2018 FIFA World Cup, Commentary, Kick It Out, Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Sadio Mane -

I’m excited about World Cup futbol because of its blackness and passion Once I was exposed to the game, I learned to understand and appreciate it

2018 FIFA World Cup, Commentary, Kick It Out, Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Sadio Mane -

I’m excited about World Cup futbol because of its blackness and passion Once I was exposed to the game, I learned to understand and appreciate it

Four years ago, I was just like you.

The World Cup had just begun and I couldn’t care less. There were more pressing matters. I had just graduated from high school. It was beach week. Watching white men kick around a ball wasn’t high on my to-do list.

Eager to get to the beach but not enough to go alone, I stopped by my friends’ house during what happened to be England’s opening match against Italy. An unavoidable electricity could be felt before I even knocked on the door at a friend’s home in Dewey Beach, Delaware. Once I was inside, the distant sound of British accents, barely audible over the intense roaring of a crowd, signaled one thing: futbol.

My heart immediately sank. I had totally forgotten that this was a soccer household — two inhabitants had played in high school, while the last was a staunch Tottenham supporter. Persuading them to abandon the match was out of the question.

As I climbed the stairs, the air grew thick with tension. There’s a brief pause talk show host Maury Povich takes before announcing the paternity test results. It capitalizes on the tension built up over the course of the episode. Take that moment, multiply it by five and you might come close to the atmosphere of a room occupied by soccer fans during the World Cup.

All three friends sat on the couch, eyes glued to the TV, barely acknowledging my presence as I quickly found a seat and settled in for the long haul.

And then, it happened. Around the 35-minute mark, Italy’s Claudio Marchisio rifled a low shot from outside of the penalty box that whizzed past a swarm of English defenders into the back of the net. The room’s entire mood changed in a matter of seconds. What was once a very relaxed group of 18-year-olds suddenly turned violent with anger, hurling curses at the TV while the goal was replayed incessantly.

When play resumed, the anger gradually subsided, giving way to a nervous anxiety. Not even two minutes later, England’s Daniel Sturridge delivered the equalizer off a brilliant cross from the legendary Wayne Rooney. The room erupted in excitement. From shrieks of joy to hugs to Tiger Woods-inspired fist pumps — you would’ve thought one of them had scored.

Their celebration, however, was dwarfed by that of Sturridge, who ran with his arms fully stretched as if he were about to take flight. Suddenly, the English striker stopped on a dime and simultaneously locked eyes with the camera. The then-24-year-old proceeded to perform his signature celebration that resembled the classic B-boy arm wave with a European twist. Awkward and arrhythmic at first glance, the move seemed to scream “this is too easy” with each arm twist. Just look at this man’s face.

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I was in utter disbelief. For starters, the existence of international black players had never crossed my mind — Freddy Adu was the last person of African descent to touch a soccer ball, as far as I was concerned.

The emotional roller coaster of a soccer fan was unlike anything I had ever seen. Very few sports could evoke such drastically different emotional responses within a matter of minutes, let alone in the first half. Each goal seemed to carry the weight of a late-game Kevin Durant dagger.

By the second half, I was on the edge of my seat. Their excitement was contagious. What happened next solidified my love for the sport although I didn’t fully understand its significance until recently.

Five minutes into the second half, a cross from Italy’s Antonio Candreva found Mario Balotelli, who skied over an English defender for what would be the game-winning header. Think of it as soccer’s version of getting Mossed. While the room descended into a deep-seated depression, I couldn’t help being thoroughly impressed. In a sport that has struggled to distance itself from generations of prejudice and bigotry, here we have not one but two black men excelling on the game’s highest stage.

But it was more than that. Not until recently did I discover that three months before the match, football’s anti-discrimination organization Kick It Out released the results of its first consultation with professional players. The survey, which polled 200 professional players, hoped to provide some idea of the frequency of racial incidents. According to the survey, 57 percent had witnessed racist abuse in stadiums while 24 percent had been victimized.

From verbal abuse to being taunted by inflatable bananas, both Balotelli and Sturridge have dealt with their share of issues while on the pitch, usually from their compatriots. Neither man had to play for his respective country; Balotelli’s parents hail from Ghana, while Sturridge happens to be of Jamaican descent. To put that aside and play for the very country that has caused you so much pain showed an unparalleled resolve.

Four years later and I’m eternally grateful for having stopped by that house. What began as just supporting the black players turned into having a sheer appreciation for the game itself. Although both Sturridge’s and Balotelli’s presence will be missed in this year’s World Cup, the field of play is not devoid of black talent. There’s Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku, France’s Paul Pogba and Senegal’s Sadio Mane, to name a few.

This year’s tournament will surely be competitive; you just have to tune in.


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