One reason baseball is #1 in that part of my heart devoted to spectator sports is that baseball and I have a history. For fifty years, I have been following the exploits of the San Francisco Giants. You can't do anything for fifty years without earning an attachment that may be irritating at times, but rewards your faithfulness in myriad ways. Given the evocative nature of baseball statistics, you can extend your connection to the game to a time before you were born.
To American fans of my generation, soccer is secondary at best. The same history that so inspires the baseball fan, that drives soccer-mad people across the globe into a frenzy, is lacking for the most part here. I can remember a new American soccer league starting in the late 60s, can remember attending an NASL match in the late 70s, can remember making my first real connection to the sport during Euro '84. But my history with the game is paltry compared to what baseball and I have shared. And, at least as of this point, soccer statistics lack the story-telling depth of their baseball counterparts.
The now-concluded European championships offered a lot of delightful play that I imagine intrigued casual fans. But even the most hardcore soccer fan will admit that, as with all sports, individual matches are just as likely to be boring as transcendent. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but the best way to appreciate those boring matches is to watch a lot of them. Just as a long-standing Giants fan will take special pleasure, when/if their team finally wins the World Series, because of the accumulated dreariness of all those mid-August snoozefests between two bad teams, so too a soccer fan's appreciation of the big events like Euro 2008 is amplified in direct correlation to the sheer number of matches you've watched, good and bad.
Not to mention, johnny-come-latelys like me have a lot of catching up to do.
When the World Cup came to the USA in 1994, I read a book by Pete Davies called Twenty-Two Foreigners in Funny Shorts. The reason this obscure book made such an impact on me was that Davies put the World Cup in context. There were a zillion books for new American soccer fans in the buildup to USA '94, listing historical data and detailing the big players of the game (want a nostalgia rush, if nostalgia is possible for something that happened only 14 years ago? Here is the all-star team from that Cup: Preud'homme; Jorginho, Marcio Santos, Maldini; Dunga, Krassimir Balakov, Hagi, Brolin; Romario, Stoichkov, Baggio). Davies gave us the history and the stars, but he framed his book by telling intermingling stories: not just a history of the World Cup and the evolution of soccer, but also the tale of a typical season of world soccer, split between the big clubs that get our attention, and one small Welsh club without which there would be no big clubs. The World Cup doesn't happen without the big clubs feeding players to the Cup; the big clubs don't happen without smaller clubs feeding players to the big guys. And so Davies can be a fan of the English national team, can have a fond spot in his heart for Wimbledon (that dates the book!), but his book is about going out every Saturday to see tiny Wrexham in action. His message is simple: to fully appreciate the greatest players, clubs, and competitions, it helps to spend time in the trenches.
Spain's win yesterday was made sweeter for anyone who has spent time following the national team over the years, even including my half-Spanish self, first introduced to the highest levels of soccer joy and despair when Spain lost to the unstoppable French of Platini in Euro '84. But more than that, our joy is made greater by the amount of time spent with the game in moments not always captured in the casual fan's attention. In the two years since the last World Cup, there have been two seasons of excitement and boredom at the club level, following the exploits of Liverpool and Wrexham, Inter Milan and Sevilla and Werder Bremen and (insert name of your MLS team ... we didn't have one for most of those two years), Chivas and Boca Juniors and Emelec and Defensor Sporting. Watching the MLS expansion San Jose Earthquakes play a brain-numbing scoreless draw against the Chicago Fire the day before the Euro final amounted on the one hand to 90 minutes of my life I'll never get back ... but it was also part of the contextual experience that improves watching Spain win their first major championship in 44 years.
It may be that this is precisely what will prevent most Americans from truly embracing soccer. It takes a certain kind of dedication to subject one's self to one crap match after another, just so when you see an actual good match you'll appreciate it more. When a game is part of the national fabric, such dedication is in the air ... I didn't have to be forced to enjoy baseball when I was a kid, nor did Fernando Torres decide all on his own that soccer was interesting to him. But, even now, when seemingly every kid plays soccer and televised action is available beyond our wildest dreams, soccer is not deep enough into our fabric that we "get it" without trying. No, it takes effort, and who wants to work hard at something which is supposed to be fun?
So I can tell you that it's become worth it for me to go down to little Buck Shaw Stadium to watch the Quakes bore me to death, to watch half a dozen European club matches on a weekend, to scour the Internet looking for news of the ever-more-despairing Wrexham. But I recognize that it is work, and that it isn't worth it to most American sports fans, and so I'm just glad if you found some small entertainment from Euro 2008.