Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Being a fan -- it's difficult these days

If The Netherlands' national soccer team can celebrate two more victories
-- such as after Saturday's penalty-kick shootout against Costa Rica -- the
World Cup championship will be ours. (Associated Press photo)
     Other than being with my family, especially the grandkids, being a sports fan is how most people know me.
      It's always been that way, some 60 years, and it's still true. But, honestly, it gets harder every day.
      This World Cup of soccer, with my beloved Oranje team -- The Netherlands, my native country -- just two wins from a world championship so long in the making (and waiting), could be my ultimate success as a sports fan. It's certainly the ultimate test of my fandom.
      Attention to my friends who know this phrase because I've used it a thousand times: I've got no guts.
      Nope, I could not watch the last 14 minutes of extra-time play Saturday in the scoreless quarterfinal game against Costa Rica. I sure as heck couldn't watch the penalty-kick shootout. Too nerve-wracking.
      I vowed never again to watch Holland in a penalty-kick shootout in a major competition. I've seen our team go down like that three times, and it's sickening.
      We've also won a couple of shootouts and advanced in competitions, which is nice. But I am on record as saying this repeatedly: A PK shootout is not a good way to settle huge soccer games (or any soccer games, for that matter).
      It is a way, and it does prevent an all-day, all-night battle for someone -- anyone -- to score the one necessary decisive goal, and it does satisfy a limited television time slot. But I say make 'em play until someone scores a legitimate goal (even on a called penalty and PK); put in a rule that each team must take a player off the field every 5 minutes. When it gets to be 9-on-9 or 8-on-8, something is going to get settled.
      I digress. Back to my role -- convoluted role -- as a fan.
      I've been able to watch these World Cup games, but only in a room by myself. Beatrice wants no part of watching the game, or watching me watch the game.
      Same for LSU football; I'm better off just watching by myself, although I sometimes share the game with my favorite LSU fan, my son Jason. But it has become a mostly tense exercise; the Les Miles coaching era at LSU has been more often than not -- and much more often than we like -- a how-did-they-pull-that-off experience.
      I can handle that, though -- barely. I can't handle watching the Dallas Cowboys mess up game after game after game; I've pretty much stopped watching the NFL.
      I still watch enough college football and college basketball to send Bea out of the room, but not as much as I once did.
      I love baseball dearly, I love the New York Yankees dearly. But the minimum 3-hour, sometimes 4-hour games are becoming routine -- and not my routine. For the last 3-4 seasons, I have not watched a dozen games start to finish.
      The NBA is Bea's sports love now. She will watch most Dallas Mavericks' games and playoff games they're not involved in, and she can be as intense about it as I am about my teams. But I can't handle much of the NBA and here is what I admire about Bea. If it's a boring game, or the teams aren't playing up to the standards she likes, she can turn it off and not worry about it.
      She says she is more of a fan of the players and the coaches, and that she doesn't look to them to make her feel like a winner or the illusion of being a winner. She also admits that maybe she's not a true competitor, that competition isn't her thing.
      I can't say that. The competition is still a motivator for me; it always was. My team winning is still important to me. That's silly in a way because there's really not a damn thing I can do to help my team win.
      But to me, this is also being a true sports fan. Suffering is as much part of the game for me as enjoying it. You'd think as I got older, it would be easier -- being retired, no work pressure, a life of relative ease.
      But no.
      Bea is always kidding me, and telling other people, that I'm a better loser than I am a winner. My standard reply: I don't want to be a better loser. Losing still stinks as much as ever. My team losing does not feel as good as my team winning ... surprise, surprise.
      Here is what I have to keep reminding myself: The players on my teams want to win as much as I want them to win. And what I expect, what pleases me win or lose, is teams/players that give the total effort.
      That hasn't always been the case with the Dutch soccer players, but it certainly has been with the lasttwo World Cup teams. Could not ask for greater efforts.
      We (yes, we) have won 11 of our 12 games in these two World Cup, and the only one that went to penalty kicks was the Costa Rica game. The only loss was the tense, tight, rough extra-time championship game against Spain in 2010, a 1-0 result in which the goal came six minutes short of the ultimate PK shootout (for the title).
      That was tough to take; the third time we've lost in the championship game (1974, 1978). But I was so proud of those players and that team. And I'm so proud of these players and this team.
      If we win the championship this time, it's what we've always wanted. If we don't, I'll still be very proud of the team and the country.
      Do we have a great team? Can't say that. We have a gutsy, resilient team. It won't quit. We have a coach whose moves, whose lineup changes, keep working just right.
      Can we beat Argentina -- and one of the world's greatest players, Lionel Messi -- in the semifinals Wednesday? If we do somehow, can we beat the host team and favorite, Brazil, or our greatest nemesis and probably greatest rival, eastern neighbor Germany -- mighty Germany -- in the championship game Sunday?
        Five wins down, two huge steps to go. Our soccer history against Argentina and Brazil indicates we have a good chance. Against Germany, not as much. But bring 'em on.
        We're the least likely of the semifinalists, a 25-1 pre-tournament shot to win the title. We weren't even one of the eight seeded teams. Most everyone expected defending champion Spain, the team we wiped out 5-1 in group play in our first game this tournament 3 1/2 weeks ago, to be the semifinalist in our spot.
          Heck, yes, we've been lucky. We've been behind in three of our five games; Spain almost had a 2-0 lead on us, which would've been hard to overcome because Spain was still the great power then. We almost lost to a so-so Australian team. We made a late two-goal comeback against Mexico.  We survived the PK shootout because our late-game substitute goalie, Tim Krul, made two saves of Costa Rica kicks.
            But, no question, we outplayed Costa Rica most of the 120 minutes, had many more chances to score. It takes luck to advance in this sport.
            It also takes a lot of patience, if you're a fan. I've seen enough posts from American sports fans who can't watch soccer because they don't think it's exciting and they don't have that patience to wait for the one -- or two -- critical moments in these games.
            I am a fan, but I am a nervous fan, and my patience only goes so far. I stop watching because I hate to see the other team score a last-minute goal (especially if it's been dominated as much as Costa Rica was). And my patience certainly does not include penalty-kick shootouts involving Holland.
            OK, no guts. I know it's just a game, and life will go on and my family is my real joy. But I care; I want my team(s) to win, and I will pull for them -- positively -- as much as I can. Proud to do it. But it's not as easy as it once was.   

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