I think “Vision Quest” is a woefully under-rated movie. I also think it goes a long way toward explaining my unabashed love of soccer.
There’s a scene in the last half hour-ish of it involving a hotel room-service cook named Elmo. He’s explaining why he’s trading a night’s pay to watch from the gymnasium stands as his co-worker — a high-school wrestler named Louden Swain — challenges a seemingly unbeatable foe.
He tells Swain about the time he was watching “the Mexican channel on TV.”
He didn’t speak the commentators’ language. Still, he was transfixed by Brazilian soccer legend Pelé.
You’ve heard of Pelé, I hope. But Elmo knew “nothin'” about the player who would then score a seemingly super-human bicycle kick, rip his shirt off and run around the stadium waving it over his head, in jubliance.
“Everybody’s screaming in Spanish. I’m here sitting alone in my room, and I start crying,” Elmo says to Swain. “That’s right, I start crying. Because another human being, a species that I happen to belong to, could kick a ball, and lift himself, and the rest of us sad-assed human beings, up to a better place to be, if only for a minute.
“Let me tell ya, kid: It was pretty goddamned glorious.”
Elmo’s soliloquy speaks truth.
I haven’t wept or anything, but I’ve watched some soccer these past few years that brought tears to my eyes.
And that explains why I’m rather excited about this week.
Not only is it the World Cup, which rules in and of itself, but fortuitousness of timing is such that my four-year-old son is between the end of preschool and the start of summer camp. As such, I need to take off of work.
Put those circumstances together, a chance to watch a marvelous sporting expression of humanity with a son in his formative years, and it’s already lifted me up to a better place.
My fútbol bona fides
That scene, in which Pelé represents a globally unifying force, is what came to mind when a co-worker (who admittedly knows little-to-nothing about the beautiful game) asked me to write an essay in advance of the World Cup, which started on Thursday all across Brazil (as you might have heard).
The suggested topic: “How to properly indoctrinate your kid to be a soccer fan.”
The immediate response: Nah. I don’t indoctrinate anyone, let alone my own son, coincidentally also named Louden, who started playing in an East Falls youth league last fall as a 3-year-old. (Yes, I was one of his coaches because of course I was).
My soccerin’ started with an elementary school-age youth league and teenage travel teams in Haddon Township, NJ. (I reckon I fell into the almost above-average group. Did score in the South Jersey group semifinals, though.)
Along the way, there was a shattered left fibula and ankle (never really fully recovered) and a trip to Estadio Santiago Bernabéu to watch European powerhouse Real Madrid play a match while an exchange student at 16 or 17 (unforgettable).
I didn’t play in college or anything, but the appreciation of the game never, ever came close to escaping me.
The sport’s omnipresence
Before the information-age kicked in in full force, televised-soccer offerings were essentially limited to the World Cup every four years, at least the soccer you didn’t need a hookup to see.
While it still generates the most attention, hands down, globally, what’s different about today is that we can watch matches from across Europe and South America at the click of a remote-control switch.
I have a bunch of soccer jerseys hanging up at home (seven at last count), but don’t really wear them out all that much. Except the ones that say Messi on the back. Got two of those. And I wear them to the point that they’re wearing out.
Growing up in a house with a soccer-loving daddy, he has to watch a lot of it. I think I mentioned that earlier.
What I didn’t mention earlier is how I feel it’s a way to divert his attention from Care Bears, Jake and the Neverland Pirates and the brain-damaging brutality of what Americans call football.
That line may speak to intentionality. Who knows, maybe it’s an excuse? But in my heart of hearts, I feel as if it’s a chance for a father to share something he loves with his son, and let that son judge it as much as 4-year-old judgment allows on his own.
A magisterial idol
Back to the jerseys (well, they’re called kits, but I won’t get all Eurosnob on y’all).
If you’ve never heard of Messi, that means we’ve never met. It might mean you don’t care about the sport. It might say something all along the spectrum in between. Regardless, let me tell you a little about him, as he is to my sporting eye as Pelé was to Elmo’s.
The Argentine flea transforms sport into art, as our East Falls neighbors learned through walls during Sunday’s World Cup match against Bosnia-Herzegovina.
He’s been written about and featured on TV shows galore times of late. This is for good reason. His is the face of the world’s greatest player, because he is the world’s greatest player. Others are great and greater than the 26-year-old in facets of the game, but his art transcends.
When it comes to describing art, words fail me sometimes (but they don’t fail Jere Longman, the New York Times scribe who had to listen to me fawn throughout his MLK High football coverage over his chance to meet Messi).
Still, visuals are necessary to fully understand my inclination to subject my son to countless FC Barcelona matches as if we were touring the Louvre. So, here is:
Messi versus the weather.
Messi versus archrival Brazil.
You don’t so much watch Lionel Messi play; you experience it. While atop that pile, he is far from alone.
From throughout leagues across the globe, there come moments of the seemingly super-human (or, at least gravity-defying).
It’s roots span from locales where the local side has no competiton from four major professional-sports leagues and has slowly seeped into places like Chester, Pa. where you can skip the Eagles, Sixers, Flyers and Phillies to see it with your own eyes. Doop.
But, it’s not for everyone, and it’s folly to try to make it such.
The non-sales pitch
Access to soccer in one’s formative years may bring about an appreciation. Yet, it might not. Which is to say indoctrination is futile.
Hardcore-coach dads and pageant moms, that’s a dynamic in which I’ll never reside.
What I’m trying to say is this: I love watching soccer nearly as much as I love watching my son watch soccer.
With my arm draped over his shoulder, we’ll sit on the couch, anticipating a jump-up moment of athletic greatness. When he recognizes that Messi scores a goal and his arms shoot in the air, my heart gets warmer.
And when we take a walk over to the Penn Charter or McDevitt Rec Center fields, there’s always a soccer ball in tow. Because even when it’s just two fellas on the pitch, scoring a goal is still worth celebration.
Maybe soccer will be a source of his joy for decades to come as it was for me.
It seems he likes it, and that makes me happy, but if there comes a day when he says, “Daaaad, enough soccer,” I’ll set the DVR to tape the match and help him follow whatever interest he so chooses.
But even if he strays, I can — ok, definitely will — still remind him every four years that he was born during the 2010 World Cup.
And that on the day he was born, David Villa scored the only goal in Spain’s 1-0 win over Portugal to move on to the semifinals of a tournament they ultimately won (for the first time in the nation’s history, with a lot of Messi’s familiar teammates on the team).
Those things will be mentioned in the context of a birthing-suite deal between mommy-and-daddy-to-be that whichever nation won the match should be our first overseas destination.
So, yes, we’ll be going to Spain in the near future. Which is where Messi plays on a club team in Barcelona.
I have a sneaking suspicion that we’ll catch a soccer match or two while there. And it will be goddamned glorious.
The United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) plays its first match of the 2014 World Cup at 6 p.m. Monday. They face Ghana, the side which has ended its previous two World Cup campaigns.