The big lion roared and changed the life of a 9-year-old boy forever.
Dom Badji never would have watched a sunset over the Rocky Mountains, never stepped on a soccer pitch for the Rapids and never shared laughter with me if not for a single goal scored 16 years ago.
“It changed everything for me,” said Badji as we stood outside the Rapids’ dressing room, more than 5,000 miles and an ocean away from Dakar, the city where he was born on the west coast of Africa.
Such is the power of the World Cup, the biggest sporting event on the planet.
May 31, 2002, forever altered the path taken by a skinny kid named Dom. Senegal, making its first appearance at the World Cup, was playing Thierry Henry and defending world champion France at a stadium in Seoul, South Korea.
And Badji as watching on television from his sofa from Africa, cheering the underdog national team of his homeland, fondly nicknamed the Lions of Teranga. In the 29th minute of a scoreless match, huge midfielder “Papa” Bouba Diop came charging upfield, lunged at a loose ball in the box, saw it deflect of the hands of the French goalie and poked a shot in the net for the most beautiful ugly score anyone from Senegal has ever seen.
“I was running down the hallway, screaming,” said Badji, recalling a joy so loud he had it let it out.
The 2018 World Cup begins today in Russia. Senegal is back in the 32-team field for the first time in 16 years, and Badji will watch every game wrapped in his national flag, which will feel as a warm a hug from home.
The 2026 World Cup is coming to North America, quite possibly with Denver as a host city for as many as six games.
No sporting event in the world reveals so much of the world’s heart as the World Cup (sorry, Olympics). So I asked five members of the Rapids, from every corner of the globe, to speak on how the World Cup has shaped them.
Ask Badji the player to watch in Russia and he doesn’t name Lionel Messi or Neymar but goes full, unabashed homer and picks Sadio Mane. Asked which team will win the tournament, and Badji shouts “Senegal all the way!”
Then, truth be told, Badji confesses he’s picking Germany as champion.
Marcelo Balboa, United States
In a Broncos town, Balboa is our bona fide soccer star. Great defender. Even greater hair. And the first player in United States history to earn 100 caps for the national team.
A man never forgets his first start in the World Cup. Balboa got his in 1990, on a June day awash in blue, against Italy, at a stadium so loud he could barely hear himself think.
“My heart was beating out of my chest,” recalled Balboa, who took the field in Rome with 90,000 Italians waving flags and screaming. “I was trying to say something to my teammates standing next to me and they couldn’t hear a word.”
His pick to win the 2018 Cup: Belgium or France.
His player to watch: Antoine Griezmann, France.
Tommy Smith, New Zealand
What lengths will an athlete go to reach the World Cup stage? Smith was born 28 years ago in England. But he represented a rugby country, New Zealand, during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The champions club is reserved for soccer snobs, as only eight countries of elite pedigree have taken home the trophy in 20 tournaments, including Brazil (five times), Germany (four) and Italy (four).
But anyone can crash the party. And isn’t that cool? This year, the happy upstart is Iceland, a country where waterfalls outnumber soccer fields by 10-1. Eight years ago, it was New Zealand. The All Whites have never won a World Cup match.
The beauty of the tourney, however, is any underdog can bite. Eight years ago, Smith walked away with a 1-1 tie against mighty Italy.
“The underdog doesn’t have all the external pressure,” said Smith, now a Rapids defender. “To not have that tag as a favorite? It helps you mentally to play each game with the freedom of knowing the country doesn’t really expect you to win, but will always love the underdog.”
His pick to win: Belgium.
His player to watch: Lionel Messi.
Yoshi Mitsuyama, Japan
The NFL has endured a bit of a national anthem hubbub (as you’ve might have heard).
FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, plays the anthem for both sides prior to the match. But it limits the patriotic songs to 90 seconds, so everybody can get on with the game.
Mitsuyama is the newest member of the Rapids staff. He’s an assistant trainer and a native of Tokyo. I wanted to know: When the Japanese anthem plays prior to matches, what warm-fuzzy feelings of pride and nostalgia would bubble inside him?
“Nothing,” Mitsuyama said. “The national anthem is far different in Japan than it is here in the United States. They don’t play it all the time in Japan.”
The World Cup gets it right. Fans can proudly belt out the words to the anthem, if that’s their thing. But it’s about the sport, not the song.
His pick to win: Germany.
His player to watch: Robert Lewandowski, Poland.
Johan Blomberg, Sweden
Who’s the best player in the world?
Those who love soccer pick Messi. Those who adore chiseled abs and outsized attitude pick Cristiano Ronaldo. (Oops, is my bias showing there?)
Blomberg, a midfielder generally listed at 5-foot-10 and 143 pounds, picks Messi. I guess little guys stick together. On a good day, in proper light, Messi appears to be 5-foot-7. Tops.
“That’s the only way I have Messi beat,” said Blomberg, laughing.
But what does he admire most about Messi? His genius on the ball? The magical goals?
Instead, Blomberg replied: “He’s never diving. He always tries to stand up. He just plays.”
Little guys with big hearts don’t flop.
His pick to win: Brazil.
His player to watch: Messi.