In the spirit of full disclosure, I must say I am not a soccer fan. I did play the game for my school and was deemed good enough at it by the coach to be a plucky defender, but as an adult I’ve found tennis and cricket far more interesting. But when the World Cup is on, heaven have pity on a person who declares his indifference to the great game. So I bit the bullet and began to watch the games, if for nothing else but to prevent myself from being ostracized by my friends.
During one of the early games – I think when Belgium played Algeria, but I couldn’t be sure – my wife came and sat next to me in front of the television. ‘What are you watching?’ she said. ‘Why don’t you explain it to me?’ Now my wife belongs to a family that has a long tradition of being involved in no sport at all. So though I smirked on the inside, like any good (read obedient) husband, I began to tell her the rules. ‘The guys in red are trying to hit the ball into the net on the right,’ I said, ‘and the guys in white are going for the net on the left. After forty-five minutes of this, they switch sides.’
That was enough.
In a few minutes my wife was cheering, jeering and swearing at the television. At the end of the game, she would have had a knowledgeable conversation with a hardcore soccer fan without feeling out of place.
The next day, I was watching a Wimbledon match, and again my wife asked me to explain. This time, I talked. And talked. And talked. No matter how much I said, there was something else left to say. When I came to the scoring system, it confused her so much that she hit me on the head with a pillow. (Yeah, that’s what she does when she’s confused.)
That brought home to me why soccer is so universally followed. It takes almost no brain power to understand it. The most nuanced part of soccer is the off-side rule, and even that is child’s play if you understand straight lines. You want complicated, try Tennis’s terminology. Or cricket’s LBW rule. It will leave any new fan begging for mercy. No such pain for the new soccer fan. If she understands kicking the ball into a net, she understands the game.
Simple. Beautiful, yes, but simple. That is the secret to soccer’s appeal.