I'm not embarrassed to admit that six years ago, I didn't know that the World Cup was a thing.
Why would I? My father is a Brooklyn born-and-bred Baby Boomer. Back in his heyday, soccer was nowhere near the radar. As his only child - and a girl at that - he raised me on the sports and the teams he loved. I grew up with and know every member of the New York Yankees dynasty in the 90s. I grew up with Eli Manning and his final drives to lead the New York Giants to two incredible and improbable Super Bowls over the New England Patriots. I can even remember watching Riddick Bowe and those military-inspired shorts in 1996 with Andrew Golota at Madison Square Garden.
But soccer? Prior to 2012, I can't tell you a thing.
So what changed? That year, my then six-year-old son announced to his mother that he wanted to play soccer. My initial reaction was one of confusion. Huh... soccer? However, being the sports loving mom that I am, I enrolled him onto a team so he could play. Prior to soccer, he'd been participating in youth sports from the moment he was able to walk, and he played everything. T-Ball, flag football, basketball, tennis and even tackle football... if you could play it, he did it. I figured he'd be into the same sports I grew up playing and watching just as I did with my father.
Instead, I was the one who was clueless. Who were these soccer people anyway?
My little soccer guru quickly developed a knowledge of the best players, his favorite clubs and got me educated on the sport. We were learning about this soccer thing together. On the field, he acclimated himself quickly and proved that he was a natural talent, as if he'd been kicking a ball around for years. Soon, it became clear that this was not going to be a phase for him, this was his passion. Because I'm that mom, it became my passion as well.
I mean, what's better than a little mother-and-son bonding over players with names you can't pronounce, from countries and cultures outside of your comfort zone?
It started as curiosity in 2012, but by 2014 he was an eight-year old soccer aficionado. We were fortunate to attend the World Cup in Brazil, and we took our talents to São Paulo, Natal and Rio de Janeiro to watch the best players on the globe rocking their World Cup jerseys and putting on an absolute show.
When our journey began, I was oblivious that this experience would teach me so much about the sport of soccer and how it brings cultures together. It would be on the beaches in Rio where I would witness how the sport could be transformative.
On the beaches of Copa Cabana in Rio, my African-American son would play soccer in the sand daily. I marveled at his courage and free spirit. He joined pickup games with boys that spoke a variety of languages such as Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian. None of the kids spoke English but they all communicated through their love and knowledge of the game. There were no preconceived ideas, no hesitancy, no judgment, no racism. To watch boys ranging in age from seven to fourteen, kicking, passing and bonding over a multicolored soccer ball filled my heart in a way that words can’t convey.
After the game was over, I asked my son in a typical motherly fashion, if he was nervous to play with kids who didn’t speak English. He looked at me like I had two heads and responded, “nope.”
Zooming into present day, soccer is still his thang. He plays on a competitive travel team with kids of different races, ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses. His favorite players are from Brazil, Argentina and France. As life in the United States feels like it’s becoming more contentious and people burrow into their own racial and political tribes, it gives me hope to see my son expanding his view of the world through soccer.
I try to teach him that being proud of one’s heritage does not have to come at the expense of dismissing other cultures. We’ve had painful discussions about the color of his skin and how he will be perceived as he matures and navigates the world. He’s asked me difficult questions about police brutality and racial injustice. I’ve cried many nights thinking about the young boys and innocent men who look like my son that are being killed because of their skin color.
My soccer guru is now twelve and is counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds to the 2018 World Cup. While many of his peers are watching Steph Curry and LeBron James battle it out on the hardwood, my tween is mapping out group stages and making sure we have all the necessary cable channels. Even though none of his favorite players are American, he sees himself represented on the pitch. For 90 minutes, he doesn’t see color and he doesn’t feel excluded. All he sees are cleats, a ball and athletes giving it their all. Soccer is his great escape into a world where, among the athletes, there is inclusion, respect and a shared passion for the game.
While many will be betting on football for the World cup, my favorite striker will be rooting for Brazil or France to take home the trophy. As such, I, too, am cheering for Brazil and France. As his mom, I’m also rooting for him to not lose the innocence that still lingers, despite the pervasive negative images that he will continue to face as a teenager and beyond. Black boy joy is a beautiful thing, and while he watches the World Cup, that joy will be palpable.
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