CAMBRIDGE — Like most Americans who grew up on a healthy diet of real sports — baseball, basketball, football — I developed, from a young age, a healthy distaste for the game of soccer.
A sport that limits the use of hands seemed counterintuitive. From what little I understood of the offsides rule, it seemed to punish a player’s ability to outrun defenders. Worst of all, every time the World Cup rolled around, it dominated the TV sports lineup, nudging out the truly important things, like NBA free agency news.
Over time, my stance had softened a bit. I’d come to view soccer in much the same way I view mustard: Perfectly fine, I guess. But my life would not be seriously altered had it never come into existence.
For all my ambivalence, however, the truth was that I’d never actually sat through a professional match.
Maybe my problem was a simple lack of understanding. Maybe sitting through a match — one played at the highest level — would change my mind. Maybe I actually loved soccer, and just hadn’t realized it yet.
So on Tuesday afternoon, I made my way over to University Park at MIT, a quaint green space nestled near Central Square in Cambridge. The Central Square Business Association had helped organize an outdoor watch party for the afternoon’s World Cup semifinal matchup — a large screen had been erected on the lawn — and as the 2 p.m. start time approached for the match between France and Belgium, fans gathered on lawn chairs, battling for the few plots of available shade.
I took a spot under a tree and vowed to do my best to stay positive — though, from the start, that proved difficult.
For one thing, the clock seemed to be going the wrong direction — 2:31, 2:32, 2:33 — ticking up to some unknown point in time. For another thing, nothing happening on the field made a lick of sense.
I tried to focus on what the TV announcers were saying, in an effort to pick up informational tidbits, but all I heard were snippets of what sounded a lot like nonsense.
“More of a 3-5-2 when they have the ball . . .”
“They still have those flexible movements underneath . . .”
“Capitalize on a set piece . . .”
One fan who was there, Sai Boddupalli, a longtime soccer devotee and part of the Central Square Business Association, tried to explain the draw of soccer — particularly when enjoyed in a group setting.
“The great thing about soccer as a sport is there’s a collective gasp when someone makes a run, or a collective exhale when someone makes a save,” he said. “And it’s easier to appreciate those moments with a big group of people.”
Indeed, the fans did appear to be enjoying themselves.
Some literally sat on the edge of their seats. Others sprang from their chairs at moments of apparent intrigue. For much of the afternoon, they ooh-ed and ahh-ed at what seemed, to my naked eye, like little more than extended stretches of incompetence. Players kicking the ball out of bounds. Players kicking the ball off opposing players. Players kicking the ball backward, or wide of the goal, or over the goal.
About the only place they didn’t seem to kick the ball, in fact, was into the net.
By halftime — or whatever it’s called in soccer — the score was tied, 0-0, although the clearly even performance had not stopped those gathered in the park from voicing their surprisingly strong opinions of how things were progressing.
“It’s not going good for us now,” one woman, visiting from France, said grimly.
At one point, I found myself loitering next to a pair of French women, and I confided to one of them — a 32-year-old named Magali Paoli, who had arrived for the game with a miniature French flag stuck in her hair — that I didn’t really understand what was happening on the screen.
“Imagine us when we try to watch American football,” she replied in accented English. “I tried for the Super Bowl, but it was very hard.”
And Paoli, I had to admit, had a point.
In this time of political division and animosity, I decided, it was important to maintain an open mind. If Paoli could sit through the Super Bowl without complaint, then surely I could do the same with a World Cup match.
And you know what happened, as the teams took the field and the second half got underway?
No, seriously, can you tell me what happened?
I left a few minutes later. Maybe I’ll give it a shot in another four years.