SWOK Sports

NOTHING BUT GREEN: Family heritage, sticker collecting are reasons for World Cup fever

July 7, 2018


It is no secret soccer isn't much of a priority in the United States. 

That is odd considering it is one of the first sports kids begin playing competitively at ages as young as 4 and 5. One reason for that is soccer provides the necessary amount of exercise for youngsters, and it also allows opportunities to develop socially with friends.

But as children become older, other sports begin taking over. Football, basketball and baseball are among the culprits responsible for the lost interest in soccer in the U.S. 

For me, though, soccer has always held a special place in my heart, especially international tournaments like the World Cup. 

My mother is a full-blood German, growing up about 33 miles south of Nuremberg in the small town of Pleinfeld. I inherited whatever interest she possessed for the sport and multiplied it several times over. 

Like most kids, I played youth league soccer, but my fandom really took off during the 2003 Confederations Cup. 

The Confederations Cup is an international association tournament for men's national teams and is held every four years by FIFA. It is played by each of the six (AFC, CAF, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, OFC and UEFA) continental champions, along with the current World Cup champion and the host nation.

Although I've lived in the U.S. my entire life, Germany has always been my favorite soccer team. I am a dual citizen of the country, after all, so it's not like I'm being unpatriotic or a fair-weather fan.

Germany didn't compete in that year's Confederations Cup, so my full rooting interest was directed toward the U.S. team. The States didn't do so well, losing two games and drawing another, but I watched every match from the comfort of my grandparents' living room in Pleinfeld -- I couldn't get enough of it.

I was in Germany again three years later, just in time for the World Cup, which was taking place in multiple cities around the country.

Watching the World Cup on TV is one thing, but being in the host country during the festivities is an experience I'll never forget. 

Diehard fans set off fireworks from their driveways and balconies whenever Germany scored. And while many American households have basketball hoops in their driveways, just as many Germans have soccer goals in their backyards. 

My cousins and I routinely made trips to the nearby soccer fields used by 1. FC Pleinfeld, a small minor league team, to satisfy our soccer fever. We couldn't communicate well without my mother present because of the language barrier, but that didn't prevent us from playing our hearts out on the pitch.

Nuremberg was one of the host cities in 2006, so my parents looked into possibly buying tickets for us to watch Germany in action, but it was not to be. Germany didn't play any games at Nuremberg's Max-Morlock-Stadion, and the next closest location where the Germans played was Munich -- about 2 hours to the south. 

Although we did visit Munich during the trip, Germany's game didn't match up with our busy schedule, and tourism and family time ultimately took precedence over attending a soccer match.

Germany advanced to the semifinals that year before being knocked by eventual champion Italy, 2-0, in extra time. The team went on to finish third, though, defeating Portugal, 3-1, in the consolation game. 

Although my dream to watch a World Cup game live was put on hold until probably 2026 when the U.S. hosts the Cup, 2006 was the same year my fanatical obsession with the Panini World Cup sticker albums began.

Collecting and trading the stickers with my older sister became almost as important as the tournament itself, as we both competed to see who would complete the album first. Both of us finished just short of our goal of filling the 64-page, 597-sticker book, but it began a tradition that lives on to this day, forming a unique bond of sticker trading between us.

This year alone I've unpeeled nearly 400 stickers, and though my sister now lives in Gulfport, Miss., with her husband, we plan to mail each other our duplicates to further our collections. That is the kind of power the global phenomenon has on our relationship.

This year's album is biggest to be sold by Panini, consisting of 80 pages with 681 sticker slots. I have yet to completely finish one in my previous three attempts ('06, '10, '14), but I am determined to fill every slot this year.

Soccer will never be No. 1 in the U.S., and I understand that. I just want people here to like and understand the significance of the sport.

Popularity has most likely taken a dive this year among Americans with the U.S. failing to qualify for the first time since 1986, but that doesn't have to be the be-all and end-all for soccer in this country. There is no question the homegrown talent in the States is on the rise, which is necessary for the growth of any sport played on a worldwide stage. 

The soccer culture is growing in towns and cities all around the country, including here in Lawton. 

Just earlier this year, Lawton High's Lane Warrington became the first Wolverine in school history to sign with a Division I soccer team. Warrington, who graduated in May, will play for SMU as a midfielder this fall as one of four Oklahomans on the roster. 

There is hope for soccer in the U.S., but there is still a lot of work to do before its prominence rivals that of the rest of the world. Maybe it will never reach that level, but getting soccer on a steady growth pattern will certainly move its cause in the right direction.

The first order of business, though? Getting the U.S. men's team back where it belongs -- in the World Cup.

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