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You Can’t Take This from Me, FIFA:

On the World Cup, Parenthood, and Extracted Joy from Broken Systems by Jacob Nantz

My son is three weeks old and rests on my chest just below my chin, close enough to my lips that I can kiss the soft spot of his head when he twitches or whimpers, or when he clutches my shirt in his tiny fist. I am leaning back in my chair, feet propped up on a footrest, and the World Cup is on TV.

I have been eagerly awaiting the pageantry-laden tournament despite my issues with the institution behind it. FIFA, soccer’s global governing body and curator of the World Cup, has been widely criticized for decades of corruption and greed. This year’s tournament, which takes place in Qatar, is symbolic of that corruption reaching an apex. Still, I am thrilled to watch with my son resting on my chest—a simple pleasure that until he was born seemed unlikely.

At our twenty-four-week appointment, my wife and I were informed that our baby was at risk for a congenital heart defect. The spectrum of possible diagnoses ranged from “possibly nothing” to severe, which meant we had to switch hospitals and doctors. We spent the next fifteen weeks traversing the DC Metro area to see our standard care providers, neonatologists, and pediatric cardiologists. We prepared for the worst, and although the expertise of these providers was never in question, the dread of each appointment was exacerbated by the administrative minutia of the healthcare system. We were shuffled around and ignored, forced to advocate for ourselves in an uphill fight for basic communication and guidance. If we felt this helpless, it was difficult to imagine the same experience for those with fewer resources having to navigate this clearly fractured system.

Fortunately, our son arrived in best-case fashion: breathing, healthy, and discharged after three days of monitoring in the NICU. And now, at just three weeks old, he is resting on my chest in the glowing light of the TV. It is a joy I did not expect.


I did not expect to harbor such excitement for the World Cup, either. I was born in America to an American football–loving family, in the Chicago area during the Michael Jordan and Sammy Sosa eras. My capacity for obsession had reached a comfortable limit at a young age. As a result, soccer was relegated to my periphery as a low-scoring, misunderstood sport—until I experienced it in real-time on its home turf.

In 2008 I was an undergraduate studying in the UK and decided one weekend to hop on a train to East London with some friends to see Boleyn Ground, West Ham United’s home stadium. The English Premier League club was the backdrop of Green Street Hooligans, an independent film that had caught my friends’ and my attention during college. I wanted to see it in person and a few of my pals agreed to tag along.

We hopped off the tube at Upton Park station and wandered down Green Street past the open market and eel and pie shops toward Boleyn Ground, which peeked its head, crowned with towering lights, over the flats lining the road. We arrived at the claret gates adorned with the club crest and were denied entry. They were remodeling and had suspended tours for the day, so we slumped down the street to the Boleyn Tavern, an elegant corner pub famed for its pre-match drinking and debauchery.

Standing tall in the center of the intersection outside the pub is The Champions, a World Cup sculpture paying homage to the 1966 England World Cup championship team. I did not know the sculpture’s history on seeing it for the first time. Nor did I know 1966 was England’s only World Cup championship, or that West Ham United players were the core of that team. The bronze statue depicts Martin Peters next to Geoff Hurst and Ray Wilson, who are hoisting their captain, Bobby Moore, on their shoulders. Moore is clutching the World Cup trophy as the three men below him smile, hands on shoulders. It is an image, I came to learn, that means a great deal to the English—especially to those in Upton Park.

My friends could sense my disappointment. I wanted to see inside the stadium and they agreed to support a final, desperate attempt. We walked back to the gates and approached an elderly woman in uniform sitting near a side entrance. Before I could speak, she smirked and asked if we wanted to see the pitch, another name for the field. I turned to my friends, who seemed just as happy for me as I was for such luck, and then turned back to the woman, who introduced herself as Gwen and shepherded us into the stadium.

Gwen was a petite, short-haired woman in her seventies who had worked at the stadium her entire adult life. She showed us the unmarked pitch, the stands, told us the history behind the statue we had just seen, and reminisced about watching that match with her late husband. She pointed out iron hammers welded onto the stadium gates and claimed they were her idea, and then she let us take pictures in the “hammer slammer,” a small holding cell used for unruly fans in the basement of the stadium. As she concluded her impromptu tour, Gwen paused and expressed gratitude for our appreciation of the ground. The club was her life, she said, claiming she’d yell at her husband in heaven when the team was struggling and thank him when they played well. When she died, she wanted to have her ashes spread over the pitch as the crowd sang “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” the team’s unofficial anthem. “Of course,” she quipped, “that’s just a dream.”

The team song, endearingly referred to by supporters as “Bubbles,” is an ode to perseverance that the crowd cheerily sings before, during, and after matches. The first few lines are easy to recall:

I’m forever blowing bubbles,

Pretty bubbles, in the air.

They fly so high,

They reach the sky,

And like my dreams they fade and die.

At this point in the song the music stops, and the crowd bellows the following pivotal lines, which include a double-down on the defiant, hopeful act:

Fortune’s always hiding.

I’ve looked everywhere.

I’m forever blowing bubbles,

Pretty bubbles in the air.

Sports offer obvious examples of humanity’s most confounding habit: unwavering loyalty to unreciprocating subjects. “Bubbles” is the perfect anthem for a club that seldom wins trophies, but whose supporters still hope, as if hoping can will fortune to turn. Gwen’s kindness and love for club and country converted us all to soccer fandom—even the guys I dragged along who had no stakes in the trip but who championed me until the end.


On the third day in the NICU, the lead neonatologist entered the room with a team of nurses and grinned beneath her mask: “You’re going to have a new roommate with you when you leave.” The pediatrician on rounds had printed multiple copies of our son’s test results. “I thought you’d want to hold the paper that says ‘normal’ all the way down,” she said. There were tears and a collective air of relief and joy in the room. It felt as if this team of strangers had cared as much about our son as we did.


Now my son is three weeks old, and I’m holding him on my chest as the World Cup plays on TV. A rhythmic drum roars from the crowd of painted faces and donned flags as young men represent their families and countries on the pitch. Surely the parents of the players, who once held these boys to their chests, are grappling with the joy and worry and nerves of such a moment for their children. I am rooting for them. It helps me escape FIFA’s light-thieving shadow.

I think of the doctors who helped get my son here, and how their care and support erased—albeit temporarily—my frustration with the healthcare system. And I think of Gwen. I am not sure if she is still alive, or if she was there when the Hammers played their last game in Upton Park before moving to London Stadium. I hope she was able to join the chorus for the last “Bubbles” at Boleyn Ground.

They may be a risky bet, but England could win this World Cup. A West Ham player, Declan Rice, happens to play a key role for them, too. One day they will win again, and East Londoners will flood out of the Boleyn Tavern, at a distance appearing to hoist that large bronze sculpture on their shoulders just as Hurst and Wilson hoist Moore, who hoists a trophy. A scene of infinite progress, of folks championing one another despite every reason to concede. Joy begetting joy. A bit of fortune dragged from hiding and shared as it should be.


Jacob Nantz is a poet and essayist based in Northern Virginia. Originally from the Chicago area, he received his MA in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Follow him on Twitter @JacobNantz and Instagram @Jwnantz.


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