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Thursday, June 5, 2014 12:01 am

Our Cup runneth over

It’s time for the 2014 world championships of soccer

Honestly, I had no idea that anyone was paying attention. I had begun extolling the virtues of soccer as a spectator sport for years (beginning at this paper back in 1977) when most U.S. sports fans lumped soccer with socialism, clean, fast trains and quality universal health care systems among foreign threats to America. For years I employed all the tricks of the journalist’s art in the cause. I described, I explained, I compared, I analogized, I parodized. I offered my readers soccer as Cultural Significance, soccer as Current Events, soccer as Management Model. It was like trying to get Mike Houston to understand the concept of freedom of information. No matter what I wrote, the typical American sports fan would rather have voted than watch a soccer match.

Then, a few years ago, I noticed that sometimes when I walked into even “American” sports bars, a soccer match would be playing on one of the screens. (Recently, ESPN’s market researchers found that 41 percent of Americans now identify themselves as pro soccer fans.) The U.S. audience for broadcasts of the top professional league in Britain rose steadily, doubling last year’s total to 30 million viewers. U.S. sports networks began showing every game from World Cup finals uninterrupted by commercials. (This year ESPN/ABC will broadcast to American audiences 290 hours of original programming in English.) And more tickets have been sold in the U.S. for the World Cup than in any other nation besides Brazil, this year’s host.

Power of the press, baby!

Okay, maybe it wasn’t only my reporting that persuaded America to watch players who put the foot in football. Maybe it was also because the English Premier League this season was broadcast in the U.S. on NBC’s new Sports Network, which is on everyone’s cable lineup, while the channel the EPL used to be on, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Soccer Channel, was ghettoized as part of premium sports packages. Maybe a succession of American riders’ success in European cycling races revealed to blinkered Americans that “foreign” sports (once a term of derogation) were not only foreign but good. Maybe it was the echo in people’s heads of the last World Cup in 2010, which featured an American team that briefly gave fans reasons to cheer them other than chauvinism.

Pity that many casual fans only pay attention to soccer during World Cup finals. The tournament features national teams (usually, and misleadingly labeled “all-star” teams in this country) whose members seldom have played together more than a few hours before the tournament begins – a real drawback in a game with no playbook, which thus relies utterly on the understanding among the players. A World Cup thus is much like a newly elected legislature. Its members share high ambitions and even higher hopes, but they haven’t yet had a chance to learn how to work together, and at first they often work at cross-purposes.

Also, FIFA, the world soccer federation, makes the NCAA look like Oxfam. The official logo this year, fittingly, looks just like a person holding his head in his hands (possibly because he just heard that the official slogan is “All in one rhythm.”) I don’t know how it happens, but the mere mention of the word “FIFA” in a television studio a continent away will release a bad smell in your room at home, so relax – there’s no need to take your lab to the vet.

If it’s all new to you, keep in mind that the best matches are between evenly matched sides with something to play for, not necessarily the big-name teams. Play doesn’t become really intense until the quarter-final and semi-final rounds, partly because teams have started to mesh by then and partly because these games are win-or-go-home. And boo every time JP Delacemara appears on the screen – it’s a tradition worldwide.  

Oh yeah – the U.S. is playing. I have no idea how this bunch is likely to do. The game’s success as a spectator sport means that the U.S. now has a solvent pro league that has given U.S. players a chance to make decent livings at home. The caliber of competition in what must be called the Major League Soccer league is improving all the time, but it is not as demanding as the toughest leagues. It doesn’t help that the U.S. was drawn into first-round competition in Group G against Germany, Ghana and Portugal, a “group of death.” Ukraine had a better chance of beating Russia, if they’d had a decent referee.

For a quick backgrounder on the state of the game in the U.S. try John McDuling’s report in Quartz: http://qz.com/206259/a-brief-history-of-soccer-in-the-us-and-why-it-might-finally-have-found-its-place-in-the-american-psyche/.

Official info on the teams, schedules and players is available here: http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/; http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/teams/team=43921/profile-detail.html; http://www.ussoccer.com/mens-national-team/tournaments/2014-fifa-world-cup

The Alamo II on North Fifth is the official watch center for the local chapter of the American Outlaws fan group. Drop by on game days and join the fun; you’ll win even if the U.S. loses.

Finally, don’t bother listening to the broadcast analysis on ESPN/ABC. Try instead Michael Davies and Roger Bennett (http://grantland.com/world-cup-2014-men-in-blazers/ or meninblazers.com/), two Brits who discuss “America’s Sport of the Future. As it has been since 1972.” They’re smarter, they’re funnier and they wear blazers.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com

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