I have tried to fall in love with the beautiful game. In fact, when I taught a semester in the UK during a sabbatical, I even purchased shares in the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, and I proudly wear its colors. The problem is that for me -- and apparently no one else in the world -- the game just doesn't have it.
I know that soccer is the world's most popular game, played regularly in every country by an estimated 265 million people. English Premier League fixtures are televised around the globe to huge and attentive audiences. Although Germany, Spain and Italy can boast about the quality of professional play in their national leagues, England was the birthplace of soccer and rightfully hosts the world's best players in the world's best circuit.
Kicking a ball through a goal is an ancient pastime, probably originating in China. In medieval England, entire villages would square off to play a game closer to open warfare than the present-day sport. King Edward II banned this "game," and Queen Elizabeth I imposed a one-week jail sentence on anyone who was caught playing soccer. Nonetheless, soccer survived and flourished.
I have watched lots of soccer on television and in person. The sport is basically a version of "keep away," a game we used to play as youngsters, combined with the possibility of scoring a goal. That possibility is slight, and one score might be more than sufficient to triumph in a match. There are definitely physical confrontations between players that sometimes result in a foul being called. Players do "flop" and wail about their physical injuries, hoping to induce the referee to call a free kick or even a yellow card. Most of their time, however, is spent running back and forth on a very long and very wide field. There is far more action in the stands than on the pitch.
Such doubts about soccer, of course, are heresy, especially at a time when the countries of the world -- actually 32 of them -- gather together to contest for the World Cup. There is no more popular sporting event. For the next month, television sets and mobile screens around the world will be filled with images from Rio, Sao Paolo, Natal and other venues in Brazil. Crowds chanting, footballers panting, commentators ranting -- what else could one want in a sport played in every country on the globe?
There is no other sport that arouses national passions like soccer. In fact, two countries -- Honduras and El Salvador -- went to war in 1969 over soccer. Although there were many underlying economic and political reasons for the "Futbol War," the trigger for the short but bloody armed conflict was a three-match series to qualify for the World Cup. Soccer hooligans around world have fostered violence. The Ultra Bad Boys of the Belgrade Red Star soccer club, for example, converted into a paramilitary force when hostilities broke out in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. For many, nationalism, politics and futbol are synonymous, and the sport, as George Orwell said, is simply "war minus the shooting."
I am hoping that this year's World Cup will finally score a goal in my heart. I think the only way that will happen is if the United States team wins its group. That, of course, is unlikely. But a stirring victory over Germany would certainly set my heart atwitter. (It would also provoke a deluge of tweets on Twitter.) I will set aside June 26 for that blessed event. Victory might require divine intervention, but I am ready to be converted.
I stand ready to be transfixed by the beautiful game, to glory in the phenomenon, to become a devotee. Although there are many in America who would like to make soccer a measure of national accomplishment and self-esteem, I think it far more likely that we will stick with baseball, football, basketball and hockey in the short run. However, if the U.S. team advances to the semifinals, as it accomplished once eighty-four years ago at the first World Cup, then all bets are off. Sports fans love the sense of belonging that comes from commitment to the fortunes of eleven men on a soccer pitch. I will gladly join my fellow fanatics in the terraces and sing the praises of our national team.