The controversy around the World Cup tournament happening in Qatar almost caught me by surprise this year. It’s not that I did not know about it, and the unusual period of the year when it is happening, because I actually did. There was a lot of controversy around the event being appointed to a country with no tradition, with a climate that is starkly different compared to the ones that most participants have. The real reason I didn’t expect it was ignorance, one that sprang from the loss of connection with the sport that added so many emotions, joy, happiness, and mostly sorrows to my childhood and early adulthood.
In time, I switched preferences from one club to another, not having local access to a successful club. My first memories go to the passion with which my brother cried one time, when his favorite player, Ilie Balaci, from his favorite club, Universitatea Craiova, missed a goal, even though they were leading by six to zero at the moment. That seeded deep in my soul, the wish that Universitatea Craiova has to win all the following matches, and that player has to transform every shot to a goal, every dream of ours as kids to reality. As in all other sports, the success and glory are only ephemera, and in time I shifted passions towards the greatest soccer club that Romania have ever produced, Steaua Bucharest, the official club of the Romanian Army, supported by the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s son, which was like an addition of nobility to a blazon that’s supposed to belong to the people. That team won in 1986 the former European Champions League (the competition being played in a slightly different format at time), the supreme title that can be won as a club on the old continent, and I think, at the time, every Romanian became a supporter of them. That I turned to a smaller club, representing the city of Timisoara. The club’s name was Poli Timisoara, and they were more like a myth than reality, but they built a solid popularity with them, with local passions and frustrations. How I became their fan I could never understand. It lasted for a long time, and it increased during my years of college, years spent in that city. During those years, their existence was threatened by bankruptcy, a consequence of weird and sketchy management. They were on a downward path, but the passion accumulated around them was animated by the crowds that, stubbornly, continued to show at the stadium to sing and display amazing choreographies, despite the team losing everything that could be lost. A similar passion grew for a club in the country’s capital of Bucharest, which was reviving under one of the first privately funded enterprises of sorts in a country that was blindly finding its way in the transition from socialism to capitalism. Its name was Rapid Bucharest, and it was founded before WWII by a union of the national railroad company. Their shiny glory vaned slowly not so many years afterward. In between these soccer love stories, I was looking at the elite clubs of Europe, the rich ones, the very successful stories know worldwide. I fell in love with AC Milan, Juventus Torino, Ajax Amsterdam, consecutively and sometimes concomitantly. When Rapid Bucharest played against Liverpool FC, and first heard the crowds singing You Will Never Walk Alone, I fell in love with the reds.
The best stories were, though, always related to the World Cup stories. At first they were just what I named them, stories. They were legends, much more attractive that the one about the gods of Olymp.
The Romanian national team was always a great hope, one that never materialized. I knew the stories of the talented team of Brazil, the ones of the skilled team of Germany, and how they made history. The first tournament I ever experienced on television was the one in Mexico in the year of 1986. Images on the screen were black and white, the quality of the image was creepy, and the commentators spoke Hungarian, a language I never understood. Constrained by the ruling regime and a drastic embargo on energy consumption, the Romanian television did not broadcast the event. I discovered Diego Armando Maradona, the genius of this sport, and ever since I loved Argentina. In between, I also loved Italy with their blue shirts.
The raise of the genius of the Romanian greatest player, Gheorghe Hagi, was just about to begin in 1986. Starting 1990, at the tournament in Italy, the Romanian national team, led by the geniality of this player gained momentum and reached their supreme achievement at the World Cup in USA in 1994. They advanced in the quarterfinals, eliminating Argentina, and suddenly were becoming a challenger to the title. Eventually, that never happened because they ceded to Sweden after a series of deathly penalty kicks, killing a nation’s dream and provoking probably the most emotionally intense moment in the country’s history. Personally, I cried with tears and all the stuff for a week, and for many years, every time I recalled the moment, I felt something weird in my stomach.
The passion for soccer slowly went away. Adulthood comes with changes in our lives, bodies, and souls. Looking back to one night of the summer of 1994, when Romania scored the only goal in the match against USA in the group stage, and finally winning it, I should have been extremely happy for just another great victory of the Romanians, but I had a subconscious sorrow for the Americans, probably a premonition of future allegiances.
All this time, some rules of the game have changed. The referee remains contested, despite the help they get from the VAR system. Controversies around certain decisions still exist. The drama is lived in every game. There are winners and there are losers. A draw can still be claimed as a victory or as a loss, depending on the situation. I am writing this while watching Mexico playing against Poland, in which nobody scored. Supporters will always judge performance subjectively, the passion is still greater than technical analysis. For some deep thinkers, this is still a sport in which twenty-two people run chaotically to kick a ball that will choose to fly its own way no matter what, so to speak a sport of chance more than a competition between teams, between players, between coaches. They might have their part of the truth, but this will pose no interest to the passionate supporter.
Today, living crazy lives at maddening paces, spending two precious hours of one’s daily life, to watch a game in which the odds are so much at play, seems to be a great waste of time. Perhaps these passions are only meant to belong to a certain age of one’s life, or to some that choose not to become too serious.
But here is still something in the frenzy of the players fighting for the ball on the field, and the chorus of the crowd singing that brings a little spark of youths’s flames. May the World Cup exist forever! Happy to witness the growing popularity of soccer in the country of football and baseball! Go USA!