My earliest memory of what I wanted to be was a skeleton. My older brother had a Hardie Boy’s novel and there was a skeleton on the cover I thought was really neat. When the topic of future professions came up, as it invariably does when parents and their friends are around, I said I wanted to be a skeleton. As I was about five years old at the time I didn’t understand their amusement, though ultimately, it is a goal I will achieve whether I want to or not.
Next was a scientist. I think I’d been watching Star Trek as a kid and thought Spock was cool. It was the seventies and I spent a lot of time reading about space and rockets. And you know what, I actually ended up being a rocket scientist. But while that may be what I wanted to be, it isn’t what I wanted to be the most.
I played soccer as a kid. I started at about eight years old when no one else was playing soccer. I fell in love with the sport the first time I ever played and it has followed me throughout my life and is responsible for at least three of my surgeries. In high school I learned about the European leagues and all I wanted to be was a professional soccer player at Bayern Munich. Alas, I was in the United States when soccer wasn’t a big sport, and despite my ability, there was no way to make that dream happen. But recently I have realized my desire was anything but unusual.
In the United States we have football, baseball, and basketball (even though more young kids play soccer than the others put together.) Ask a kid what he wants to be when he grows up and you don’t have to go through many to find one who wants to be a football player, or basketball, or baseball. And while professional football, baseball, or basketball player may very well be the number one desire of American kids, it pales in comparison to the rest of the world.
Of all the things that kids want to be when they grow up, I bet that far and away, by an order of magnitude or more, professional soccer player is the number one desire. Nearly every teenage boy in Africa wants to be Drogba, Lukaku, or Christiano Rolando. Same goes for the Middle East. And of course European kids want to be professional soccer players. Soccer is also huge in Russia, China, Japan, and Korea. The scale of the sport only grows in South America, home of some of the greatest players the sport has seen. About the only place in the world where “soccer player” isn’t the first choice of teenage boys is the United States and perhaps Canada.
While some may ask, “Why isn’t soccer as popular in America?” that question isn’t interesting to me. What is interesting is, “Why is soccer the most popular sport among the remaining 95% of people?” Why is “professional soccer player” the number one answer of what boys want to be when they grow up, among all the boys in the world?
The things that resonate with people the most strongly are the simple things and soccer is simple. While playing on a perfectly manicured pitch is wonderful, most of us never get to experience it. Indeed, to play soccer all you really need is some kind of ball and four rocks/sticks/shoes/etc to mark the goals. That’s it. You don’t need lines, or refs, or nets, special gloves, bats, shoes, pads, helmets, or anything else. A ball, two goals, and players with the only real rule being, you can’t use your hands.
This month we’re going to be writing about soccer, one of my favorite subjects. Even as I write this post I’m nursing a sore ankle from a recent scrimmage with my sons. But that is offset by my new Donjoy Defiance knee brace that might give this broken body a few more years out on the field. A few more years of the beautiful game. A few more years of dreaming about being a professional soccer player when I grow up.
John C. Brewer is the author of Multiplayer, an adventure for young adults, and The Silla Project, a North Korean nuclear romance. Find out more about what he is doing at johncbrewer.com.