Expat Diaries: What It's Like To Root For Team USA As An American Abroad
"Since when do Americans care about football?"
I'm an American expat living in Dubai, and I was first asked this question after staying out until 4 am on a work night to soak in every moment of the USA vs. Ghana World Cup match. Time differences, be damned.
I have been asked that same question dozens of times since. From 6,000 miles away, it is difficult to tell what on earth is going on stateside to evoke emotions that lead to headlines like "F*ck!" after an excruciating draw. Whatever it is, it's contagious.
The quadrennial event has managed to provoke the same urgent sense of pride, excitement and expectation in me, even without my fellow countrymen by my side.
From abroad, I have a unique vantage point of the unexpected American enthusiasm for the sport we so defiantly call soccer. I've experienced an evolution of emotion and realization since the day we finally let the door hit Ghana on the way out, all of which have morphed me into something I never thought I'd be: a fan.
So, FIFA is behind more than just the PS3 game that steals our boyfriends' attention?
Surrounded by people from all over the globe who root for different teams, one thing holds unbelievably true: Soccer is a religion. And, just like religion, the sport comes with its fair share of controversy, corruption and blind faith.
Alleged bribery shadowing Qatar's 2022 bid is apparently just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to questionable FIFA-related actions.
The inner workings and intricacies of the sport are intriguing in an unparalelled way. I want to keep learning.
Many of my international friends love a Big Mac, prefer coffee from Seattle, begrudgingly keep up with the Kardashians and have watched the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
The World Cup has been a humbling experience because this is one rare occasion that doesn't glorify our country. American soccer players don't cross anyone's mind when listing off the most impressive names in the game; our lack of credibility on the field is only reinforced by our lack of knowledge that surrounds the sport.
Forget hot dogs and beer. As far as the world is concerned, Americans come to the pitch to eat humble pie.
Ignorance is not bliss.
On the eve of the World Cup, as the office buzzed with soccer conversation, I hadn't even heard of Maradona — and neither had my three American coworkers.
Lighthearted mockery with a hint of pity and wonder ensued.
Now, each of us impress our European and Middle Eastern colleagues with precise knowledge about all possible outcomes that would allow USA to advance past Group G.
We can even tell you that Ronaldo has been off his game and we fear being matched up against Belgium if USA advances. We know certain teams are banned from having sex (looking at you, Bosnia) and that there is an art to post-goal celebrations.
Expertise in just two weeks — now THAT is progress.
There's something about watching an American team compete — no matter the sport and no matter where I am — that fills me with pride.
A sugar-coated image of "America the Beautiful" enters my mind and makes me fall in love with our country all over again as I yearn for the past, have renewed hope for the future and grow relentlessly homesick.
America, The Bully
Inevitably, as an American abroad, I am a representation of my government, no matter what my personal opinions may be. The conversations during USA matches have, at times, switched to politics. Sometimes for a minute; sometimes for longer.
Bitter truths and harsh judgements veiled in jokes spring up, prompting what I assume are more serious conversations than my friends are having at bars in Hoboken.
That is until the latest shocking turn of events happens — a yellow card, a Suarez bite or a goal — equalizing everyone in one collective gasp, proving we're all more alike than different after all.
There is something extremely satisfying about that glimmer of respect for America in international eyes, and Team USA is demanding it.
For someone who experienced bits of life abroad during the reign of George Dubbyah and now resides in the Middle East, it's a rare, heartwarming and welcome shift.
Beyond the World Cup, people around the world LOVE this sport. They name kids after players and schedule dinner around matches. They stay up late year-round to catch out-of-market qualifier games and put what we thought we knew about rivalries to shame.
I am finally coming out of my secluded oblivion and realize that I've been sorely missing out. Hope And Expectation For 2018
Listen closely. Do you hear that? It's the collective sound of baseball bats and football helmets hitting locker room floors with a thud.
I'd venture to guess that many teenagers — the ones enveloped in this year's games — are shifting sports gears and dreaming about scoring that coveted "GOALLLLL!" rather than diving into the endzone or swinging for the fences.
Will this year's renewed sense of excitement result in a stronger, even better national team for 2018?
For now, Team USA is underestimated but over-delivering and if we advance past the group of death come Thursday, chances are the world's opinion of our team will shift, too. Here's to hoping we deliver.
Since when do Americans care about soccer, you ask? Since now. And if I had to bet on it, I'd bet on us.
Photo credit: Getty Images