I made a lot of sacrifices when deciding to move to China. Friendships were strained; birthdays and a new birth in the family were missed; and for the first time in eight years I did not get to see one, single Penn State football game. Oh the humanity.
Last fall my football experience was limited to choppy Internet radio broadcasts at midnight (due to the 12-hour time difference between China and Pennsylvania) and a few highlights. But it wasn't the same.
I missed the thrill of the kickoff, the camaraderie and scuffles among fans and the pride of winning. I even missed that sour, gut wrenching feeling of losing.
But this summer, I found an alternative to American football to fill the void in my sports social life: international football, or soccer as we call it in the States.
After taking several trips to Germany to visit friends there, I'd become interested in the sport, but that interest usually faded on the flight home. The United States hasn't exactly had a soccer team to brag about, especially compared to European or South American teams.
And as an expat in China, I'd feel left out of conversations when my foreign colleagues and friends would talk about their favorite teams from home Arsenal, Manchester United and the lot. I wanted to make a stand, to become a fan of the sport loved by billions across the globe, but could never develop that connection I felt with American teams, especially Penn State. This past June, the perfect opportunity presented itself to get into soccer: the World Cup in South Africa.
I'd followed the last World Cup in 2006 myself, but really didn't have anyone to watch or cheer with since none of my friends were interested in soccer. This year I had a different mix of friends Germans, Americans, English, French and Chinese so I'd have other fans to root with and trash talk about opponents after the game. And because I was abroad, rooting for the American team would be another way of connecting with home.
The time zone differences were a real pain. A game that was being aired at 2:30 p.m. in the States meant it would be on at 2:30 a.m. in China and I watched quite a few of those matches.
Each match was better than the one before, in terms of both game play and the crowd I watched the game with. Even at 2:30 in the morning, fans were prevalent and hopes were high.
The American team pulled through to the second round, an impressive feat for a team that traditionally was knocked out in the first round. I tried to find the bars where Americans flocked to during the games, to cheer among countrymen and women. It was nice being among fans, to curse the ref for a terrible call that cost America a win, as opposed to just a tie, and chant U-S-A after a last minute, game-winning goal. While it wasn't the same as being among over 100,000 blue and white fans at Beaver Stadium, the games I watched with fellow U.S. citizens had that same energy and environment on a micro-scale that I'd missed so much.
When America finally lost fair and square, no bad calls I still felt that hollow feeling inside (think Penn State's loss to Michigan in 2005 in the last second, only without the tears and anger afterward), even though I knew Team USA wouldn't be going much further in the tournament had they still pulled out a win. Even so, it was nice to get a small taste of that euphoria you get when your team does well.
In the grand scheme of things, I can see why Americans are turned off by soccer. Ninety-minute games with scores of 1-0 aren't exactly satisfying compared to American football, where point spreads can sometimes be upwards of 20. But watching soccer provided me with that much needed entertainment form I'd missed out on for the last year. True, there was no tackling, no interceptions and no Nitanny Lion, but the excitement was the same to the point where had I closed my eyes, I would have thought I was back in Central Pennsylvania.
Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. Read Brandon's blog at http://www.btay200.blogspot.com/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.