or the first time in my life I followed a World Cup tournament, watching close to a dozen games. Having not associated with professional soccer since I was a soccer card collecting youth in England, I was not familiar with what the sport is really like nowadays. Here is what I learned.
Soccer players celebrate as a team
Did you see Italy after winning the World Cup? The entire team gathered together on the field and sang and chanted and danced and linked arms over shoulders in a circle and celebrated together. Not a few of them, not half of them, all of them. And all the coaches too. Everyone celebrated together. As a team. When was the last time you saw an NFL super-bowl winning team celebrate together as one family, as a true team? How about an NBA championship team?
Michael Jordan, an athlete who has always been credited with making his teammates better, who has been praised as the ultimate teammate ... what is his most iconic celebratory image? It's him standing on top of the scorer's table, by himself, yelling, holding up 2 fingers, pumping his fist, alone. MJ, the ultimate teammate, upon winning his second championship his first instinct was not to join his teammates for a celebratory song and dance, but to jump on to a table and place himself squarely in the spotlight.
Only the ball matters
The ball is out of bounds only when the ball is out of bounds. Players can step out of bounds and still kick it. Unlike football or basketball, where a player out of bounds who touches the ball makes the ball out of bounds.
Good sports (sometimes)
There are no timeouts in soccer. When a player is injured, it is good form to kick the ball out of bounds to stop play. The team who did not kick the ball out gains possession of the ball and they will send the ball to the other team's goalie, so that the original team can have the ball back. If that's not good sportsmanship, I don't know what is.
On the other hand, Zidane's boneheaded head-butt in the second overtime period of the championship game epitomized the anti-good-sport.
Goalies don't matter
Goalies have surprisingly little effect on the outcome of a game. Unlike hockey, where the goaltender is constantly blocking shots and a team can ride a hot goalie to the Stanley Cup, the soccer keeper is called upon to handle very few shots on goal. And in penalty kicking situations, you might as well not have a goalie at all, for all the good they do.
If you thought Vlade Divac was the biggest flopper in sporting history, you've never watched a soccer game. Flopping is as essential a skill as running, dribbling or striking. I mean, these guys trip over blades of grass, fall down, clutch their knees, get carried off on stretchers, and then return to the game at full speed seconds later. In the final match between Italy and France, France's only goal came off a penalty kick which was awarded for the elite execution of a flop. Replays show he was not fouled. For that matter, he was not even touched by an opposing player at all.
Just like in every other sport, the referees stink. They make horrible calls, they miss important calls, they just plain suck. It's the universal standard of all sport. The refs, judges, whatever, must always suck.
Soccer is still pretty boring
The harsh truth is that 95% of a soccer game is boring. The good news is that in soccer a 90 minute game actually lasts 90 minutes. So it's a much more efficient waste of time than say an NBA game where only the 4th quarter means anything, but it takes 2 hours before you get to it.
I'm sorry, soccer lovers, it's simply not possible for me to get excited about a really great soccer move that results in the player getting the ball stolen a few seconds later. It's like Jerry Rice grabbing an amazing one-handed acrobatic triple flipping catch ... and landing out of bounds. Whoopee. Soccer is the perfect SportsCenter sport, because you can watch two minutes of highlights and see everything important that happened in the game. A five minute highlight package must be impossible to assemble.
I had the most fun when watching parts of the games in public at a favorite burger joint. People would pop in and out, catch the game for a few minutes, ask you who you're rooting for. It just felt communal, everyone seemed aware of who was playing who and when. And like baseball, soccer offers plenty of talk time, you don't have to keep your eye on the game 100% of the time. In 2010 I believe I'll try to watch more games out in public. Watch England play in an English pub, watch Italy play in an Italian restaurant ... I'll become one with my international brethren.