I am psyched for the World Cup. Super psyched. Since the last time they had one of these, I've become a huge soccer fan, thanks to the combined might of Fox Soccer Channel and the Winning Eleven video game franchise. I know the names of the good players. I understand how offsides works. (In theory, at least. Like a major league strike zone, officiating practice seems to vary, especially when Juventus is playing.) I sort of get the formations, although for the most part it still looks like they're just running around to me. I do know that when someone says 4-4-2 or 4-3-1-2 that it goes back to front, backs, midfielders, and strikers in that order. But how many of my countrymen here in the fifth-ranked soccer-playing nation in the world feel the same way?
The other night, I was at a bar wearing my Milan Baros Czech Republic jersey and a complete stranger walked up to me and we discussed Wayne Rooney's foot injury for like twenty minutes. This isn't a completely unheard-of occurrence -- last year shortly after Liverpool's European Champions League triumph I ran into a young man in a Michael Owen jersey at Wrigley Field and we whiled away many a happy half-inning trying to remember all the words to "You'll Never Walk Alone" -- but in this case my fellow soccer fan was a genuine old-fashioned unaccented white guy, sturdy Middle American stock. Will this be the tournament that finally wins over the United States to soccer's case? In my unscientific anecdotal experience, it seems as if anticipation for this World Cup is at an all-time high stateside. And it's not because of Team USA's chances for advancement, or lack thereof. The Americans are crammed into Group E, probably the second-toughest four-team pool in the draw, and on the off chance that they can sneak past the Czechs into the knockout stage, they'll be on a collision course to get creamed by Brazil in the round of sixteen. No, I think people are just willing to give soccer a chance again. Good for people!
A lot of the credit for this unusually pro-footie atmosphere has to go to the ESPN family of networks, which is making every effort to leverage its considerable visibility into numerous extra eyes for the 52 Cup games which it will broadcast. If you watch sports on TV at all, you've probably already seen some of the many cool commercials ESPN has produced. The article I'm here linking on CBS SportsLine has some interesting things to say about ESPN's strategy for breaking soccer ratings records and why the American public might be uniquely receptive to the beautiful game at this particular point in posthistory. In a way the network is taking an Olympic approach to soccer. They've given up trying to convince Americans that the game itself is at all interesting and are concentrating on the public spectacle and sociological impact of the tourney. The "experts" say that only something like five percent of the American audience will be enthusiastic soccer fans like me and my buddy from the bar the other night. I'd just as soon that soccer not become something we in the United States only pay attention to at quadrennial intervals like curling, the steeplechase, and the Nordic Combined, but then again, better Americans pay heed to soccer once every four years than not at all.
Another even more interesting aspect to this World Cup is the current political climate. I'm sure no one's really lining up to buy the Iranians drinks (not that they could accept them), but I heard on ESPNews the other day that the American team is the only one travelling through Germany in a bus unmarked with any flags or other national symbols. People are kind of down on the United States these days, you see. I don't know what this says about our national psychology, but for some reason the fact that we all know the rest of the world is kind of sick of us makes us more likely to throw them a bone and pay attention to their silly soccer tournament. I don't know if it's a fair argument for American superiority, but I do have to say that it's much easier to find their game on our televisions than it is to find any of ours on theirs. (Not that it's on topic, but this seems as good a place as any to link to John Hollinger's story about trying to get Canadians to watch basketball. It's item #3 and it's hysterical.)
I just finished an internship and I'm quite deliberately taking a few weeks off before I start applying for a new job so I can gorge myself on soccer. C'mon, Wayne, suck it up. You can't tell me you're less of a man than Raja Bell.