The World Cup is a beautiful thing. Really.
Europeans, South and Central Americans, Africans and Asians obsessively worship football (known as soccer here in the states) and their economies are on a productivity plunge this month as fans glue into the TV broadcasts of the cup games from South Africa.
But red-blooded American sports fans — those of us schooled in U.S. football, basketball and baseball — are squandering a delicious opportunity if we brush off or outright ignore the World Cup.
Remember I said it’s beautiful? It is, but in amusing, entertaining and absurd ways. Please do yourself a favor. Watch at least one World Cup game start to finish. In many ways it feels like you’re viewing a cheesy sports movie:
- The British announcers. This is the best part. These are skilled craftsmen, and like many literate Brits they have full-featured vocabularies. It’s simply entertaining to listen to their game calls. Watch out for the color analyst with the molasses-thick Scottish accent, though, it is unintelligible.
- The star players. Most of the really big ones have one-name monikers, such as Ronaldo. These dudes are treated like celestial personages. Michael Jordan couldn’t hold their socks, by comparison. The announcers speak of them in awed tones and credit them for being the real powers of “The Beautiful Game.”
- The coaches. This is hilarious. They’re all global mercenaries. England’s coach is an Italian who is paid $9 million and sits on the sidelines in an overdone European suit. The Ivory Coast coach used to coach two top European teams. They sit more as bored spectators, comatose compared to the typical U.S. professional sports coaches.
- The fans. I’ve been watching World Cup matches chiefly in a patriotic fervor, wishing the U.S. side to a shocking sweep of the competition. Two Elvis impersonators were in the stands as the American team took to the pitch against Slovenia on Friday. But our fandom pales to the feverish hordes from the other nations, who pack the bleachers and always are on tight watch by stadium police. Deadly riots and stampedes have a sorry place in football lore.
- Far from the least, the vaudevillian gameplay. They don’t stop the clock. The referees, the players and coaches are cavalier about it. This leads to comical, almost constant flopping by players from ephemeral fouls. The savaged player rolls and moans, killing time while emergency workers trot out to spray quick-freeze on supposedly mangled body parts. Finally, EMT types in bright vests stroll out to offer a stretcher, at which point the allegedly violated striker hops up and ambles off to the sidelines under his own power.
- Strategy. U.S. teams go all out from the opening play. But the top teams of international football appear to play especially conservatively in the first half, then attack in the second half. And draws are cherished. It’s all quite unseemly.
- Intimidation. Fans’ vuvuzela horns droning through the matches are intended to rattle opposing teams. Really? Interestingly, researchers say the hideous racket can lead to permanent hearing damage.
- Vengeance is swift. Despite the almost non-American, lacksadaisical pace and lazy attitudes during the games, the soccer announcers and the fans often quickly turn on the unlucky player who commits a major blunder. The English goalkeeper who gave up a fumbling goal to the United States in the open game was rabidly pilloried by the announcers, who guaranteed the man would endure a lifetime of shame for the goof. Fans have been known to show up at airports to throw vegetables at defeated returning national teams. Stumbling teams easily may implode — case in point, this year’s French side, which lost its first two games and then refused to practice before their next match.
Thankfully, one of football’s few similarities to major U.S. sports is, of course, that everyone despises the refs. We are the world!
Have a beautiful tournament.