Soccer: How did this happen?

I’m finally going to sit down this weekend and watch Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain play their historic Champions League match of last week. Huh?

That’s right: Somehow, I’ve come to care about this league, and La Liga, and (of course) the Premier League and even a little bit of the Bundesliga (a sidebar: if you ever wonder about the implications of re-arming Germany, watch a Bundesliga rival match or two. It’ll reaffirm your support for NATO).

I’ve had a vague interest in soccer for some time, but I think it was the ’94 World Cup here in America that first focused my attention. I’d be playing music in a bar in, say, Adams Morgan when a bunch of Danish people in soccer jerseys would suddenly show up, singing that earwormy “Ole!” song and obviously having the time of their lives. All of the attention caused me to watch a few of the matches, and even suffer through the achingly grinding (and dull) final that ended in a scoreless draw and was decided by penalty kicks.

After that, I glommed on a little to the nascent MLS, even though it meant going to games in horrible-even-then RFK Stadium. World Cups came and went and I became resigned to the fact that I was watching a sport where Ghana fielded a better national team than the USA. But my interest was very casual at best.

Then came 2010, when England played the US in the group round. That was the first time I saw Wayne Rooney, who looked exactly what I imagined an English soccer *fan* looked like, and it turned out that he was one of the best players in the world. But that didn’t stop the US from earning a 1-1 draw on a ridiculous, soft goal that still angers the English.

And then I discovered the Premier League. It aired on Saturday and Sunday mornings, a time when I could watch sports without ignoring my wife, and I was pulled into it bit by bit. I discovered the Champions League and then the various European national leagues through that route, and that was that.

In 2014, I sat in a bar with Chinatown with a bunch of coworkers while Tim Howard put on a performance for the ages for the USA in the World Cup. Unfortunately, his teammates weren’t up for the task, and they got beat by Belgium in the knockout round of the World Cup, and that only felt a little better than getting beaten by Ghana. But one of those coworkers is a multinational citizen and grew up in Europe. He looked around the bar and said, “I can’t believe people here are this excited about a soccer match!” I knew how he felt.

Rooney’s career is fading in England but Harry Kane has come along; he looks like he stepped right out of prep school and into a Spurs uniform but his brilliance is undeniable. Still, I rarely go to DC United games because RFK is even more of a dump these days; I half-expect a section of the seats, so long abused from decades of being shaken up and down, to collapse in some horrific accident. That’s likely to be the most interesting thing to happen there until the new stadium is completed, given the team’s modest aspirations and even more modest budget.

But the MLS is coming right along overall; it has some fan bases now that would make some European teams proud, and some great facilities. It’s getting away from using washed-up European players in attempt to gin up casual interest, instead pulling up exciting players from this hemisphere who might otherwise be playing in, say, an obscure Central American league. I predict it will compete for the world’s best players within my sporting lifetime.

I still watch soccer on weekend mornings, but with Premier League games available on demand on NBC sports, I increasingly watch it whenever I want. And when a match like PSG-Barca comes along, I know what it means. That’s not something I ever would have predicted.


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