World Cup fever: Americans can catch it (if they host a soccer-loving exchange student)

Our tutor, Jaime Carande.
Our tutor, Jaime Carande.

Sorry, world: Most Americans didn't care one bit about yesterday's World Cup finals.

I did, though -- and now I know the secret to getting more Americans to love (or at least better understand) the game the rest of the world knows as football. Each of us should be assigned to host a soccer-loving exchange student.

This summer, we've opened up our home to Jaime Carande, a seventeen-year old from León, Spain. And while we didn't realize at the time we agreed to do so that Spain would be among this year's World Cup contestants -- which gives you an idea of how closely we follow the sport -- the squad's trip through the tourney has proven to be both a wonderful bonding experience and an opportunity to see soccer as something more than a snooze.

Team Spain lost its first match (to the not-amazing Swiss unit) shortly before Jaime's arrival. But after he hit U.S. soil, the Spaniard got their groove on, giving Jaime -- a fine player himself -- an opportunity to school our clan in the details of a sport that I'd previously found not quite as fascinating as competitive knitting.

Over the span of two weeks or so, I better comprehended the nuts and bolts of the game -- like the details of offsides penalties, or the thin line between common fall calls and yellow cards. Plus, I began to pick up on different strategies and techniques, and to appreciate the slow-building tension of the (usually) free-flowing matches, rather than griping about the lack of scoring.

I also got a greater feel for the flop -- a gambit that infuriates me when NBA players utilize it (I'm talking about you, Manu Ginobili), but one that makes more sense in soccer given how key penalties can be in this sport.

Indeed, I found yesterday's Spain-Netherlands finals absolutely gripping, and not just because Jaime was a bundle of nerves throughout it, alternately pacing or curling into the fetal position depending upon the course of the game. Spain's precision passing and extraordinary discipline in the face of the Dutch's unexpected goonery and persistent bitching struck me as quite extraordinary, and when Andres Iniesta -- Jaime's favorite player -- struck the game-winner, I whooped as loudly as I did when the Broncos won their first Super Bowl.

Does that mean I'll be glued to the set for every soccer match from here on? Doubt it. But at least I've abandoned the snobbery most Americans have about soccer. And if you had a teenager from Spain living at your place over the past few weeks, you would, too.


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