The score update was the first thing to flash on to my screen as we got the okay to turn our phones back on. I hustled out of the plane and into Chicago’s mammoth O’Hare airport, with only one goal in mind for my three-hour layover: find a bar.
Irish pub? Packed. Margarita cantina? Not a seat in sight. Even the wine lounge was full. It was 1 p.m. in the afternoon on a random day in June and yet every drinking hole in my terminal was overflowing with people. And everyone’s eyes were watching the same thing: the U.S team’s very first match in the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
I settled in with a group of fellow unlucky stragglers already catching the match outside of an open-air bar next to the food court, creating a path for hungry travelers to roll their suitcases by as we kept our eyes glued to the big-enough screen 20 feet away. The excitement in the air was palpable. Clint Dempsey had already scored against Ghana within the first 30 seconds – a fact that was recited over and over again every time a new person joined our makeshift crew.
But, wait a minute. I am not a long-time, die-hard soccer fan. I’m not even much of a “stadium sports” fan. Sure I cheer on my college and hometown teams and I can tell the difference between a three-point and a lay-up shot thanks to high school P.E., but ask me about a play in that Niners-Seahawks game or how the Giants beat the Royals in whichever inning and I’ll ask if we can maybe just watch gymnastics instead.
So what was I doing outside that bar in Chicago, standing for three hours with a group of strangers even long after seats at the bar finally became free?
For a long time, sports didn’t represent community as much as they did isolation for me. I was not an athletically-gifted or inclined child. I was chubby and asthmatic, prone to nosebleeds, and always picked last for kickball. There was a traumatic incident during a game of monkey in the middle where I was dubbed “tree trunks,” and the one time I got up the nerve to climb the jungle gym I fractured my ankle while jumping down. Sports didn’t feel like family – they felt like an exclusive club I wasn’t meant to be a part of. And as a first-generation American whose parents hadn’t grown up watching football, basketball, or baseball, there wasn’t any sort of family legacy pre-determining my support for a team.
But if sports were alien, television was a friend. I may not have been watching “the game” – whoever’s it was – but I was watching everything else. Disney, Nickelodeon, the morning broadcast news, and MTV when my parents were in the other room and I could run to our 90s-era cable switch fast enough. Raised in a house where, especially in my early years, Greek food and words flew around as often as American, television was a window into a culture that I had been born into but didn’t have ties to. And although I may have missed out on learning about ambition, resilience, and team work by participating in sports, I was still taught it every day through Lucy Ricardo’s shenanigans, Mary Tyler Moore’s independence, and a loving group of friends that turned into family at a bar where everybody knew each other’s name.
Of course, TV is more than just our teacher or our pal on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Through the years I’ve seen how television can create an instant bond with other people, sometimes making it so easy that our plasma screens might as well come with the slogan Making friends so you don’t have to! One of my oldest best friends and I first bonded over the fact that we were both Team LC during the great Lauren Conrad vs. Kristin Cavallari showdown in the first season of Laguna Beach. Last year I befriended one of my next door neighbors after we silently agreed not to judge each other while freaking out during the final episodes of Breaking Bad. And I have seen entire sororities come together every Monday night, not because chapter meeting requires them to but because it’s the hometown dates on The Bachelor.
So wait, where does sports fit into all of this? I’ve lured you here by putting it in the title of my article and now you’re probably thinking I’ve tricked you into reading another piece analyzing a romantic reality show. But I swear this all has a point. Because while I’ve always known that television can bring people together, I didn’t really realize the massive bonding power of watching a couple of guys kick around a ball until I moved to Britain – where they worship what you call soccer, and what they call football.
My concept of football was pretty much nil when I touched down in Heathrow in September. Honestly, it pretty much consisted of this.
And that is mostly to the credit of Bend it like Beckham and those Emporio Armani ads (Google it, you won’t be sorry). So I was shocked when I found out just how much there was to the sport. Who’s the striker? Does Manchester really need two teams? What the hell is the difference between the Premier League versus the Championship League? And why are there like ten different tournaments going on at the same time!?
The intricacies behind the game may have been confusing, but the passion the British have for their football was easily translated. Unlike in the U.S., where love and loyalty is split between the NFL, MLB, NHL, and NBA, the U.K.’s worship for the sport is like that of a devoted husband (except maybe when it comes to Wales, who really likes to get drunk with their mistress, rugby). Almost every Brit I’ve met has a team they have supported since childhood, and they will proudly tell you about their first ever childhood game, their favorite player, and how they have remained faithful no matter how much their team sucked during (insert year here). And after awhile I kind of stopped being surprised. Because this is the kind of country that enlists their boy bands and former footballers to record an original “team song” for every major cup, and its loyal citizens will make you listen to all of them over and over again during a three-hour car trip to London until you too can sing along.
Just like watching television as a kid tied me to my American culture, catching matches at the pub and asking Brits to explain the league(s) made me feel more connected to my new home. And as I witnessed more games and met more fans, I remembered the kind of community I had experienced when World Cup madness swept the U.S. this summer. The kind that, even as I was hopping all over the country during the month of June, made me feel connected to friends – or even strangers – because of the match happening live on screen.
That’s the key in all this, really. Live. Television may have made me feel more connected to friends when I was young, when the only way you could discuss Marissa shooting Ryan’s brother was if you watched The O.C. the night before. But in today’s day and age of Netflix, where it’s unlikely you’re ever on the same episode of House of Cards as your ten other friends, there are less and less opportunities for shared viewing experiences. We no longer live in a time when American Idol is part of the national conversation. Movies are premiering in the comfort of our own homes via VOD and iTunes as much as they are at the nearby AMC. And those water cooler, must-be-watched-the-moment-they-air shows that reach the hype of Breaking Bad? They come once every blue moon, and even then – who knows if you get it in your cable package?
And I guess that’s why I never understood the mumbles this summer that people who began getting into the World Cup were jumping on the “soccer bandwagon.” Even though Cup tournaments were always on my television during those summer months, thanks to both a dad and sister who loved and played the game, this was the first year I really felt as if the entire country was watching with me. Friends would text back-and-forth during matches. Happy hour catch-ups were planned in bars with big-screen TVs. Gifs of goals were all over my newsfeed. We all fell in love with one man.
Maybe it was the fact that this was the first year we could really share our tears and triumphs on Twitter. Maybe we’ve just been yearning to share an experience with each other that isn’t filtered via the mathematical code of our newsfeeds. Maybe America has secretly been thirsting for a legitimate MLS. Maybe it’s all of the above. All I know is that for a couple of weeks we weren’t cheering for the Broncos, or the Sharks, or the A’s, or the Lakers (yes, I’m aware these are different sports), and we weren’t dividing our previous television time to a million different things. We were watching the same matches, talking about the same ridiculous falls and saves, and rooting for the same team. And suddenly I realized that my childhood fears were making me miss out on what was kind of a really beautiful thing.
So this is my declaration. This is me jumping on the bandwagon. I like watching football. I like watching live sports. And it’s not about the beer or the bros. Well – it’s not just about the beer or the bros. It’s about the community. It’s about the spirit.
It’s about the fact that I finally realized I can be part of the team.