When I was in the second grade, maybe 8 years old, that beautiful age when you finally start to formulate your own thoughts, my grade-school class would spend two days a week at a period entitled, simply, “Library.”
You probably had something similar. Most kids did. At Nall Hills Elementary, we spent those Library periods learning about the Dewey Decimal system, how to navigate the card catalogue (what an effing waste of time) and checking out books (think Goosebumps, the Berenstain Bears chapter books or the Illustrated Classics… Three Musketeers!!!).
For me, though, I spent nearly every minute of Library class in the sports section: One wall dedicated just to sports titles. For an 8-year-old kid, this was about the coolest thing in the world. I remember checking out a 200-page, hardbound book about the history of basketball. It was old and faded, big and yellow… and it told me that John Wooden was nicknamed the Indiana Rubberman when he was schoolboy legend in the Hoosier State. I can remember checking out a book called “Baseball’s Greatest Games” — a perfect little introduction to men like Kirk Gibson and Carlton Fisk and Harvey Haddix. And here’s the coolest part: I can remember that our little elementary school library had a series of books chronicling the history of every single MLB and NFL franchise.
Looking back, it wasn’t so much that I wanted to read. Reading was cool, I suppose. But that wasn’t the point. The point was to learn shit. And I always wanted to learn shit*.
*In hindsight, this is probably why I still find myself sucked into 30-minute Wikipedia binges, where I bounce from site to site, topic to topic, link to link.
It was simply a relentless pursuit of sports knowledge. I memorized every World Series Champion dating back to 1972; every NBA champion dating back to 1980; and every Super Bowl Champion back to 1985. Again, looking back, it was three personality traits coming together: My intense love of sports; my innate nerdiness; and my ever-so-mild case of OCD.
When I was in the second grade, maybe 8 years old, that beautiful age where you can finally start to play actual team sports, I played on this premier soccer club called the Express.
I was a lumbering defender, a little husky, a little slow. My height had come early — I was generally the tallest kid in my class — and so had my coordination. On the basketball floor, I was one of the first to be able to hit a three-pointer or convert a left-handed layup with the proper form. On the baseball diamond, I was an umpire’s best friend — an 8-year-old who could throw strikes and keep a game moving along.
But none of those gifts translated much to the soccer field. Sure, I could pull off a mean “Maradona” move, where you touch the ball with your left foot and spin over it with your right. But I could never win a footrace, and I could only cover so much acreage on the vast pitch. Soccer, well, it just wasn’t my sport.
So I played long enough to enjoy a few orange slices at halftime — and a few pops after the game — but pretty soon, my soccer career was over. And my interests were soon diverted to basketball and baseball — the sports I read about in Library class.
It was June 9, 2006, and the World Cup was beginning inside Allianz Arena in Munich, Germany. By tradition, the Germans, the host team, would commence the tournament with an opening match against Costa Rica.
This was history. The Germans had never hosted the competition as a unified country (West Germany had played host in 1974) and a newly minted stadium (the one that looked like a giant glass pillow) was bubbling with anticipation.
In the sixth minute, a 22-year-old fullback named Philipp Lahm pushed forward and found himself with the ball near left corner of the box. A moment later, he would cut in on his right foot, a defender slipping to the ground, before curling a majestic strike from distance. The ball seemed to hang in the air, spinning and waiting, waiting and spinning … before finally tucking itself just inside the right post.
Back in Kansas City, sometime before noon, I sat on my couch as some German named Lahm christened the world’s greatest tournament with an otherworldly goal. I didn’t know that Lahm would soon be one of the game’s best defenders, or that he played for Bayern Munich, or that a Golden Generation of German players would soon lead German football to a beautiful football renaissance.
I just knew that Lahm’s goal was fucking world class.
Somewhere along the line, my relationship with soccer began to change. I watched the 2006 World Cup. … YouTube came along, offering up an endless flood of ridiculously cool soccer clips. … The Internet shrunk the distance to Old Trafford or Camp Nou or Craven Cottage. And I began to read.
And for once, following soccer was not unlike reading a book about the 1977 ALCS or Michael Jordan’s baseball journey. I began to study the history, the traditions, the culture. I read Franklin Foer’s ridiculously great, “How Soccer Explains The World.” And I kept watching.
In eight days, the Euro 2012 football tournament will begin in Poland and the Ukraine, the second-biggest soccer tournament in the world filling stadiums in the old Soviet bloc.
There’s something beautiful about a world-class soccer tournament. The World Cup comes only once every four years — as does the European Championships. And the tournaments always come with a touch of geopolitical intrigue, on-field drama, and loads of wondergoals for your YouTubing pleasure.
Nearly 18 years after leaving soccer behind, I want to watch a young Turkish-German named Mesut Ozil (photo above) thread passes to another young German named Thomas Muller. I want hear stories about the German teams from the past, about all the players that suited up for Die Mannschaft — perhaps the coolest team nickname in sports. (Translation: “The Team”).
I want to study the Dutch team, a squad from a country of just 17 million, a group of skilled players who excel at their brand of attacking football: fast and physical and orange. In 2006, I watched a young left-footed striker named Robin van Persie unleash one of the most powerful free-kick goals I’ve ever seen — an absolute cracker that made the announcer lose his mind. Now, six years later, van Persie is one of the greatest goal-scorers in the world (37 goals in all competitions this past season). Can he lead the Netherlands to a trophy after it came up just short against Spain in 2010?
Oh, yes. Spain. The defending champions. Four years ago, as I was finishing up school, I would watch much of Euro 2008 at my friends’ apartment in Lawrence. Spain would go on to win that tournament, behind the brilliant play of Fernando Torres, David Villa and a young Andres Iniesta. But in the middle of it all, was this small Spaniard, the one the announcers kept referring to as “Little Xavi”. I didn’t know who Xavi was then. To me, he was just a smallish midfielder with some quickness and foot skills. And then, in the next three years, he would become one of the best three players in the world, a passing maestro who has helped redefine a style of play: Tiki-taka.
So, yes. In eight days, the world’s second greatest soccer tournament will begin. I will wake up early in the morning, maybe around 7 or 8 a.m., and maybe the tournament will already be on. In the next moment, I will fire up the coffee pot, turn on the television and begin to watch the opening match between Poland and Greece. And you know what? I know nothing about Poland or Greece.