The 2006 World Cup soccer tournament has officially begun, and you can bet there's a TV tuned to it in practically every watering hole from Buenos Aires to Bologna. Most of the planet is infected by World Cup fever, a virulent condition considered far worse than Final Four mania or even Super Bowl fanaticism. Either the U.S. has stockpiled a vaccine or there's a natural immunity. What are we missing? And why does it feel like we're about to come down with a case of it anyway?
Tomorrow, the U.S. team opens its World Cup play with a match against the Czech Republic in Gelsenkirchen. It will be televised but no doubt the ratings will play out better in Prague than Peoria. The U.S. team is rated fifth in the world, and ticket sales to U.S. soccer fans are reportedly running high. ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC plan to televise all 64 games from the 12 World Cup stadiums in Germany. It doesn't take a physician or a soccer coach to see that there's never been a better time to catch the fever.
U.S. soccer fans correctly point out that the nation's interest in their sport is on the upswing. Cable ratings for soccer matches have never been higher - by cable standards. It's noteworthy that ESPN spent $100 million for the English-language rights to the next two World Cups. That's about how much every NFL team earns annually from that league's $4 billion-a-year TV deal. And that's probably why the Ravens new quarterback earned an $11 million signing bonus while many of the players on D.C. United, the Major League Soccer franchise nearest Baltimore, earn less than $40,000 a season.
Some claim soccer is too slow, too low-scoring and not violent enough for American tastes - in other words, the opposite of the NBA Finals. But youth soccer continues to be incredibly popular in this country, and it's fair to wonder, when will all those Gen-X and -Yers who grew up in shin guards embrace the sport of their youth? People have been wondering this since the 1970s when Pele and the New York Cosmos were all the semi-rage.
Still, this might be the year. Certainly, the U.S. women's team did much for the sport by capturing a first-ever Olympic gold medal in 1996. Four years ago, a U.S. men's team advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals, the best showing in more than 70 years. The men are a long shot to win it all this year. But will soccer attract more fans in the U.S. during the World Cup? The odds of that are good. We can't hold off a global pandemic forever.