AMAC Exclusive – By Barry Casselman
American football fans are sometimes puzzled when they read stories from England about “football” or from other parts of the world about “futbol” — and realize that the sport referred to is not the game played by the Green Bay Packers. In fact, it is what Americans call soccer.
U.S. sports fans divide their interests among many professional sports, including baseball, football, basketball, tennis, and hockey, but the rest of the world favors some other sports, especially soccer, which I believe is the most popular global sport.
The ultimate professional soccer championship is the World Cup, which occurs every four years and was just held this year in Qatar. The tournament was watched on TV or listened to on the radio by billions of people.
Soccer originated in England and was called football, and was occasionally nicknamed soccer. Eventually, the British stopped using “soccer” – even as the U.S., which originated gridiron football, adopted the term soccer to differentiate the two sports.
Soccer is gaining in popularity in the U.S., with soccer teams and soccer stadiums in more and more large American cities, and more high school and college programs. But when I was growing up, it was virtually non-existent here.
My own favorite spectator sport is baseball, often dubbed America’s national pastime. But fan interest in football and basketball is growing, as interest in baseball alas seems to be shrinking.
Sports everywhere have their heroes and legends; most of them played in the past. The greatest figure in baseball, Babe Ruth, played from 1918 to 1935, and passed away in 1948.
Babe Ruth was the rare American baseball player who was famous all over the world. In soccer, the greatest figure was the Brazilian known as “Pele” (real name Edson Arantes do Nascimento) who has just passed away in Rio de Janeiro at 82.
He was known to billions worldwide.
As I said, I am an avid baseball fan, and take little interest in soccer, but years ago in my travels in the Western Hemisphere and Europe, I attended a few games. I did not ever see Babe Ruth play, but as luck would have it, I did see Pele play in his prime.
I was living in Mexico the summer of 1966, and spent two weeks in Mexico City, one of the world’s largest (current population about 25 million). While there, a Mexican friend I had met earlier that summer persuaded me to go with him to a soccer match in the just-built Azteca Stadium. By chance, the day he picked, the match was an international one featuring the visiting team, Santos of Brazil. The then-young star of that team was Pele, already a national hero in Brazil, but still with the major part of his legendary career ahead of him.
I knew nothing about soccer, and my friend had to explain everything to me, but the one thing I could perceive on my own was the extraordinary and quite skillful movement of one player. Yes, it was Pele, who scored goals and ran with the soccer ball in a manner that had the more than 100,000 in attendance breathless.
The only experience I can compare it to was, of all things, what I saw about a year later in Vienna at a ballet performance by Rudolph Nureyev, when the legendary dancer made several leaps in the air during the ballet “Don Quixote” — and he seemed suspended against gravity, remaining momentarily as if he were floating. That, too, took the audience’s breath away for its sheer amazing spectacle.
Later, I attended a few soccer matches in stadiums in Madrid and Barcelona during the year I lived in Spain. In 1994, I went to a match in what was then the world’s largest stadium, Macarena, in Rio de Janeiro. In that case, the venue overshadowed the match — the cavernous facility held 200,000 people! The day I went there, the crowd was a mere 100,000 – and the place seemed almost empty! (Since that time, the stadium has been remodeled to a smaller capacity.)
So, I did not see Babe Ruth play, nor did I ever hear Caruso sing, but I was lucky enough to see Pele play. His passing is barely noted in the U.S., but he was the best at what he did, and greatness always deserves a mention of honor and a salute.