The World Cup Doesn’t Take a Vacation

Two things happened this week that I never thought would have thought could have occurred.

1) I never thought I’d be distracted from a round of golf by a soccer game, and 2) I never thought I’d be sitting on a beach trying to figure out where I was going to find a television to watch the World Cup.

What has happened to me?

We’d had this 3-day vacation booked for a few months now, long before I ever had the idea to immerse myself in the 2018 World Cup. I’m not a huge beach fan, but this quick trip to Avalon, N.J., with some good friends of ours was something our family had been looking forward to for a while. The plan was to arrive on Monday morning and do a whole lot of nothing until we left early Wednesday evening. And then the World Cup happened.

The two semi-final games were scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, which posed a little bit of a problem for me. In addition to booking our stay a couple of months ago, my buddy had also booked a tee time for late Tuesday morning at a local golf course. I had scheduled the DVR at home to record both games in case I wanted to watch them later, but I knew that for the France vs. Belgium game on Tuesday, I was going to be relying on real-time updates on my phone while I played golf if I wanted to follow it live.

I know I joked a few weeks ago about putting away the golf clubs for good until the World Cup was over, but while I have played a few times in the last two weeks, for the most part I have scheduled everything around soccer. I was missing the live broadcast of the biggest game of the World Cup to date and as we drove to the course I wasn’t feeling great about it. What if this ended up being an all-time great game? Would I enjoy it as much watching the replay? Should I have forced my buddy to move up our tee time just for soccer? They were all moot questions once we pulled up at the course.

Once we got on the course I told myself to not think about the soccer. The goal was to play well, and if I was having an amazing round I was going to stay in the moment and try to ignore the soccer because it might derail me. I knew that once the game started I would want to know what was going on, but I could always go back and watch the highlights of the game. There are even a few Twitter accounts that I follow that post a lot during the games, so I considered just reading through their tweets afterwards to get a sense of how the game went.

That was my plan going in, but then the front nine happened: a disgusting display of golf from this 10-handicap hacker. The 49 I carded on the first nine holes was devoid of skill (and devoid of pars), and as we made the turn around 1:45pm ET, I pulled out my phone and opened my sports app. I needed the soccer game to save me from this debacle of a round.

It worked. As the game kicked off at 2pm, I followed closely, refreshing the app between every golf shot. Suddenly my golf game got hot. I parred the 11th hole, birdied the 12th, and parred the 13th, to finally get some momentum going. As the soccer game went to half in a scoreless draw, my back nine was looking pretty great. I put the phone away, and I immediately double bogeyed 14 and bogeyed 15. Back to the soccer, please.

On our way to our tee shots on 18 I saw that France had scored what would prove to be the game-winner over Belgium, a team I had really grown to love watching over these last 3 weeks. The Red Devils would never find the back of the net, and as we drove home from the course I had to deal with two disappointing results: my 19-over par 91 and a 1-0 France win.

There was no golf planned for Wednesday, and I was determined to find a way to watch the game. This was our last day at the beach before driving home in the evening, but I wasn’t going to miss a chance to see England make it to the World Cup championship.

I walked up to the beach bar just before kickoff and was happy to find about two dozen people also there settled in to watch the game. It was clear from the start that it was a pro-England crowd, though as far as I could tell everyone there was American. There were a few people who seemed like die-hard soccer fans, some random sports fans just looking for a game to watch, and a couple people who were already 3 (clean) sheets to the wind at 2pm in the afternoon #BecauseVacation.

It was such a fun environment to watch a game in. To be outside, in the middle of the day, watching two teams that no one seemed to have a die-hard connection to, was a bit surreal. And despite all that, there was this unique bond there between all these strangers because we knew we were joining millions around the world watching something important. It had an electric feel from the start, and when Trippier’s set piece found the back of the net in the 5th minute it lit up the entire bar in cheers. 1-0 England!

Every close call elicited screams from the gathered tribe, as more and more people filtered over to the televisions. The half ended with England still clinging to the one goal lead, and I walked over to find my family and let them know I was still alive. They were getting ready to start packing up our things up for the drive home, which was my cue to head back to the bar. Someone has to watch the soccer.

The mood at the bar was tense as Croatia applied mounting pressure in the second half trying to find the equalizer. I was too nervous to sit, despite being offered a chair no less than three times by a slightly obnoxious guy to my right who desperately wanted everyone at the bar to know how much he knew about soccer. He did this by shouting out the players’ first names and mentioning which league teams they played on. I fantasized about fouling him so hard I would be booked with a red card.

Croatia finally broke through in the 68th minute, causing the now forty-plus people gathered at the bar to let out screams of horror. Cusses were yelled, tequila shots were ordered (and consumed), and Mr. Know-it-all let everyone know that the goal-scorer, Perisic, played for Inter Milan. I’ve got no proof, but I’m pretty sure he googled that while everyone was yelling about the goal.

As the clock approached the 90th minute, the bar got more and more crowded. Each gasp and shout attracted more and more viewers from the pool area, and by the time extra time began, I counted 57 people crowded around the bar. Even the live musician, whose set was slated to start at 4pm about 30 feet from the television screens, told us he didn’t care if we ignored him, as long as we kept him updated on the game.

And then, just when it seemed like we might be headed to penalties, Mandzukic scored the game-winner for Croatia in the 109th minute, and that was that. The place got very loud for about 10 seconds and then got eerily quiet. We all knew it was over at that point, but we had to stick around for the final 10 minutes just in case England had a miracle up their sleeve. They did not.

Five minutes after the final whistle blew, our family was packed into the car and headed back to our house. I was bummed about the result of the game, but my mind was thinking about all those fans in England, trying to get themselves to go to sleep. I had just experienced something pretty fun and amazing along with 50 other people at a random bar in New Jersey. I can’t imagine what their whole country was experiencing.

Like I said at the start, two things happened this week that I never thought would have thought would have occurred.

Closely tracking a soccer game during a round of golf?

Spending the last three hours of my beach vacation watching a soccer game with a bunch of strangers?

There’s no denying it at this point. I have become a soccer fan.

“Our country has been through difficult experiences in terms of unity. Sport — football in particular — has the power to help that. It is a special feeling.”

Gareth Southgate

Bryan Allain has spent 41 years of his life ignoring soccer in favor of the Red Sox and golf, the REAL beautiful game. (His words not ours). This is the account of his 30-day, all in, deep dive on the premier showcase of the most popular sport on earth, the 2018 World Cup.