This afternoon, 11 Brazilians will line up against 11 Croatians to kick a ball around a field. When the whistle blows to start that match, it will also be the beginning of a month-long celebration of sports and national pride. The 64 games of the World Cup make up the biggest sporting event on the planet, dwarfing the Super Bowl and World Series combined. Teams from 32 countries will play, but the rest of the world will still be watching. It is estimated that somewhere around 3.3 billion people will catch at least some portion of the tournament. That’s nearly half the population of the planet.
While The Cup has certainly made giant headways into U.S. consciousness since we hosted in 1994, Americans still seem to be missing out on the party. That is a true shame, because not only are they missing one of sports’ great spectacles, but also a chance to embrace our role in a world that is simultaneously becoming bigger and smaller.
It wasn’t always this way. Throughout the early 20th century, soccer was popular in the United States. While it couldn’t compete with baseball, it had attendance figures not that far off from (American) football or basketball. A peculiar sort of jingoism set in during the Cold War. Despite its British origins, soccer came to be thought of as “a communist sport.” Scores were low. Draws were acceptable. You can’t use your hands. The game was thought of as effete and “un-American.”
Beyond that, television had its part to play. With its many, many, many stopping points, American football was a natural fit for commercial TV. Basketball had time outs, and even introduced time outs specifically so television broadcaster could air commercials. Soccer, with its 45-minute, uninterrupted halves and no time outs was an awkward fit for television. Despite a brief, faddish spark in the late ‘70s soccer has rarely captured the American heart.
That may be changing now, but many in the U.S. still know soccer mostly as an activity they shuttle their kids to and from. With that in mind, here are 10 reason to tune in:
1. It’s a small world after all. Thanks to technology, many of us have friends that we’ve never meet in person somewhere on the other side of the world. America watches British sitcoms and Japanese horror films. We listen to K-Pop and Afro-Pop. We eat sushi, tofu, and yogurt. We drink Soju and Cachaca. And increasingly, we watch soccer. The rest of the world is watching this. Do we really want to be left out of the water cooler talk?
2. The celebrations of national pride and character make for a great spectacle. Back in the old days, when we wanted to find out, say, if France was better than England, the result would be a whole lot of dead people (some stirring speeches, though). Now, in the absence of World Wars and Napoleonic conquests, we have the World Cup. Most would regard this as an improvement. But for a true reflection of a nation’s character, you need look no further than the stands, where crazy face paint, giant hats, ridiculous costumes and hilariously filthy songs can all be observed. And for those not interested in the sport, you can always watch the pretty people in the audience at, say, the Spain vs. Netherlands game.
3. Messi v Crissy. The World Cup rivalries can be epic: Brazil vs. Argentina, England vs. France, England vs. Germany, France vs. Germany. And now that Cristiano Ronaldo is fit and will seemingly be starting for Portugal, this World Cup could give us another chance to see the rivalry between the two best players in the world. Despite their immense skills and the fact that they both play in Spain, the superstars are a study in contrasts. Messi is exceptionally short and, despite being 26, maintains the baby-faced looks of a choir boy. His style can be thought of as “high-speed Hobbit,” dancing around bigger players with amazing close control of the ball. And while Messi’s “I’m just a humble Argentinian boy” act can be grating, it is a pale candle next to the glare of Cristiano Ronaldo, who is a preening nightmare of tacky Eurotrash vanity — a man who wears jewelry on the field, maintains a friendship with Paris Hilton, carries a purse and single-handedly keeps the hair gel industry in business. But if Messi is a tiny ninja, Ronaldo is a brash swordsman taking on all comers with bravado and melodrama. At their best, they are both unplayable and should provide hours of entertainment to fans.
4. Yes, draws can be exciting. Some argue that you can’t enjoy a match without a clear winner, but this belies the fact that draws frequently do have “winners.” Draws can contain so many stories: A lowly David who holds a mighty Goliath at bay; a goal keeper having the best day of his life while his hapless defense lets in shot after shot, only for him to palm them all away; two grand warriors hammering at each other only to discover that superiority cannot be determined in 90 minutes; or a superstar striker who’s just having one of those days… Sure, there can be deathly boring draws, but a tie doesn’t always mean there’s no winner.
5. Tackles can be spectacular. Despite its reputation as a “gentler” sport than American football, soccer does not hurt for action. Players move fast, tackle hard and wear no protection beyond shin pads. Sometimes this ends badly (as an Arsenal fan, I’ll never forget the horrific tackle on Eduardo Silva…Google Image, if you dare), but these occasional nightmares do not take away from the visceral excitement of a well-timed tackle (or a strategically mistimed one). Despite the moral clucking about “putting the game into disrepute,” the overwhelming memories of the two previous World Cup finals are not of the goals or the saves, but of Nigel De Jong’s kung-fu kick into Xabi Alonso’s chest and, of course, Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt to end his career.
6. It’s all about the tension. One of the common complaints about soccer is that it’s a low-scoring game. Matches can finish 1-0, or even 0-0. For audiences spoiled on the fast and furious nature of basketball, this can seem anticlimactic…but it totally misses the point. The reason those Latin American announcers go so crazy when a goal is scored is because every single moment of the match has been built up to that point. There aren’t hundreds of shots like in basketball, there are maybe a few dozen…and those need to count. If you’ll excuse the analogy, scoring a goal should be like good sex: a long, slow build up to a heart-pounding conclusion.
7. Goals! (or Gooooooooooollll!!!!!) Goals are the moment of release that makes all the tension worthwhile, and they come in so many exciting varieties. There are tap-ins and 40-yard screamers. There are fantastic team goals (that follow a series of passes between multiple players before ending up in the net), there are embarrassing own goals, there are cheeky back-heals and power headers, and high-speed break aways, and the sheer thrill of watching a talented player dance through the opposition defense to put the ball away.
8. Penalty kicks make for extra thrills. After the group stages, if the matches are not decided at the end of extra time, the games go to penalty kicks. There is always some handwringing about this — that the game is being decided by a “lottery” — but that’s not really true. To win on penalty kicks, a team has to have held its opponent at bay (or scored an equal number of goals) and then outshoot them to advance. There are few moments in soccer more pulse-pounding than the second before the striker hits the ball and all possibilities exist at once. Will the shot be on target? Will he sky it into the stands? Will the goalkeeper pull off an amazing save? Or will we see something truly special?
9. See the next generation of global stars emerge. Among other things the World Cup also serves as a window-shopping opportunity for the big clubs of Europe and South America. Many nations do not have superstars to fill all 11 positions on the field (23 in the squad) and will rely on promising youngsters to round out the roster. If one of those promising youngsters shines on the biggest stage, look for a bidding war to break out for his services. Within a few years, he could be the name on every kid’s jersey.
10. The U.S. team is actually in great shape. The U.S. has completely revamped its national soccer program and brought in idiosyncratic manager Jurgen Klinnsman to take the team to the next level, implementing wholesale changes (including, controversially, dropping Landon Donovan from the 23-man squad playing in the World Cup). The team might be in the “Group of Death” in this year’s world cup, competing with powerhouses Germany and Portugal as well as Ghana. It is unlikely that Klinnsman’s crew will make it out of the group…but the future has never looked brighter.
Now that I’ve convinced you to watch, here’s the complete schedule for the games:
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