At the start of the 1994 World Cup, I wrote a snarky, jingoistic, front-page column mocking soccer as "cross-country with a ball." I voiced surprise that there were teams from Cameroon (a Girl Scout cookie) and Togo (a band from my youth with the hit "Rosanna"), and concluded that the best part about the World Cup was how watching guys in short pants kick a ball around the field rekindled memories of the '76 White Sox.
Twenty years later, I'm part of animated conversations about whether Brazilian striker Fred flopped, cheering Robin van Persie's header, texting my 15-year-old for an explanation of how England's Wayne Rooney shanked a corner kick, and sitting in the Fox & Hound in Schaumburg after work on Monday to catch the grudge match between the United States and Ghana.
Many of the fans at this restaurant and bar haven't even found a seat when the early patrons explode with cheers as the U.S. team scores a half minute into the game.
Couples, buddies, families with kids and a group of IDOT employees from a nearby office holler, boo and grimace after each near miss, penalty or injury.
Almost an hour and a half later, they erupt as the United States scores again en route to a 2-1 victory.
Like many soccer-bashing suburbanites who once vowed that they'd have to be dragged kicking and screaming to watch soccer on TV, I was gradually led to World Cup enlightenment by my kids.
One minute I'm at a youth soccer game, rolling my eyes as other clueless suburban parents shout strategy ("Kick the ball!" "No, the other direction!"), and the next thing I know, I'm actually talking with my teenage sons about the finer points of that "extra touch," the beautiful "through ball" or amazing "nutmeg."
Growing up playing soccer in Lisle, 35-year-old Jason Johnson made a pilgrimage with his buddies to catch the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Now, as a father of sons Evan, 3, and Wyatt, 1, and husband to Amy, Johnson wears his USA jersey and gathers with a couple of friends to watch the game on TV.
"It's the only sports event where I'll watch every game. It doesn't matter which teams," says Johnson, who lives in Roselle and works as a high school counselor for Community Unit District 300 in McHenry.
Americans (including some in the media) who regard soccer as a boring, "foreign" game played by whiny wimps are "just naive," says Steve Jenkins, 28, of Hoffman Estates.
He played soccer in high school and isn't bothered if some Americans don't grasp the beauty of the world sport he loves. "Everybody has an opinion," he says with a shrug.
I confess that I still am bothered that the soccer scoreboard clock counts up instead of down.
I chuckle when an announcer with a British accent talks about a "thoroughly delightful" shot.
I hear "football," I think Bears.
I don't fully appreciate the "thrilling drama" of that nil-nil match between Iran and Nigeria.
And, even though I'm rooting for the United States, I'll watch a World Cup won by Brazil, Argentina, Spain or even Belgium.
I guess that qualifies me as a soccer fan.
In 1982, the only World Cup coverage in the United States was on a UHF station broadcasting in Spanish, remembers David Richardson, president of the Sockers FC out of Palatine.
Now, the World Cup is shattering TV viewing records for soccer, and kids have grown up in a world where "you can watch 80 games a week on TV," Richardson says. "It's fantastic."
He sees a difference in the parents, too.
"It used to be that the moment their kids stopped playing, they were no longer soccer fans. That's changed now," Richardson says.
Michael Bradley, a key starting midfielder for the U.S. National Team, played for Sockers FC as a boy when his father, Bob, was coaching the Chicago Fire.
"I played with him at a camp," says TV-viewer Jonathan Acosta, 28, of Addison, who played soccer for Glenbard South High School.
"He had a really hard kick."
In some sports circles, Bradley might be more famous if he were the Bears' third-string quarterback, but his ascension as one of the world's best soccer players mirrors the rise of soccer, says Richardson, who coached Bradley for several years.
Always a good player, Bradley sometimes was seen as too slow or too weak to fulfill his dream of becoming a pro player, his coach remembers. But Bradley proved critics wrong.
"Twenty years ago, people were saying the same things about soccer," notes Richardson, whose comments are a side dish for my personal helping of crow for suggesting the game didn't have what it takes to become popular with Americans.
"It just takes a little longer to catch on in the U.S., but we have a soccer culture now."
The Fox & Hound adorns its ceiling with flags from all 32 nations playing in the World Cup.
Monday's diverse crowd might feature patrons from all 32 countries. Schaumburg's Alex Paredes, 33, was born in Peru. His brother, Martin, 24, was born here. They both root for USA.
"For the prime-time games, we get packed," says Gary Witz, kitchen manager for the sports bar and restaurant. Fans wearing Greece jerseys occupied several tables for that nation's game.
When Mexico played, that nation's fans filled a separate room, where the Spanish broadcast played.
A waitress even has a boyfriend on the Portugal team, Witz says.
"This is a big deal because soccer is growing so much," Witz says.
After the U.S. team's heart-pounding 2-1 thriller over Ghana, the number of American soccer fans should be even greater for Sunday's game against Portugal.