In one of America's leading media outlets, I recently read a sad excuse for a World Cup blog, in which a writer took the wild and crazy position that soccer, the sport that has the whole wide world on the edge of its seat, is in fact, boring. Truth is, American media has been saying this since deep into the last millennium, many times barking like mad dogs foaming at the mouth about how a sport that America doesn't play as well as the rest of the world is deathly dull.
Of course, not every soccer game is a great game. I love basketball, but I don't really usually watch the NBA during the regular season anymore, because it's a bit like watching water turn into ice. I'm a baseball freak, but I can't watch very much of the Orioles playing the Indians, when both teams are in last place, the bullpen has been emptied, the strike zone is the size of a chickpea and the game drags into its fourth unholy hour. And of course, with soccer, there aren't the natural commercial breaks we need as Americans. To really watch a soccer game, you have to pay attention for 45 minutes IN A ROW.
Being an American, I understand all too well that this is virtually impossible. I also realize that many Americans don't have an emotional investment in soccer. It's not tied to any childhood memories. And of course in the past America was just not very good, and hardly a presence on the world stage. More like a galactic laughingstock in world-class soccer. And because we are American, if we are not the best at it, if it doesn't revolve around us and our immediate gratification, it's virtually impossible for us to understand, care about, or appreciate it. That's why our Gulf Coast is currently suffocating in a man-made catastrophe of biblical proportions. That's why we consume so much more energy than anyone else in the world. That's why we were so dumbfounded after the attacks of 9/11 and kept asking over and over, like a confused child, "Why don't they like us?"
Like pretty much the rest of America, I was sitting riveted in front of my giant flatscreen highdef TV when Boston and LA went at it tooth and nail hammer and tong in Game 7. I'm emotionally invested in both those teams that I've been watching my whole life, from Bill Russell to Larry Bird to Kevin Garnet. From Jerry West to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Kobe Bryant. But because my parents are immigrants, and I played soccer at a very high level from the time I was a teenager, I'm emotionally invested in, and have deep feelings for, Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, and now, Tim Howard. In case you haven't heard of him, he's the mad-talented, spectacularly athletic American goalkeeper who, playing with Tourette's syndrome, is currently writing history as he tries to work his way into the pantheon of soccer gods.
It makes my heart sad that any American could sit through that USA-England game and not feel the tingling tension and high anxiety, the heavy heartbreak and mighty triumph, the agony and yes, the ecstasy, of that titanic struggle. When English goalkeeper Robert Green committed the Great Green Gaffe, and had that goal clang off his frying pan hands, this was opera. It's the stuff that suicides are made of. And every time England had the ball in the last 20 minutes of that game, my heart shot like a rifled volley up my throat and into my mouth, because I was sure England was going to score. England was supposed to win that game. Their payroll is 50 times bigger than American's. It's like the Toledo Mud Hens going up against the New York Yankees. And these English are the colonizing, imperialist bastards who taxed us without representation. How could any true blooded American have forgotten this? And that's part of the beauty of the World Cup. It's my whole country against your whole country. Winner gets the glory; loser goes home with tail between legs to a deeply depressed nation.
Many of my American friends are also very upset that soccer games sometimes end in a tie. We Americans are so upset by ties. We always want winners and losers. But sometimes in life, things are equal. Plus, it's a tournament, not just one game. The object is to go through to the next round. That's how you become champions of the world. England was third favorite to win this whole enchilada. USA was an 80-1 underdog. So the point gained for America is much bigger than the point gained by England. I know it's hard for us Americans to see the big picture, but sometimes a tie is not really a tie. This tie was a win.
The bottom line, and since I'm an American, I like the bottom line, is that I feel bad for anyone who thinks soccer is boring. And being American, I want to help. So I'm going to provide a great public service and give non-believers an easy, fun and foolproof way to understand the beauty of the beautiful game. Go to a bar or pub that will be jam-packed with soccer fans who aren't Americans, and whose team is playing that day. Go early, because otherwise you won't be able to get a seat. Take a designated driver, and a couple of friends for emotional support. As soon as you arrive, start drinking heavily. If, after 90 minutes of a World Cup game in these circumstances, you still think soccer is boring, I'm sorry but I have no hope for your immortal soul.
David Henry Sterry is, with Bay Area literary legend Alan Black, co-author of The Glorious World Cup: A Fanatics Guide, for those who like their soccer with a side of kick ass.