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Waka Waka Eh Eh

With the onset of the 2018 World Cup, my attention is drawn to the game that my family adores. Our days will be full of soccer for the next few weeks as we huddle to root, cheer, and holler for great games and our favorite players.

Naturally, my mind gravitates toward the origin of the "beautiful game". An article on the history of the game in The Edmonton Journal provides fascinating insights.

Soccer dates back to 2,000 years ago. Today nearly 250 million people play soccer. Add to that hordes of spectators and you get a staggering statistic on the people in love with this game.

There is evidence that in the 2nd and 3rd century BC, the Chinese kicked leather balls filled with feathers and hair into a net. They called it Tsu Chu. Even in those early days, players were not allowed to use their hands. Romans and Greeks are known to have dribbled animal hide balls as well.

Much later - in the 1300s - King Edward II of England banned soccer since it distracted his people from archery, an essential skill for survival. Later kings also banned soccer at different points for various reasons.

Er...I admit that I said "No soccer!" a few times to my children as leverage for better behavior.

What is it about kicking a ball into a net with your feet that is so fascinating? It's the simplicity of the game and the minimal need for equipment, I think.

All you need to play soccer are players and a field. Sticks, stones, poles often serve as surrogates for a net. The ball of course is essential. My earliest memory is walking by Adalatgunj grounds in my hometown and watching a ragtag team of young boys playing soccer on an unmarked field. My father was an athletic star at his University for his achievements in track and field and soccer. I often imagine him sprinting across the field, leaving his opponents in the dust. The game clearly runs in my blood, yet it totally failed to manifest itself in any form of talent.

Soccer in its modern day form was crystalized in 1863 in England. Hacking, i.e., kicking below the knee, was disallowed by the newly founded rules of soccer, giving birth to the rugby association for those opposed to this rule. Through the ensuing decades, the game continued to evolve with the addition of whistles, goal kicks and penalty kicks. The first referees were not even allowed on the field in the early days, robbing spectators of the related shenanigans we love to watch.

In 1904, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) was founded in Paris. FIFA remained a Europe-only association until 1909 when South Africa joined. Argentina and Chile followed soon.

I was surprised to learn that the USA has been a FIFA member since 1913.

December 25th, 1914 is a historic day in the story of soccer. During a ceasefire for Christmas in the midst of WWI, British and German troops came together in a game of soccer. The game ended peacefully with Britain winning 3-2. This sculpture in Staffordshire commemorates the 100th anniversary of the 1914 game.

If I were President, sorting world strife through soccer games would be high on my priority list. But then again, I am not President so I will continue to arm-chair my way through diplomacy while watching soccer.

The first FIFA World Cup was held in 1930. Through 20 championships since then, Brazil stands with the most wins (5), followed by Germany (4) and Italy (4).

Our family's love of soccer started when Neil was five years old. At the local soccer fields, we saw him zip in and out of players as if he didn't see anyone at all. He made up for his lack of height with speed and dexterity. Josh wears the hat in our family for being the most ardent soccer player. As a kindergartner he limited himself to the periphery of his team, cheering others until a goal was struck, which he celebrated as his own. He eventually elevated his skills and played in a travel team and for his high school's JV and Varsity teams. The thing I miss the most about raising children is hanging out on the sidelines on a crisp weekend morning, coffee in hand and a green folding chair by my side.

Neil and Josh did not have the talent or tenacity of their friends who went on to excel in academics and play a sport for their universities. As parents we clearly lacked the vision to help them grow on both fronts. But soccer equipped them with the tools to survive. Team spirit, rules, penalties, and free kicks served as surrogates for the underpinnings of a successful life. They learned early on that success begets success. That you cannot go at it alone. There are positions that you are good at and you don't mess around in other spots.

On the field they learned that there are leaders and followers and when you have the ball you have got to find a way to run it down the sidelines to score one for the team or defend with all your might. No one said it but everyone knew that the team depends on each person. They learned that when you are about to fall, you better find the strength to stay up and keep control, even if it means precariously balancing yourself on your left foot.

Failure is a natural part of the game. Losing the ball to defenders, needing to kick the ball out of bounds, kicking the ball into the ready hands of the goalie, or worst of all, an own goal. Strategically fouling an opponent without harming them is a lesson that no classroom was equipped to teach my boys. Recovering and moving forward in seconds reinforced that failure matters less than how you recover from it. Soccer isn't the only sport that teaches you all of this, but it is the only sport with universal visual cues that transcend our linguistic limitations.

Plus, find me one person on this planet who doesn't understand, "Goooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaalllllllllll!"

So, in this exciting summer of the World Cup, I look forward to being thrilled by amazing talent and astute strategy, sportsmanship, falls, thrills, goals, and kicks, as we cheer our favorite team on to the Jules Rimet trophy.

If we don't answer the phone or respond to texts and emails, it is because we are huddled over our screens, singing "Tsamina mina eh eh, Waka waka eh eh" or the Russian translation of it.

And in 2026, the World Cup is coming to North America. Bring on that vuvuzela, y'all!!

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