I'll never forget the first World Cup final I watched, shortly after I fell under the spell of soccer in the 1970s. I remember confetti falling like a blizzard at the stadium in Buenos Aires when host Argentina scored en route to a 3-1 victory over the Netherlands in 1978.

The only way to watch World Cup in the U.S. back then was on closed-circuit TV — if you're too young to know what that was, ask your parents — and if memory serves, we got to see only the semifinals and final. I remember watching the Argentina-Netherlands match in a high school auditorium, and I seem to recall seeing one of the semifinal matches in a movie theater while traveling in New York with the North American Soccer League team I covered at the time, the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

Fans in Grant Park celebrate a goal by the U.S. against Portugal in a Group G World Cup soccer match on June 22, 2014 in Chicago.
Fans in Grant Park celebrate a goal by the U.S. against Portugal in a Group G World Cup soccer match on June 22, 2014 in Chicago. Fans were turned away from the free event after a 10,000-person capacity was reached. (Scott Olson, Getty Images)

Today, soccer fans can watch every World Cup match on ESPN. They can follow the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga and other overseas leagues on satellite or cable — even network TV in the case of the EPL. In the 1970s, all we got was a weekly game from Germany ("Soccer Made in Germany" with Toby Charles) and one from England ("Star Soccer" with Mario Machado), both telecast on PBS. That's how I learned about the international game.

If you lived in a city where the NASL was successful — Tampa, Fla.; New York; San Jose, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; or Seattle — it was a thrilling time. The great Brazilian star Pelé signed with the New York Cosmos in 1975. Two years later, the Cosmos signed Franz Beckenbauer, hero of the West German team that won the World Cup in 1974. I covered Beckenbauer's first game with the Cosmos on a hot summer afternoon at Tampa Stadium, and it was on national television. I got goose bumps Monday when I discovered someone put the entire game on YouTube this year, no doubt from a VCR recording.

"This is Tampa Stadium," announcer Jon Miller says momentously to begin the telecast, "where today a crowd of close to 50,000 people is waiting to see not a football game but America's fastest growing sport, professional soccer ..."

Soccer was the next big thing in America, or so we thought. The Cosmos were so trendy in New York, I interviewed Mick Jagger in their locker room after a game against the Rowdies that drew more than 74,000 to Giants Stadium.

The NASL died after the 1984 season, but it sparked the flame that lit the way for the popularity of today's game. Kids who took up soccer in the 1970s and 1980s are parents now. Their kids not only play soccer, they watch the international game. Ask those kids their favorite player and they're apt to pick one who plays in England, Spain or Germany.

The U.S. national team gave the game a boost in 1990 when it qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. It got another boost when the U.S. hosted the 1994 World Cup and played respectably, beating Colombia along the way. The U.S. won 2-1 thanks in part to an own goal by Colombian defender Andrés Escobar, who was murdered when he got home from the World Cup.

The game got another boost in 1999 when the U.S. won the women's World Cup. When Brandi Chastain scored the winning penalty kick and doffed her shirt, the picture made the cover of Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. It was a striking image not because it was overtly sexual, but because it showed what a confident, athletic woman looks like.

It has been a long, slow growth in popularity, but go to a World Cup watch party at a sports bar today and you see men and women in their 30s who played the game as kids, who know the game and love the game. We soccer fans still must endure skeptics who don't get it, but we know the truth. We know soccer is here to stay and it's getting bigger every year. Every World Cup brings more converts, and I am sure Sunday's breathtaking match between the U.S and Portugal won many more.

Soccer wasn't the next big thing in 1977, but it was the sport of the future, and the future is now. Having been a fan of the game for almost 40 years, I am savoring every kick.

John Meyer: 303-954-1616, jmeyer@denverpost.com or twitter.com/johnmeyer