America's Ambivalent Embrace of World Cup
BOSTON — Soccer is the biggest sports enigma in this country.
Two things are obvious: People in the US love soccer, and people in the US don't love soccer.
This dichotomy snaps into bold relief every four years when the World Cup competition - it is just under way and doesn't end until the finals July 12 - struts its stuff on the world stage in an event that ESPN says will be watched on television by 37 billion people.
Most of the world truly loves soccer. Says Geoffrey Mason, executive producer for ABC/ESPN television coverage, "People have more passion for this event than any other activity on the planet, with the possible exception of war." America, however, isn't sure about its feelings. But Mason, whistling past a potential ratings cemetery, insists that "American viewers care about big events." Well, possibly. Let's see how Holland vs. Belgium does on the tube Saturday; Jamaica vs. Croatia on Sunday.
Understand that to be politically correct, one must sing the praises of soccer. It has gained cachet, whether deserved or not, as a thinking person's sport when compared to, say, football. It's a bit like the relationship between bridge and Old Maid. To knock soccer is to indicate you are in the intellectual hinterlands. Soccer is big at brainy places like Harvard and Yale and Princeton so it must be worthy.
A few facts, if you won't be put off. Hundreds of thousands of boys and girls play soccer in America. Many have great affection for it. Mothers like it because they feel there is far less chance their children will be hurt. Dads accept it wholeheartedly when their girls are involved and grudgingly if their boys choose it over football. Anyway, the kids play with vigor and it's fun and cheap. Then they grow up and become - drumroll, please - football fans.
Who knows why. It's our culture. It's America. What you do, if you are a real American, is love football, baseball, basketball and then you get to pick one option as your fourth and final sport from among these candidates: hockey, golf, tennis, boating, skiing, or fishing. This is it.
In fairness, soccer can be a whale of a lot of fun if you like to run up and down a big, grass field - sorry, "pitch" - in the sunshine and hug your teammates about once every six weeks, which is how often a goal is scored. But seriously, folks, soccer in America is a game that some people love to play and most hate to watch. No harm in this. Lots of sports are this way. Chess, field hockey, synchronized swimming, rock climbing.
If it was fun to watch, we'd all be watching it on television year-round instead of once every four years. Television people are a lot of things, but stupid isn't one of them. They put on whatever we will watch. Ergo, Jerry Springer.
Plus, if this country truly embraced soccer, wouldn't it have a good national soccer team? What we've got this year is an exceptionally mediocre team in the 32-nation World Cup field. This is inexcusable, given this country's resources. The US is figured at 200-to-1 to win. For Pete's sake, Scotland is 125-to-1. Mexico may be as bad as the US, but it's scant comfort to compare ourselves to the most inept in the class.
The US is grouped in the opening round with Germany (which it plays Monday in Paris), Yugoslavia, and Iran. Beating either Germany or Yugoslavia is borderline hopeless. Its possible victory will come over Iran in a game June 21 at Lyon, which would at least give America a rare victory in something over the Iranians.
Problems abound with the red, white, and mostly blue. All-time leading US goal scorer Eric Wynalda and star Tab Ramos are both recovering from injuries; former captain and leader John Harkes has been booted off the team for vague reasons somehow relating to crummy behavior. This leaves no nucleus save the normally exemplary play of goalkeeper Kasey Keller. In sum, this is a struggling team with the solidity of cotton candy.
America's trouble with soccer is best reflected in the much-discussed situation in Massachusetts where some youth soccer tournaments are played without keeping score. This keeps the losers from having their feelings hurt.
This abject absurdness aside, it is true that if the score wasn't kept in the World Cup, the US would acquit itself in far better style.
* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is email@example.com
Most of the world feels more passion for this event than any other, but America isn't sure about its feelings.