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 V.19 No.27 | July 8 - 14, 2010 

Commentary

World Cup Junkie

It's no easy trick to write about the World Cup soccer tournament while it's happening. When you're not watching one of the 64 games, you're busy bantering about missed calls and poor coaching decisions, or you're emotionally spent from two hours of shouting at tiny men bopping a ball around your television screen.

Nonetheless, I'm determined to make a go at it this morning, while Holland plays Slovakia in an elimination round game, partly because it appears as if the Dutchmen have got this one in the bag (though I'm keeping an eye on the towering Slovak striker with the notched forehead) and partly because now's the time to write about the World Cup, now that I'm at the height of my distraction, simultaneously despondent over the USA's elimination by Ghana and giddy for this afternoon's Brazil-Chile clásico.

Forgive the lack of clarity, the grammatical uncertainties. There'll be little time to proofread tomorrow with Spain playing Portugal, and then I'll be too worked up for the quarterfinals to focus on anything at all.

Let me back up. I wasn't always a World Cup junkie. Twenty years ago, I was a normal 15-year-old who, like all good Americans, thought Africa was a country and the Super Bowl was the biggest sporting event in the universe. I did enjoy playing soccer and may have paused when I came across some of the 1990 World Cup games on Univision while searching for reruns of "The A-Team," but I was certain: Soccer watching, like kissing other men on the cheek, was something foreigners did. America had no business there.

My transformation began four years later, when the World Cup came to the States. On a just-graduated-from-high-school lark, three buddies and I road-tripped to Los Angeles to check out some games at the Rose Bowl. Standing in line for the USA-Colombia match amid a riot of afro wigs and yellow face paint that was the Colombian fan base, I realized two things: 1) We were sorely underpainted, and 2) this was much more than a soccer tournament.

For those fans, the Rose Bowl was the most important place on the planet at that moment. Barnum had it wrong. This was the Greatest Show on Earth.

Somehow, the gritty Yanks won that match, a cap feather for the gringos and a national travesty for the South Americans. I confess I don't remember the goals (though I can't forget a near-miss bicycle kick by American defender Marcelo Balboa). What I do remember is tumbling out of the stadium, chanting boisterously and being surprised that the downtrodden Colombian fans did not look at us with hatred or envy. They smiled. Some even wished us luck.

Like love and rice, like Michael Jackson, there's something universal about soccer, something that appeals to the pure animal in us.

My friends and I traveled to three of the four World Cups that followed, and in each case, and in each country, we reached the same conclusion: It's not all about the soccer. The tournament is as much an excuse to celebrate humanity as it is an effort to conquer your way to a trophy that—let's be honest—only two or three nations have a real shot at winning. My memories of games are not as bright as my memories of dancing with Scottish fans beneath the Eiffel Tower in 1998, toasting soju and bits of grilled beef with South Koreans in 2002, or raising mugs of Kölsch with the Germans in 2006.

Like love and rice, like Michael Jackson, there's something universal about soccer, something that appeals to the pure animal in us. My own theory, hatched near the bottom of a bottle of whiskey after the USA nipped Algeria, has to do with the fact that soccer prohibits use of the most uniquely human of all our exterior body parts: the hand. The hand sculpted “The Thinker.” The hand built the atomic bomb. It is the hand that God extends toward Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. By rendering moot this part of the body for all of the field players, and confining the goalkeeper—generally a social deviant at any rate—to a small, prison-like box, soccer lowers (or raises?) the being to a more natural, innocent state; a place where there can be no literary masterpieces nor racist manifestoes, no penicillin nor anthrax nor faulty deep-sea oil rigs.

A more plausible theory, perhaps, is that soccer is so widespread because the tea-sipping nation that modernized it also conquered half the bloody world. Whatever the source, soccer's universality is what makes the World Cup unique among all human activities. It reaches far beyond the Olympics, which excludes any nation (or 10-year-old kid) that can't afford highly specialized training and a good luge track. It's like a monthlong anti-World War; an open-air, fast-paced United Nations session, with the notable difference that it yields real results.

Simply put: The World Cup is the greatest unifying event humankind has to offer. What else do a yak-herder in Tibet, a barber in Seville and a baker in Argentina have in common? At what other time do they all suck in their breath (the goalkeeper extends Gumby-like, fingertipping the ball just wide of the post) and release the same guttural noise at the exact same moment? When else do those three people, and the billions of other World Cup soccer fans around the world, all care about the exact same thing?

Which is why I'm quadrennially disappointed that many of my fellow Americans remain aloof and will be watching an Atlanta Braves snoozer—or spending quality time with their families—during the final game on Sunday, July 11. I know soccer's not exactly our type of sport. It lacks the Shaquille O'Neal toughness we so love (the world's best soccer player is a 5-foot, 7-inch Argentine nicknamed the "flea"); and the running clock allows for few commercials, undermining our two true national pastimes: shopping and snack runs to the fridge.

I'd like to appeal to my countrymen and women to follow the lead of thousands of American soccer fans, and the cranky immigrant guy at the end of the block, and the man who's clipping the bushes outside your office window right now. Follow the lead of Bill Clinton and Mick Jagger and Nelson Mandela: Tune into the final game this Sunday. I know, the USA is no longer in the hunt, but this event is not about us. It's not even about Germany or Holland. It's about everyone, and we'd do good as a nation to peek beyond our borders, if just for a couple of hours, and join the party.

 

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