Saturday, June 24, 2006

On the World Cup

This has nothing to do with the Falcon Nation, but it has to do with sports, so I'm going to put it here. It has to do with the World Cup--and how our country's sports pundits react to it in their zeal to placate their audience.

I should begin by saying this. I am not a soccer fan. I have never watched even 10 seconds of an MLS game--it ranks even below the NBA on my scale. I could not name even one MLS player under an armed threat. I don't watch college soccer, I don't follow international soccer. My son doesn't play soccer.

I should continue by saying this. Soccer fans can be arrogant jerks. They need to stop preaching to people who don't like soccer--or, worse yet, telling them they don't understand the game. They need to stop telling people that its the world's most popular game. If they don't LIKE SOCCER, THEY DON'T LIKE SOCCER! OK? People are allowed to make their own minds up. Much of this is cultural anyway--and its not in our culture.

Not to let the hater off the hook, let me say two things. First, I actually heard a radio talk show host say he enjoyed the French Open, but couldn't watch World Cup soccer. Now, if you don't like soccer, you don't like soccer. But it defies any sense of consistency to speak favorably of clay court tennis, and then bash soccer. Its all or nothing on this one. Sorry.

Second, I have read numerous columnists say that one weakness for our US team is that it isn't in our culture to take a dive to draw a foul, and that hurts our chances. EXCUSE ME? Have you, by any chance, attended a college basketball game anytime, say, oh, ever, as players flop around left and right to draw charges? How about hockey? I used to watch a college referee who had a diving sign he used when a player took a header. Right. We're above that.

So, to recap. I am not a soccer fan, and you don't have to be either.

But I am a World Cup fan.

As a fan of sports--of competition, of athletics, it is hard to be any other way. This is simply the most captivating event in International competition. Its March Madness times about a billion.

I have been travelling in Europe twice during the World Cup, and it does help to have been in a place where people stop everything to watch the World Cup. You get a flavor of it that doesn't go away. There are some especially strong memories.

The strongest comes from Italy. In 1982 the Cup was in Spain, and Italy was playing in a semifinal game against Poland. We were staying at the Hotel Argentina, which is near Cortina in the Italian Alps. Stunning postcard beauty in a pastoral scene that could have been lifted out of a novel. As the game was preparing to start, all of a sudden, all over the area around the hotel came people walking from the hills, many of them little old ladies in support hose, dressed in brown housedresses.

What has happening? The people of the area where coming down to the Hotel to watch the game because they didn't have TV of their own. It was so "1932 Fireside Chat" that I could scarcely believe I was seeing it. Even the hotel's reception was bad...they kept sending a guy onto the roof to adjust the antenna. (That's right. The antenna.)

Italy won that game, and advanced to the finals against West Germany. (We also watched the unforgettable W. Germany-France semi final from the hotel).

Unfortunately, we were on a train to Barcelona the night of the final, but I will never forget that along our entire route, as we passed apartment buildings facing back to the tracks, you could see the green glow of the pitch emanating from every flat. Once we got to Barcelona we ran up against a little problem---try getting a cab on the night of the Cup Final.

From the Argentina, there was one more indelible image. After the victory over Poland, two children made Italian flags, and stood by the side of the lonely road waving them at the occasional traffic. And each car that passed responded with enthusiastic honking and cheering.

There are other images. In Austria, I was sitting in a Hotel lobby to watch the classic Italy-Brazil match. A German tourist walked to the door with a camera around his neck, right out of central casting. His wife was dragging him out to do tourist stuff, but I will never forget the look of longing and envy on his face as he walked away, leaving us to watch the big game.

But what about the soccer, you ask? It is entertaining. I think soccer shares characteristics with baseball...a game with many empty spaces to be filled in by an engaged and imaginative fan. But the World Cup makes it different because of the national identities involved. I said sports are cultural, and they are. We watch sports where we understand the context of the game--the myth, the background, the stories.

I don't know the mythology of Arsenal and Tottenham. But I do understand nationalities.

Candidly, the fact that this is a world event in which Ghana (and have it not be a shocker to boot) can beat the US is fascinating to me.

No, you don't have to like the World Cup. It is up to you. But it is a moment in sport that I can't turn away from.

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