Carnett: With grandkids came a love of soccer

I came to The Beautiful Game — futbol — rather late in life.

I'm referencing, of course, the sport that most Americans know as soccer.

Let me warn you. This sort of life-altering process — falling in love with soccer — begins when one truly accepts one's role as a grandparent. Becoming a grandfather changes you in ways you can't imagine.

I'm a grandsire eight times over. Four of my eight grandchildren play organized soccer. Three are too young to start playing. And the eighth? Well, every family needs its nuclear physicist.

To illustrate: I've become such a futbol fan that I recently watched Real Madrid defeat Athlético Madrid, 4-1, to win the prestigious Champions League title. I watched the match on Spanish-language TV, a language I do not speak.

If you have to ask what the Champions League is, you don't know soccer. I'd recommend Jurgen Klinsmann's 1997 work, "The European Soccer Quiz Book."

Klinsmann is the current head coach of the U.S. National Team and a former striker (which, by the way, has nothing to do with baseball) on the German national side.

The 2014 FIFA World Cup, the sport's premier event, opens this week in Brazil and runs through July 13. The first U.S. match is scheduled for June 16.

Like the Olympics, the tournament is staged once every four years.

The U.S. team, sans Landon Donovan (if you don't know the Donovan saga, you don't know soccer), will be there. But the U.S. has drawn Group G — considered by many to be this World Cup's "group of death" — and must compete against three powerhouses: Germany, Portugal and Ghana. Only two Group G teams will advance into the tournament's Round of 16.

The U.S. probably must earn a win and a tie in group play this year to advance. That's a tall — though not impossible — order.

Unfair? Well, FIFA might consider joining the 21st century and seeding the World Cup as the NCAA does its national basketball tournaments rather than randomly drawing ping-pong balls.

Like most Americans of my generation, I didn't grow up with soccer. In fact, a decade ago I'd have rated it behind capture the flag on my list of favorite sports.

Growing up in the late 1940s and '50s, I was baseball, baseball, baseball all the way. Later came basketball and football. Soccer was never even an afterthought.

Not until my grandson began playing the sport. He's now played for a club team for several years, and last fall was MVP of his middle school squad.

Playing "atomic ball" was as close as I got to soccer in high school. We played with a huge ball, 6 feet in diameter. Half the class would mass on one side of the ball, and the other half on the other. The objective was to push the ball over the goal line you were facing.

I was officially introduced to soccer in 1965 when, as a U.S. soldier, I watched kids play the sport in the back alleys of Seoul, Korea. A tightly bound cluster of rags served as a ball.

When I married my wife, Hedy, I married into a family of futbol fanatics. She was born in Indonesia, and her father was an accomplished player in his youth. The family moved to the Netherlands and avidly followed Dutch professional and international play.

Hedy and I married after the family immigrated to the U.S., and my father-in-law spent years teaching me the finer aspects of the game. I, in turn, tutored him on baseball and American football –- which he grew to love.

Hedy and I have two daughters, neither of whom developed an interest in The Beautiful Game. Then came our grandchildren and our lives were drastically rearranged. I only wish my father-in-law could see us today.

So what's going to happen at this year's World Cup? The U.S. is a long shot to make it out of group play, but Klinsmann appears to be building for the future.

I'm predicting big things from the Americans in 2018.


JIM CARNETT, who lives in Costa Mesa, worked for Orange Coast College for 37 years.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World