September 7, 2006

A Soccer Lover’s Passion for Sports

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Tom Brady. Lebron James. Derek Jeter. Wayne Gretzky. They all have something in common: you’ve heard of them before. You recognize their names.

Here’s another set of names with far greater star power: Thierry Henry. Ronaldinho. Michael Ballack. Lionel Messi.

Yeah, you guessed it: the second set of athletes consists of soccer players. I’m not going to try to make you care. I’m not interested in converting non-fans into fanatics. However, it’s important you know what it’s like a world-wide soccer fan living in the USA. There are a lot of things people assume about us, so it’s time to clear the air.

First of all, I’m not foreign. I’m from Chappaqua, N.Y., home of Bill and Hillary Clinton and Horace Greeley High School — our mascot is the Quaker. No one in my immediate family is foreign. I don’t speak any other languages fluently. I’ve never lived outside the United States and I’ve never traveled to a foreign country for more than a week.
Not a single person in my immediate family has ever liked soccer. Only a few of my friends like the real football, and even fewer enjoy it enough to ever want to watch it with me. I’m definitely a loner with this soccer thing.

One of the most annoying things is that people think that being a soccer fan means you don’t like other American sports; that you must like sports that the normal patriot deems inadequate. You know what, you’re right: I sit at home, praying for the latest issue of Obscure Sports Quarterly to see who won this year’s dodgeball competition.
Seriously! I have no interest in any other European sport, and love American sports (the ones you call “real” sports). Why else would I work at the Sun?

When I was in middle school, I wanted to be a professional basketball player. I loved basketball so much that I used to play every day, and then I would watch the Knicks on MSG. I still would if I had time … and the Knicks didn’t suck. But I still wish I could make the NBA. I have a 36-inch vertical, but I’m 5-10 and I can’t shoot. I draw inspiration from the story of Steve Nash, who like me, idolizes Zinedine Zidane’s soccer prowess, and is now a two-time MVP. One day I’ll be there … you’ll see.

Baseball is probably my next-favorite sport. I watch every Yankee game or, if I’m busy, follow them online. No game’s box score, nor Giambi facial hair trend — no mustache please — escapes my analytic grasp.

Speaking of the man, my brother and I have a daily Giambi watch. We theorized correctly that his appearance directly correlates with his on-field performance. We do a visual analysis of his hair length, facial-hair growth, stare and neck/bicep vein protrusion to determine how close he is, on a nightly basis, to getting back to his old Oakland hitting form (you know, when he was juicing, won MVP, OPSed 1.100 plus, etc…). Remember that Sports Illustrated cover? That’s our basis of comparison.

Giambi’s a machine when he’s in his Oakland form. Take the Aug. 20 game against Boston a few weeks back (Yankees won, 8-5), which was right in the middle of the Boston Massacre, Part 2. My brother and I called it before he even got his first swing in: Giambi was as close to his Oakland form as we’ve ever seen him. Unshaved, glaring fiercely and looking generally ferocious, we knew he would tear it up. Sure enough, our Giambi predictor was true to its namesake, as he belted two homers — his second being an extra-innings game-winner — and doubled into Fenway’s spacious center field.

Then there’s the whole football and soccer thing. Supposedly, I don’t like football because I like futbol. Sorry to disappoint again — I really do watch, follow, cheer and enjoy good American football.

For one, my entire family has played football. My brother is a 6-3, 210-pound offensive lineman and linebacker in high school. My Dad was a 6-5 tight end in high school, and (Sorry to date you Dad) was recruited by Rutgers back when they were a national powerhouse. He declined, and instead played basketball in college. My cousins, my uncles … all football players. No soccer.

Secondly, I’m a Jets fan. Bryan Pepper and I are simultaneously praying Chad Pennington will one day find his arm strength and that Mangini will become a better coach than Belicheck. But right now, I’m loving the Giants.

We’ve heard enough about the offense on ESPN already! It’s their defense that I love. Any time you have LeVar Arrington supporting two All-Pro defensive ends, good things will happen. Antonio Pierce and Gibril Wilson will annihilate anyone who gets through the tackles, whether he’s a back, receiver or Jeremy Shockey. And you can’t go wrong, at least in the short-term, with Pro-Bowl corner Sam Madison.
I guess this is a good time for me to vent about another Giant — Lawrence Taylor has to be the best defensive player of all time. He retired as the second all-time leader in sacks, and because of him, linebacker is no longer a “read and react” position — especially at outside linebacker. Offenses now employ multiple tight end and singleback sets to cope with this style of defense (and originally, Taylor’s dominance). And when was the last time a defensive player won NFL MVP (1971, before Taylor’s 1986 win)? Your average soccer fan doesn’t know that.

Look, I may love soccer, but that doesn’t make me any less of a sports fan. Yes, I played the beautiful game six days a week this summer. Yes, I followed the World Cup … religiously. And yes, I followed the transfer market with eager eyes and ears.
But I did work at Sports Illustrated, and it had nothing to do with loving soccer.

So if you want to debate that whole L.T. thing with me, bring it on. Or how about my assertion that Pedro Martinez may be the best living pitcher? Jeter for MVP? Steroid testing … in golf?
This soccer fan has answers.

Josh Perlin is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. My Pitch will appear every other Thursday this semester.