Saturday, June 12, 2010

World Cup Diary

We’re minutes away from the biggest soccer game in U.S. history. I’m thinking not only about the excitement of the World Cup but about the game of soccer and its place in U.S. Culture. Soccer’s no longer just for immigrants and suburban kids who are driven around by Moms in mini-vans. Americans are getting increasingly interested in the International game. Last month the European Champions League final between Inter Milan and Bayern Munich, was aired on a Saturday afternoon on Fox. Not Fox Soccer Channel. Fox. New York’s Channel 5. This is new. And it could be the start of something big.

But admittedly, I’m more enthused about soccer than is your average American sports fan. I grew up in the New York area and started kicking a ball around the same time Pele joined the New York Cosmos, who played before bigger crowds than even the Yankees could draw. I played varsity soccer at my Long Island high school in the 1980s. I’ve tuned into every World Cup since 1986, when a squat player from Argentina named Diego Armando Maradona put on one of the greatest performances that any sports fan has ever seen. I consider Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch to be the best sports-fan memoir ever written. I visited London and Madrid in the late 1990s, and saw professional matches at Highbury (Arsenal) and the Bernebeu (Real Madrid). An American sitting in those legendary venues, watching the game being played at its highest level among impassioned supporters, can only begin to understand the degree to which soccer is in Europe’s blood. To say nothing of Latin America. And anyone looking to experience how Asians feel about soccer ought to visit’s 32nd and Broadway, New York City’s Koreatown, when South Korea plays in the World Cup. To see what soccer means to Africa, just watch this year’s edition of the World Cup.

For the mainstream American sports fan, the game of soccer tends to invoke one of two reactions. The first is contempt. And as soccer grows in popularity, so does the intensity of the American backlash against it. Some of that is simply an expression of nationalism. Since soccer is the biggest game in the world by far, the red-blooded patriotic American is inclined to be to be suspicious of this foreign activity. The second and more common reaction is ambivalence. Here are the American sports fans who have nothing against soccer on a cultural level, but who just can’t get all that excited about it. The sport isn’t really foreign to them – they’ve played it, or their kids have. And they’ll enjoy watching a great goal or show of individual skill on ESPN Plays of the Week. But the game itself doesn’t capture them and the lack of success by the U.S. at the International level frustrates them.

Here’s what bothers lots of American fans about soccer:

• Low scoring.

• Tie games.

• Whining, dramatics and simulation of injuries.

• Outcome of games decided by penalty kicks

But what the U.S. likes most about sports – more than lots of goals or tough play – is winning. If the U.S. can do well in this World Cup, plenty of Americans will look past what they see as the negatives of the sport and come to embrace the Beautiful Game. That’s one reason why today’s game between the U.S. and England is so huge. The media has hyped the game a lot but there’s no question that the U.S. is a decided underdog. There are a lot of eyes on this game but in the U.S., there’s also a notoriously short attention span. A U.S. win would be historic. And if you think there’s a lot of hype and sports media attention now…just wait. But if we see a disappointing showing by the U.S. or a dull game, a nil-nil draw, or a questionable call by a referee resulting in a penalty kick giving England a 1-0 win, the soccer haters will say “See? I told you so.”

But that’s Ok. Some of us will keep on watching.  That's what fans do.

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