to visit, from FC Köln in Germany to Ajax in Holland, all offered something different to the world’s sport – through facilities, coaching practices, scouting, or the atmosphere of the country as a whole. The devotion of fans that showed up for public viewings in crowds of mere hundreds to more than 20,000 was unbelievable, and I am so grateful to have witnessed and participated in everything.
As a non-soccer fan, the fact that I even went on this trip could be considered odd. And, granted, it sort of was in the beginning. But I did, and this was one of the most life-changing, eye opening experiences I have had to date. I was forced completely out of my comfort zone in terms of not speaking any of the languages found in the four countries, reporting on a sport that I stopped playing a couple days after I started when I was about eight years old, and meeting a whole new set of colleagues in the airport on the way to Amsterdam, our first and last stop on this trip. I learned more than I probably ever needed to know about soccer coaching, and I made friends who will be a part of my life for quite some time to come. I even became a fan, though not decked out in any particular team’s colors, and invested a significant amount of emotion in this year’s World Cup.
Football is more than just a game. It is an international, public display of affection toward the hardworking individuals who spend a lifetime getting ready for a 90-minute showdown. It is an experience for everyone involved, from spectators, to players, to coaches. I didn’t sleep a lot, but I certainly ate, cheered and photographed my way through the National Soccer Coaches Association of America’s 2014 European Soccer Experience and would do it again in a heartbeat.