Friday, January 27, 2023 -
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Fitting in through watching soccer

I’m not from the big cursers. Sure, an imprecation or two might slip out when a car cuts me off on the road (hopefully when the children are not riding with me). A profanity may emerge when I bang my toe into the bedpost. An obscenity is sure to surface when reading a particularly nasty op-ed about Israel.

But, in general, I try – I don’t always succeed, but I try — to keep my swearing to a minimum. Except when watching sports. Not all sports, just sports I care passionately about. More precisely, when I watch American football and the Denver Broncos.

I got that from my dad. I didn’t hear my dad swear that much growing up, except when we watched the Broncos. Then he cursed like a sailor. He passed that on to me. And the Broncos — over the years — have given us plenty to swear about.

Therefore, I was both surprised and pleased with myself two weeks ago when an expletive came flying out of my mouth while watching the Argentina-France World Cup final.

That’s right, I cursed at a soccer match.

I was surprised because cursing at a soccer match showed that I actually cared about what was happening — it almost put that game in the same league as the Broncos. And I was pleased, yes pleased, that I cursed — though I wish the window was not open — because it showed a high degree of acculturation.

Forty years in this country, and I finally care about soccer. Not local soccer, perhaps, but at least international soccer. I had made it. I’d gone local. I knew the difference between Messi and Mbappe. I could even pick Croatia’s Luka Modric out of a police line-up. I felt Israeli.

This has been a long road.

The first World Cup after the wife and I made aliyah took place in Mexico in 1986. I could not have cared less. The Mondial, as the World Cup is commonly known, sounded to me like a brand of soap or something you measure time with by using the sun.

Folks all around me at work were talking about Maradona and the “Hand of G-d” (arguably the most famous goal in football history), and I was wondering why everyone was talking about The Madonna and Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.”

I had no clue. I didn’t play soccer as a kid, I never watched it, and I didn’t really get the world’s fascination with it. Beautiful game my foot. What kind of sport doesn’t let you use your hands? A sport without hands seemed to me like a symphony without instruments.

When the tournament comes around every four years it is everywhere in this country, all anyone seems to talk about. It’s a major news item. I used to call sources in my younger days during a World Cup match, and they wouldn’t answer. So as the years passed — one World Cup, and another, and another — I became interested, primarily because you can’t escape it. If I didn’t want to feel left out, I’d have to get interested.

So I started watching, little by little. First, I’d watch the end of a World Cup final. Four years later, I’d watch the second half of the final; four years after that I’d sit for the entire final match.

And now, 40 years later, I watched almost the whole recent tournament, having had the TV continuously on in the background and picking up my head whenever I heard a roar from the crowd.

One of the problems I’ve always had with soccer, one of the obstacles that always kept me from getting into the sport, was a very rudimentary understanding of the game and its rules.

The rather complicated rules of American football are second nature to me; knowledge of them is something I was born with. Not so the rules of soccer. For me, offside is a 250-pound defensive tackle with his head on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage in an American football game. What are offsides in soccer?

I didn’t know a yellow card from a red one. And it seemed crazy that during a game coaches couldn’t substitute as many players as they wanted, whenever they wanted.

Then I had Israeli-born kids, and one of the added values they bring to my table is a good knowledge of all things Israeli — such as soccer, the army, Mizrahi music and good places to take day trips — that are simply out of my wheelhouse. If I have any questions about things Israeli and feel too stupid to ask a neighbor who may think less of me for not knowing something so basic, I just ask the kids.

“Son, what are offsides,” I asked the youngest at the beginning of this year’s World Cup, and — with a lot of patience and some forks and spoons on the kitchen table for illustrative purposes — he gave me a fine explanation.

Armed with that explanation, I could not only understand the World Cup, but even enjoy it. This past month I watched as much of the World Cup as did most of my neighbors. Something I looked upon with disdain when I first came here, I have — after 40 years — come to appreciate.

And it’s not only soccer. There are other things that I never got into when I first arrived, that I now appreciate or at least take an interest in.

Like Eurovision.

Who knew from Eurovision in America? Nobody. It doesn’t exist in America. Nobody cares.

Come here, however, and it’s a big deal. I can’t say that I sit around and watch the entire competition when it comes on in the spring, but I will take an interest in the Israeli entry, watch the Israeli contestant perform, and then follow the scoring to see which countries are giving Israel 12 points, and which — for political reasons — are not giving us any.

And those countries I curse.

It’s telling, actually: the more I acculturate, the more things I have to swear about.

Reprinted with permission of the Jerusalem Post.

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