City Lights: There's more to the soccer ball than meets the eye

When I was a graduate student in England, I once attended a soccer game — or football, as they call it most everywhere but here.

I didn't get much out of it. It seemed awfully simple: two teams kicking the ball back and forth for two hours, and once in a long while, there was a shot into the net.

At least, that's the way it seemed to a neophyte.

I remember the time I introduced baseball to a Vietnamese roommate and found myself struggling to explain it in sound bites. Part of our conversation, I believe, went something like this:

"Why does he walk to first base?"

"Because the pitcher threw four balls."

"Doesn't he always throw a ball?"

"Yes, but if the ball lands outside the strike zone, it's called a ball."

If baseball is an intricate mosaic — and my roommate and I didn't even cover the infield fly rule or the unassisted triple play — soccer always struck me as the sports equivalent of a Mark Rothko painting: broad strokes of color and easily identified boundaries.

But if you've ever listened to an art critic, you know Rothko is more complex than that. And so is soccer, which I watched Tuesday afternoon at Old World Village with some of Orange County's most rabid fans.

The game in question wasn't a local one, but rather the quarterfinals of the UEFA championship, in which Germany is facing off against 15 other countries. Old World, famous for its dachshund races and Oktoberfests, is Huntington Beach's haven for German culture — and part of that culture is soccer, which brings in up to 1,000 people when the German national team is in the running for a title.

Tuesday's quarterfinal match pitted Poland against Russia, so the crowd before the TV on the Old World Patio numbered just about a dozen. But for some members of the shopping center's soccer club, a match is a match, which means an afternoon with friends and beers and plenty of childhood memories.

If Wikipedia can be trusted, soccer is the world's most popular sport, played by more than 250 million people in more than 200 countries. Old World's team, known as the Fussballverein, has a German name, but its lineup hails from places as far removed as Mexico, Italy and the Netherlands.

The players, who face other local clubs every Sunday at Talbert Middle School, keep plaques on the patio wall announcing each year's winner for most goals scored, best goal, most spirit and funniest on-field mistake. On World Cup years, the group visits the event's host country and sets up matches with other local clubs.

As I listened to club members talk about their exploits, I kept an eye on the screen. The score was 0-0 and had been for quite a while. Steven Van Over, a Fussballverein member for about five years, explained that the game wasn't as uneventful as an outsider might think.

"Right now there's a lot going on," he said. "These guys are jockeying for position. They're setting up a play. There's a lot of technical stuff going on."

Then Russia scored the first goal, courtesy of a player who deflected the ball off his head, and the table erupted in cheers. More than that, it erupted in inside football. The viewers around me excitedly dissected the play, pointing out which player had done what and utilized which strategy. I would quote what they said, but my hand couldn't write fast enough.

Regardless, it was 1-0 now, and that was a cause for celebration. A low score? Sure.

But I remember the most exciting baseball game I ever witnessed, in 1994, when the Angels fell victim to the 14th perfect game in major league history. A perfect game, by the way, is when one team never reaches base — in other words, when absolutely nothing happens for 50% of the game.

To the savvy fan, that's as thrilling as it gets.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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