If you're watching ESPN at all these days, you can't help noticing their heavy hype for the upcoming World Cup soccer championship in South Africa. Of course they're wheeling out the heavy hype because, yeah, guess what, they want you to care and they want you to watch. In this post, I'm going to make a case for caring and watching, for reasons that have nothing to do with ESPN's viewership goals.
First, let's dispense once and for all with the notion that the game we're talking about is called soccer. Well, we call it that, but we're a tiny fraction of the soccer-viewing public. The rest of the world calls it football -- sometimes futbol -- and when they want to distinguish it from our game of football, they call that game "American football" or "gridiron." Therefore, we live in a world where billions and billions of fans around the world call their game football, while we ten or so enthusiasts here in America call it soccer. Being Americans, and longtime fans of majority rule, we really need to let the majority have this one. Never let the word "soccer" pass your lips again; among your cosmopolitan and foreign friends, if nothing else, you'll score a point or two.
Now that we've established that football is football, let's address the question of why we should care. Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with winning or losing. Yeah, sure, the U.S. Women's team won the Women's World Cup in 1999, and that made us a (women's at least) football power. But that's not the point. The point is, billions of football fans around the world care passionately -- insanely -- about the World Cup, and that includes people from places like Switzerland, which has scant chance of winning, and Russia, whose national team didn't even qualify. You see, in case you don't know (and hundreds of millions of Americans simply do not know), the World Cup is the biggest, most compelling event in world sport. And if you don't follow the competition, you're letting the rest of the world go to the party without you.
So how do we wrap our brains around the World Cup? First of all, forget about the relative rankings of the teams. Sure, Brazil is a perennial powerhouse, just like England is a perennial underachiever. Even ignore strategy. Yes, the Germans will bring their usual highly disciplined approach to the game, and yes the Italians will promote passion as the strength of their play. Don't even pay much attention to underdogs. Can the Ivory Coast emerge from group play with a chance to play spoiler in later rounds? Can host South Africa make a decent showing? None of that matters, and I'll tell you why: Because that's all about outcome, and the World Cup is not about outcome, it's about story.
I discovered this firsthand in 1998, when I found myself on a flight from Jamaica to Europe on the same plane as the World Cup-bound Jamaican National Football Team, the legendary Reggae Boyz. And I could just tell that, win or lose -- like I could just tell that they didn't really expect to win -- they were determined to have the time of their lives, the adventure of a lifetime and, above all, a story to tell when they came home. Well, this they achieved. They emerged as the darling of the '98 World Cup, didn't win, but made everyone fall in love. Down there on a personal level -- my personal level -- that eight-hour plane flight made it clear to me that something special was going on in their world, a special thing that I'd never even known existed. During my next six weeks in Europe, I made it a point to pay attention to the World Cup. I didn't understand the rules, barely understood the game, but none of that mattered. By the time it was over, I had become infected with everybody's -- and I mean everybody's -- energy. Football wasn't my sport - isn't and never will be my sport - but billions of people care enough about it to put their lives on absolute hold for four weeks every four years. As a responsible citizen of the world, I feel like that's something I should pay attention to.
So that's my charge to you, gentle reader. If you've never watched a football game, watch a World Cup match or two. If nothing else, you'll see the best practitioners of the sport bringing their best game, and it never hurts to watch excellence in action. More to the point, you'll get a taste of something that the rest of the world cares passionately about. In these troubled and isolated times in America, it couldn't hurt at all for us to understand the passions of our foreign friends, competitors, even enemies. Watch the World Cup. Ignore who wins or loses. Just watch the story unfold. To do so teaches us all something vital about the world we live in and the people we share our planet with. Trust me, an America population turned on to the World Cup won't bring about international harmony and joy, but it just might be a start. And a pretty damn riveting one at that.