The United States has long been regarded as a land where soccer has as much chance to grow as a palm tree does in concrete.
So, what to make of the unexpectedly high TV ratings and the cheerful crowds filling various American stadiums for the World Cup, the international soccer competition being staged in the U.S. for the first time in the event's 64-year history?
No doubt the success and the spirit of the youthful U.S. team, the first American squad to advance to the cup's second round, have gotten Joe Couch Potato more interested than he might have been had the Yanks made their usual three-games-and-out exit. Barring the shocker of further U.S. advancement, though, it's hard to envision the American sporting public working itself into the kind of soccer frenzy that's standard in other nations. But don't tell that to the organizers of still another U.S. league intended to debut next April.
The Cup is a wonderful spectacle that will be enjoyed, appreciated and respected during its run in this country. But let's be honest -- here in the home of the designated hitter, we aren't able or willing to connect with a game that routinely produces results of 1-0 and 0-0 (say it "nil-nil"). The single-elimination second round, with sudden deaths, overtimes and shoot-outs to settle ties, might be more to our liking.
As writer-editor Bill Buford has observed, low-scoring games are an essential feature of soccer's unspoken theme of deprivation. Maybe this is why the world's less affluent nations are so passionate about soccer, and why fat, happy America just doesn't get it. Not yet anyway.
Consider, too, a scene from the Holland-Morocco game last Wednesday. An errant shot flew into the stands, and while a beaming group of Moroccans slowly relayed the ball back to the field, other fans nearby strained to touch the sphere as if it were a sacred object. They already looked thrilled just to be at a World Cup contest; the chance to brush skin against a live ball seemed to transport them to an even higher plane of rapture.
We Americans have a ways to go before we approach that level of reverence for a sport known as the most popular on the planet.