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Thursday, July 8, 2010
Ehrlich diary: Cup Half Full

By Carl Ehrlich
Special to ESPNBoston.com

Editor's note: Carl Ehrlich, who was the captain of the 2009 Harvard football team, is in Spain to play football as a linebacker for the Valencia Firebats. He's chronicling his experiences on and off the field for ESPNBoston.com. You can find all of his previous entries here.

Like most everything in Spain, the World Cup is a family experience.

With España jerseys on their backs and their hearts on their sleeves, Spanish families pour into local bars and restaurants to cheer on their home country. Except those serving drinks (and many a drink is served), every set of eyes is glued to the television set.

For two 45-minute blocks of time, nothing else matters. While the games are usually low-scoring, the Spanish find no shortage of things to scream about. It's a level of involvement I haven't seen since my grandmother watched her daytime Soaps. But emotional extremism like this is a sign of normalcy.

In my household, it was a sign of the apocalypse.

Ten years ago, if you told me that my father would ever care about soccer, you could've had me for a dollar. Actually, if you told me he'd even watch a game, I would've laughed in your face. Not only was he disinterested in the sport, he was adamantly opposed to it.

Growing up in a baseball household, hating soccer was as natural as breathing. Because of limited field space for practice, my childhood was one, long turf war with local soccer teams. Sharks versus Jets. Greasers versus Socs. Mighty Ducks versus Hawks. To the Ehrlich family, soccer wasn't a sport as much as it was a waste of an outfield.

As coach of the neighborhood baseball team, my father spearheaded the smear campaign. At the slightest mention of "the s-word", he'd launch into his anti-soccer diatribe.

You can imagine my surprise when 10 years later, he's sitting in a hotel bar in Madrid screaming his head off at the television because a Portuguese player was offside.

Donning a tight white and red t-shirt with "España" written on the left breast, my father spent the entire 90 minutes of the second-round Spain-Portugal game like a local: moaning and whining and carrying on. For a guy who's new to the sport, he fit right in.

The Ehrlichs --my dad, mom and me -- jumped right into the mourning ritual that is a World Cup game. With Pops leading the charge, we spent 89 minutes (excluding a minute of raucous screaming after David Villa's goal) pounding our drinks against the table, pulling at our hair and futilely shouting things at the television set.

At one point, I caught my dad grabbing his leg in sympathy pain after a Spanish player took a dive. The same dive he oh-so-hated years before.

Where was the Little League coach of years past -- the one who despised those "shameless soccer theatrics?" Somewhere deep in the storage of my garage, my catcher equipment was spinning in its bag.

Exhausted after Spain's 1-0 win over Portugal, Pops was "too tired" to stream online Stephen Strasburg's fourth start. As a diehard Nationals fan, my dad never misses one of The Phenom's starts. (Unfortunately, the Nat's starting lineup missed the game, too, and again offered no run support. The final scores from Strasburg starts look like soccer results.)

But for all the Strasburg infidelity and soccer-time inconsistencies, I'm not judging my father's soccer-180. I bought into the soccer craze long before the rents came out to visit. How could I not? I dare any sports fan to watch the World Cup in Europe and not jump on the bandwagon.

Instead of watching the game in their homes, Spanish communities gather in local bars or pubs. Spanish people see this as a tradition preserver, as pub-going families bring neighborhoods together. Whereas Super Bowl parties consist of 15 people watching a 60-inch screen, World Cup celebrations host 60 people watching a 15-inch TV.

And in addition to community building, the Cup is also an economic stimulus of sorts. Because a large amount of Spanish businesses are either cafés or bars (leisure is highly valued here), the games pump much-needed cash through the system. While the Spanish team is tearing through the competition, the Spanish economy is tanking its way out of the Euro. In hopes of continuing the soccer stimulus, every bartender in the country is likely reeling that Spain is playing in Sunday's World Cup final.