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Goal Posts

A haftorah of overtimes and underdogs

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Cameroon forward Roger Milla celebrates after scoring a goal against Russia during their 1994 World Cup match at Stanford Stadium in California. (Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images)

Like so many men of my disposition—thickheaded and slaphappy, enamored of guns and besotted with booze—I never feel more religious than I do when I’m watching sports.

It’s an old tradition. For Dwight Eisenhower, an atheist was anyone who watched Notre Dame play Southern Methodist University and didn’t care who won. Those of us who grew up in the Middle East share the sentiment if not the specifics; in Israel, the atheists are those who don’t care a lick for soccer.

As I prepare to spend the next four weeks watching the World Cup unfold, I look forward not only to entertainment but to elation. I was 10, after all, when, watching Diego Maradona score one of the most beautiful goals of all time, I became thoroughly convinced that there was a God, and that God—fond, no doubt, of baseball and hockey and other pastimes—reserved his true passion for The Beautiful Game. Four years later, watching the 1990 World Cup, I learned an even more profound lesson: Miracles, Roger Milla taught me, happened.

Milla was 38 when the tournament started, a talented player past his prime. When Cameroon’s coach put together his team, nicknamed The Indomitable Lions, Milla was left out. Too old, everybody thought, washed up. But Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, intervened. Milla was his hero, and if the old lion had to go down, he should at least be given one more chance to roar.

The tournament’s first game pitted Milla and his team against Maradona’s Argentina, the defending champions. Most of my friends didn’t even bother watching; one of them joked that it would be like watching the Los Angeles Lakers play our junior-high team. But I’m a zealot, so I tuned in. And I screamed as Cameroon won, thanks in large to Milla’s spectacular plays. A week later, when Cameroon faced Romania, the streets of Herzliya were empty, as was the case in so many towns across the world. We all wanted to watch Milla. He scored twice, and after each time he ran to the goal post and did a crazy jig—half rain dance, half epilepsy attack—that became his trademark. The next day, at school, we all pretended we were Roger Milla.

Milla’s fairy tale lasted a while longer. When Cameroon advanced to the next stage of the tournament, he scored another pair, deposing the heavily favored Colombians. Only a tight game against England in the quarterfinals curtailed Cameroon’s aspirations.

The Bible, of course, is notoriously short on soccer matches, but I’ve no doubt that had he been around to watch Milla play, the prophet Samuel would have been pleased. Here he is, in this week’s haftorah, addressing the people on the occasion of King Saul’s coronation. A king, Samuel famously argued, was an abomination—God himself had anointed all of Israel as his “kingdom of priests,” and a kingdom of priests needn’t have any other king but God himself. Like Milla, however, Samuel needs one more coup de grâce before going gently into the good night: He calls on God to summon thunder and rain. “All the people,” the haftorah tells us, “greatly feared the Lord and Samuel.”

What, we may ask, was the purpose of Samuel’s parlor trick? Moments later, after all, the skies turned bright once again and the coronation proceeded as planned. Why bother with miracles if defeat was preordained? Because, often, it’s the miracles we remember best. Few soccer fans today can even recall who won the tournament in 1990—it was West Germany, in what is largely considered one of the worst finals in the cup’s history—but nobody could forget Roger Milla and the Lions of Cameroon. Similarly, when Samuel was done conjuring the elements, it was less the flesh-and-blood king his listeners had on the mind—though the flesh-and-blood king was the one who would rule them for years to come—but God.

Such are the ways of the Lord, and such is his relationship with us, his chosen people. We ourselves are a bit of a miracle—a tiny nation that survived the trials of time, the least-likely candidates for grace, never the mightiest but frequently the most memorable. Like Roger Milla, our mandate is not so much to triumph as it is to inspire.

I’ve lived through this myself: After the World Cup of 1990 ended, I finally took to playing soccer. Watching Maradona dominate the tournament in 1986 was great, but it wasn’t much by way of motivation. Maradona was clearly superb; no number of hours spent dribbling the ball were going to make me even a fraction of the footballer he was. Brazened by his immense gift, he ended up bloated, face down in a pile of cocaine. But watching Milla was different. Everything about the man—old, flawed and wonderful—suggested that presence of mind and dedication could drive talent much further than it would have gone on its own merit.

This is the logic that drives religion. It’s also the logic that drives soccer. Starting today, and for the next month, the two, as far as I’m concerned, are the same.

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I know it may sound like sacrilege to you, but the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is the greatest sports tournament in the world today. Like your Roger Milla example, most of the great moments happen in the rounds well before the championship game. It’s like the old adage: It’s the journey, not the destination.

now THAT’S a lede.

Paul says:

Al – Yes, your comment is sacrilegous! The NCAA tourny may well be the best there is in the States – I’ll take your word for it. But it is barely watched by anyone outside of North America! The World Cup is without a doubt the greatest single-sport tournament in the World. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow!

Honest Broker says:

Thinking the NCAA Men’s Basketball is comparable to the World cup as a sporting event is like thinking “Dancing with the stars” is comparable as an expression of art as the Royal Academy of Dance examinations. Three cheers for American exceptionalism again!

Ah……soccer and the metric system.

“You better get comfortable with both of them” said my 7th grade teacher in 1973. “Soon you will be required to know them both.”

Tomorrow I’ll be watching the Detroit Tigers play the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Three cheers for American exceptionalism indeed!

Honest Broker says:

Those who don’t understand what the metric system and the World Cup mean literally and figuratively , don’t understand the rest of the world and America’s role in it — and that cost thousands of American lives in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan– and hundreds of thousands of non-American lives (if non American lives matter to those who are Imperialist Exceptionalists)

Lighten up, Man. We’re just trash talkin’ a little U.S. vs the world sports interests. Your “linkage” to conflicts around the globe are a tad over the top.

Yoni says:

Besides, why is European exceptionalism preferable to American exceptionalism? Don’t forget the two most populous countries in the world couldn’t care less about the “world’s sport”. Still, Al, Tigers-Pirates? You could make a stronger case…

Eric Weis says:

All this blather about NCAA basketball is American hubris. But there is one other “North American” sports event which is truly international and that is the Stanley Cup playoffs which feature players from nearly every continent on earth (yes, even including African 2nd generation descendants from Kenya)! No players from Antarctica yet, but the NHL is working on it.

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A haftorah of overtimes and underdogs

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