Nathan's column: It’s time for that other football
Every four years, sports fans around the world gather their national pride and the energy it takes to swear at a television set for two solid hours and prepare for a month of some of the most dramatic action they will ever see.
No, not the Olympics. I’m talking about … no, not the other Olympics, either.
The World Cup. I’m talking about the World Cup. You must have heard of it. One of the biggest events in the world? National pride and dramatic action?
OK, you remember those Vuvuzelas everybody was playing four years ago? The plastic horns that sounded like a swarm of hornets that had spent its afternoon day drinking and were now mean drunk? That was at the World Cup. There was also soccer being played.
We’re now 20 years from the soccer championship’s appearance in 1994, the year the sport was supposed to take off as Americans’ new favorite pastime. Or at least up there with arena football.
There has been some progress since then. Major League Soccer appears to be going strong. There’s even talk of bringing a team to Minnesota. NBC has started airing matches from England’s Premiere League on weekends, which means the entirety of English soccer has received nearly as much coverage this year as California Chrome has gotten in the past six weeks.
Hey, it’s a start.
We’re not there yet, though. While soccer fans in the rest of the world are sprucing up their team jerseys and coming up with a list of excuses for calling in sick to work, most Americans are more likely to find themselves wondering why Judge Judy isn’t on in the afternoon once play starts June 12.
To be fair, Judge Judy features significantly less flopping than the average World Cup game. And possibly more goals. But way fewer Vuvuzelas.
There are some reasons to get excited about this year’s World Cup, though. For one thing, it’s being played in Brazil, which regularly fields one of the most talented teams in the world. For another, games will be played with a high-tech new soccer ball known as the brazuka. That’s fun to say, and, surprisingly, it’s in my spellcheck.
See? Soccer is everywhere.
The United States will field an intriguing team in this year’s tournament. It’s a young team. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann made the controversial decision not to include Landon Donovan, who for more than a decade has been the American soccer player most likely to be identified in a photo by the average American sports fan. He was also pretty good at soccer.
Klinsmann also got in a little trouble for saying his team has basically no chance to win this World Cup. It’s not the kind of thing you like to hear from your coach, even if it’s totally true. The United States winning the World Cup would be like Cleveland winning the Super Bowl, the Cubs winning the World Series or Kim Kardashian becoming the greatest champion in Jeopardy history. It would be fascinating if it happened. It would also leave a whole lot of people wondering what was going on with the world.
That might be part of the problem for soccer in this country, I suppose. We as a country like to be the best at things — like basketball, or shooting rampages. When we’re not, we tend to lose interest. That’s why Major League Ping Pong will never take off in this country.
Well, it’s one of the reasons.
I grew up playing soccer, but I understand it’s not for everyone. There is strategy that can be hard to grasp, and the game can seem boring if you don’t understand the reason that guy just kicked the ball 40 yards backwards. Again.
What’s remarkable is just how much joy people seem to get from telling you they hate soccer. There are people — and it’s not everyone, but they’re out there and they spend a lot of time on the Internet — who can’t wait to tell you how stupid the most popular sport in the world is. It’s like driving across town in rush hour to tell a stranger you hate their shoes.
The World Cup is an intrusion into regular television viewing schedules, I suppose, but it’s one month every four years. Then we can all go back to pretending baseball is exciting.
Or, we can just wait for the next Olympics. There’s one coming up in just two years.