Time is right to join world's biggest party

The world's biggest inside joke begins in three weeks. The laugh is on us.


Beginning June 11, South Africa plays host to the world's most engrossing single-sport event -- the FIFA World Cup. It is a hallowed championship worshipped on a scale most Americans can't comprehend -- and a relative few have bothered trying.

A colleague in the British press said something during Masters Week that made me laugh. He said the rest of the world is scared about American soccer -- scared about what might happen if a team from the U.S. actually threatened to win a World Cup.

"It's a sleeping giant," he said.

Sadly with a terminal case of narcolepsy. While soccer keeps the rest of the world on the edge of its seat, American spectators continue to view the sport with a collective yawn. We blissfully participate as children and grow up to shuttle our own children from soccer field to soccer field, but outside of that only a fraction of us bother to pay much attention to the sport otherwise.

Time and again "the beautiful game" -- as this week's cover of Sports Illustrated restates -- has been presented to the stateside viewing public, and time and again it's largely ignored. While so-called "soccer moms" might be a coveted demographic in the political game, we have voted overwhelmingly with our apathy that soccer will remain a niche sport far down the scale below football, baseball, basketball and even golf.

It's our loss, of course. The rest of the world isn't wrong. And against its own competitive interests, the rest of the planet has tried to lure us into the game they love more than we love our own version of football.

I can remember very vividly the year soccer first "arrived" in America. It was the summer of 1975 and I was approaching my personal soccer peak as a scrawny 10-year-old in the RSSL (Richmond Summer Soccer League). I had not yet made my most significant mark on the sport, which came in the form of deep, 2-inch gash on my right calf courtesy of a kid wearing track spikes during a game. The head of the league happened to be officiating the game, and since that day every kid who plays soccer in the state of Virginia has to line up before each match and lift his feet up so the referees can verify that they are wearing appropriate cleats. You're welcome.

Pardon the digression. Soccer allegedly "arrived" in the U.S. in 1975 when Edson Arantes do Nascimento signed to play for the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. You'll remember him simply as Pelé.

The most famous athlete in the world -- an athlete so gifted he actually brought a civil war in Nigeria to a temporary halt just so both sides could watch him play an exhibition -- was coming to America to inject life into a fringe league.

This was a seminal event in American sports. Pelé was so iconic that some schools and youth leagues opted to "retire" his No. 10 because kids were fighting over who got to wear it on their jerseys. We instead were forced to argue over who would get No. 9 (Giorgio Chinaglia's number) or No. 6 (Franz Beckenbauer).

There is no way you could have convinced me back then that 35 years later soccer would still be largely ignored by the American public. Every kid I knew played soccer and loved the game. Surely we would all grow up to become rabid fans who could sing the Tampa Bay Rowdies fight song (they were, after all, "a kick in the grass") and count the days until the next World Cup which by now the Americans would be dominating.

But that convergence of interest never gained traction or maintained momentum. The NASL -- which got a network TV contract in 1977 -- grew to as many as 25 teams in 1980, three years after Pelé retired from the game. Just four years later the league was down to nine and folded after the 1984 season.

The sport was going to rise again stateside in 1994 when we played host to the World Cup on American soil. We got all excited about it (setting a record that still exists for attendance), were thrilled with a victory over Colombia that lifted the Americans into the round of 16 and satisfied with a 1-0 loss to eventual champion Brazil. Then we launched the MLS a year later to fulfill a promise made to FIFA.

The buzz soon faded until 1999 when this time the American women played host to their World Cup and won it in a penalty-kick shootout over China that made Brandi Chastain and her sports bra an iconic image.

That performance spawned the first women's professional league that proved unsustainable and folded after three seasons in 2003.

But now comes another big opportunity. American men qualified for a fifth consecutive World Cup -- no small feat considering the 40 years they missed from 1950-90 -- with a hyper-active 3-2 victory in Honduras last fall. Poster star Landon Donovan leads them into group action against favored England -- hence the fear from the British sector that has much more passion invested in the game.

With televising network ESPN leading the cheerleading, another drive is on to connect Americans with the world's sport.

It wouldn't kill everyone to laugh along with everyone else this time. Like that Olympic hockey drama against Canada, Americans might just find they enjoy joining the party.



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