I hate sports. And I’m not talking your run-of-the-mill “football is too violent” or “I just don’t get baseball” hate.
I’m talking terror-inducing phobia.
I was a puffy, overly serious kid and sports were a daily reminder that I sucked. I got hit in the face with basketballs (how is it possible for one kid to get hit in the face with a basketball so many times?) and faked a stomachache every “soak ‘em Friday.” Team captains groaned in frustration when they were forced to choose me for anything.
One time in middle school I accidentally caught an interception during touch football and I was so happy I started crying.
I didn’t get on the bandwagon when hipsters started ironically playing kickball. My friends once got me all the way to the tryouts, but I never left my car I was so paralyzed by humiliating memories. That was like two years ago.
I don’t even like soccer – a game known (at least in Seattle) to attract overly serious people that hate sports. I’ve been criticized for this, especially as someone who has traveled and worked in some soccer-loving regions of the world.
“How can you hate the ‘world’s game’?” someone recently asked “Aren’t you all about ‘global connections’ and stuff.” But to me, it was just another sport full of preening jocks and fan boys – with the added repellence that it seems a little bit snotty.
I have long suspected that I was in the wrong about soccer, but couldn’t work up the interest to correct my misimpression. That is until I found out that an El Clásico (a match between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona—two of the most beloved teams in the world) was playing at Cafe Presse on Capitol Hill last Saturday. And while I dislike most “snotty” things (see comment above) I love French food, so I figured this was my chance.
“People will be watching that game around the world,” said Laurent Dubois, author of “Soccer Empire,” editor of Soccer Politics and professor at Duke University as he prepared me for the enormity of the experience. “You’re watching that game with people in Haiti.”
As I walked into the sun-flooded café on Saturday, Dubois’ words came back to me. Spanish, Italian and Arabic were just the languages I could recognize among the diverse and international crowd.
Squished between a table of Real Madrid fans from Spain and my Barcelona-loving friend Cat I had a moment of panic. Soccer games are 90 minutes long and I didn’t understand anything that was happening on the fuzzy green rectangle dotted with tiny running bodies.
Dubois encouraged me to ignore the rules of the game my first time around – to try and appreciate the aesthetics and theater of the game first.
“A soccer match will include great athleticism and technique but also gestures that are beautiful but not necessarily productive,” he said.
Cat agreed with Dubois and tutored me in the finer points of tiki-taka (the subtle art of ball passing down the field), diving (the hilarious art of pretending that you’ve been gravely injured) and the types of underwear worn by Barcelona players.
My sports-hating and overly serious self dug the international scene and emphasis on theater over scoring (and my puffy self loved the brioche with rhubarb jam). But I wasn’t a total convert until I set eyes on Lionel Andrés Messi or “Messi” of Barcelona.
With his goofy smile, slightly crooked eyes and a 5’7” frame, Messi is the opposite of preening jock. Despite his physique and demeanor Messi – who Cat informs me was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency as a kid and who Laurent aptly describes “as looking pretty much like an accountant,” – is considered one of the greatest athletes in the world.
“Democracy in body type and size is a lot of what makes soccer relatable,” says Laurent. “You don’t have to be tall or buff – some of the greatest soccer players have weird gaits and walk strange, it allows them to confuse other players.”
With that I was sold, convinced that soccer is what it claims to be – a sport for the masses. Here’s a game that can be played by kids with no sports equipment beyond a coconut husk (or a tight bundle of plastic bags lashed together with string, as I once saw in Ethiopia). A game that brings hipsters and new immigrants together over daytime beers on a Saturday. A game that has room for the scrappy and the physically imperfect.
Dubois says that the Pacific Northwest is becoming known as the “heartland” of American soccer. He links this enthusiasm to our growing international community and our global orientation (ports, business, immigration, etc.), but also to a deep-seated feeling that Northwesterners are “outsiders” to American culture.
My hatred of sports has always been rooted in rejection: you don’t want me? Fine, I hate you too.
But Messi was a funny-looking kid. And squinting into the one childhood snapshot of Messi that I could find, I saw a little bit of myself (those teeth! that bowl cut!). So maybe soccer does have room for me?
Where to watch Soccer in Seattle:
Auto Battery on Capitol Hill regularly shows games and gets a great turnout for Sounders games.
The George & Dragon is a classic British soccer pub in Fremont.
The Station on Beacon Hill airs European and Latin-american games (and you might even get the owner to translate the Spanish-language announcers for you).
St. Andrew’s Bar and Grill on Aurora near Greenlake serves up weekly matches with a side of scotch and haggis
Fado’s Irish Pub on 1st Avenue downwton shows several matches a week.
And my personal favorite Café Presse on Capitol Hill.
Chime in if we missed any!