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A Mommy Gamer’s Guide to the World Cup

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I love watching soccer.

I didn’t play it growing up, or see it being played much. But in 1997, when the formation of a Chicago-based Major League Soccer team was announced, my then-boyfriend (now my ex-husband) was very excited because he’d been gone to Chicago Sting games (part of the NASL) with his father as a child. We attended the very first Chicago Fire game at Soldier Field, on April 4, 1998. Soccer has been my favorite sport ever since. And every four years, my life revolves around a slightly bigger event: the FIFA World Cup.

There’s a reason they call soccer “the beautiful game.” Unlike our messy, stop-and-start American games, full of arbitrary rules and athletes so specialized as to appear abnormal, there’s something pure and amazing about soccer. Now, I’m not saying that soccer is perfect, or that there are no issues with fans, players, referees, clubs, leagues, countries. Of course there are. Just look at FIFA’s (the Fédération Internationale de Football Association) decision-making on which countries should be awarded World Cups. There might even be more politics than in any other sport, because soccer has such a rich, scrappy, strange, long-lived, sometimes unbelievable history around the world. I wouldn’t dare even try to touch on this legacy, because I couldn’t do it justice without a thoroughly researched 1,800-page thesis.

There are two reasons that I love soccer. One is the game. I can’t remember from year to year what the players’ names are, which country won the Cup in 1998, or what Landon Donovan was doing then. I have a terrible memory for statistics. But watching a soccer game – there’s nothing like it. The scores may be low, but this is a case in which numbers don’t reflect the quality of the experience. A 0-0 tie, like the one Brazil and Mexico just had, can be the most exciting game of all.

If you read about soccer, you’ll find any number of reasons why soccer is considered beautiful. It’s a simple game. Anyone can play it as long as they have a ball. There are no time-outs, and there is constant motion. The elite athletes have minimal equipment, and that means they can get really creative with what they do have – just a bit of synthetic leather, stitched together. In the most basic, unadulterated way soccer players must count on their speed, their agility, their strength, their smarts, and their teammates. It’s what sport is all about before the rules, the governing bodies, the fans, the hipsters, and the rest get to it. Artistry is born from this.

The other reason is that soccer connects us. And we women are all about connections. It connects in a way no other sport does because everyone knows soccer. Poor people, kids, women – folks of every color and religion and orientation from around the world play it. So do the wealthy David Beckhams of the world. Soccer is an even playing ground, where strife is forgotten and only the game matters. And soccer, especially at the World Cup level, is a hopeful sport. The richest and most powerful countries aren’t necessarily the most dominant – but their populations gather under one banner to cheer on national teams. And desire for their own teams to come out on top sometimes has fans rooting for unlikely allies. Soccer unites the world in some very tangible and profound ways.

Since this World Cup started, I’ve read numerous stupid articles about how women can get into the game or “survive” the period. Watch the boys, they’re so gorgeous (yes, they are, but that’s just icing on the cake). Learn the rules (duh!). Expect to be bored (really? That’s just idiotic). Expect your men to ignore you (who cares? Learn to love the sport yourself and ignore them instead). 

I’m here to say: forget all that really stupid advice. The best thing to do with the World Cup is just watch. Really watch. Pay attention, give it a chance. Enjoy. Even if you know nothing about the rules of the game or how match play works in the World Cup, soccer is beautiful. And that’s all there is to it.

You’ll learn as you go. You’ll get to know the players and the countries and their styles of play. But the thing is: soccer is not complicated. It’s not like American football, which makes no sense these days. In soccer, players run across a field and try to get a ball into a goal. The other team tries to stop them. Players have to stay in bounds and they can’t use their hands. They can’t charge/kick/trip/hit/hold/tackle each other, and an attacking player can’t be between a line of defenders and the goal (the offside rule, which you must know because it’s both necessary and controversial). All these infractions result in penalties that can give the other team the edge, which is why players “dive” (over-act when possibly fouled). End of story. That’s what you need to know.

I have one more concrete suggestion: the World Cup sticker book. Kids around the world collect World Cup stickers, and the book helps keep track of players, scores, teams, countries and more. My kid and I are putting stickers in the book together, and it’s a wonderful keepsake as well as a fun family activity.

I end with this year’s official World Cup 2014 jam:

And what the heck, I’m going to add the unofficial U.S. soccer anthem, Weezer’s “Represent,” because I LOVE this song:

I can’t think about anything but soccer lately. So thanks for indulging me!

About Helen A. Lee


Helen is a veteran writer with credits in The Learned Fangirl, Electronic Gaming Monthly, Gamespot.com, Chicago Tribune and nytimes.com, among others (if pressed, she may cop to writing instructional guides to pop star hair and interviewing "Desperate Housewives" stars). She's a huge geek and her son, age 11, looks to be following in her footsteps.