The whole world is on board, but we still sit it out


Let's begin with a little word association.

I say "soccer" and you say: "Yeah, my kid plays it."

I say "World Cup" and you say: "That's a yacht race, right? No, wait ... skiing?"

So right away we have a problem.

Actually, the World Cup is the big-deal soccer tournament that's held every four years with 32 national teams from around the world.

It begins tomorrow in Germany and goes on for a month and has soccer fans everywhere hyperventilating with anticipation.

Well, everywhere but here in the U.S.

Mention the World Cup here, and you still get an awful lot of yawns.

Unfortunately, if you live in the U.S., the start of the World Cup also means another endless round of debates about why soccer still hasn't caught on in this country the way it has everywhere else.

Let's face it, for 30 years, we've been hearing the sport was ready to take off in the U.S.

The theory went like this: All these kids playing in all these youth leagues were falling in love with the sport because it was fun, fast-moving, easy to learn, etc.

Plus the parents loved it because they didn't have to worry about some 'roided-up linebacker planting a helmet in their little dear's sternum or shredding his knee with a blindside hit.

And, the theory continued, these soccer-playing kids would grow up to be huge fans who would eagerly pay good money to watch the sport in person or on TV, all the while passing the love of the game on to their kids and ensuring its enduring popularity.

Yep, it was a great theory.

Except, of course, that never happened.

At least, not to the degree the soccer dreamers said it would.

Football, basketball and baseball continued to dominate the interest of U.S. sports fans. NASCAR absolutely took off. Tiger Woods pounded on the cold, clammy chest of golf and breathed new life into the sport.

And soccer still had trouble getting significant air time on SportsCenter or the 11 o'clock news.

So then all sorts of theories were trotted out to explain why soccer wasn't taking off here.

The game was boring, went one theory, a lot of skinny guys in shorts and knee-high socks with funny accents kicking a ball around this big field and not getting much done.

It was too low-scoring for American tastes, went another theory.

A 0-0 tie after 90 minutes? A 1-0 win? Zzzzz. Who was going to lug a six-pack of Bud Light in front of a big-screen TV for that?

A third theory held that Americans were too dimwitted to appreciate the subtleties of the sport and the tremendous skill needed to trap, pass, dribble and shoot the ball.

Plus soccer crowds overseas were getting a lot of bad press, with their drunkenness and brawling and rabid nationalism, not to mention the rioting that seemed to occur on a regular basis when certain teams lost.

(At least here in the States, we have the common decency not to get drunk and riot until our teams win something, like a World Series or NCAA basketball championship.)

So now soccer was declared a bust in the U.S., something that would never be more than a fringe sport.

But soccer wasn't a bust at all.

In fact, if you look at the numbers, you see the sport is healthy and growing steadily, if not spectacularly, in popularity.

Youth leagues continue to thrive. High school and college soccer is big. Pro soccer has averaged 15,000-17,000 fans per game for the last 10 years.

Fans packed stadiums and a sizable TV audience watched the 1999 U.S. women's national team win the World Cup, exulting when Brandi Chastain famously celebrated her game-winning penalty kick against China by ripping off her jersey, dropping to her knees and balling her fists in triumph, revealing the most famous sports bra in history.

And this year, ABC-TV and ESPN will show all 64 World Cup matches live, with network executives saying they expect a much larger viewing audience than the one that watched the 2002 World Cup in South Korea four years ago.

Does this sound like a sport on life-support?


And from a purely anecdotal standpoint, more people than ever have told me they're psyched about the coming games.

OK, maybe they won't be tuning in to see Trinidad and Tobago vs. Sweden, or Argentina vs. Ivory Coast -- although the hard-core, get-a-life lunatics will.

But they'll be eagerly watching when the U.S. team -- ranked fifth with a marquee lineup of good-looking young players but facing tough matches against the Czech Republic, Italy and Ghana -- begins play Monday.

So maybe we should just forget about all the soaring expectations for soccer in this country and all the doom-and-gloom predictions of its demise, too.

Maybe we should leave it at this: The World Cup begins tomorrow.

It's the biggest sporting event in the world.

You might enjoy it.

A lot of people around here will be watching -- a lot more than you think.

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