World Cup

As I am hardly the first to observe, Americans are finally catching on, this World Cup season, to soccer. It's not only that the TV ratings are soaring -- it's that they (i.e., we) are finally developing the kind of passion for the game that everyone else in the world seems to have by genetic endowment . The fact that so many people are pissed off about the national team's miserable performance last Monday against the Czechs is, perhaps paradoxically, a sign of this; we played miserably in 1990 and 1998, too, but not only did few people in the country care, few even really understood how badly we had played, because few people really understood the difference between good play and bad play. [It's why US coverage always focused almost exclusively on stories about soccer hooligans and soccer riots -- sports reporters and correspondents never knew enough about the game itself to say anything intelligent about it. Listen to Brent Musberger on the ESPN pre-game show to hear what I mean; he hasn't the faintest idea what's going on on the field, and nothing to say about the games].

I watched Monday's in a filled-to-the-gills bar in Washington DC, and, having just come back from four months in Italy where I watched a lot of soccer and where, obviously, I was among some of the world's greatest and most knowledgeable soccer fans, I can tell you that we're finally becoming real soccer fans. Which means we will despair -- like the Ukrainians are now despairing, and the Poles, and the Costa Ricans, and the Swedes -- when our teams fail us.

And if you're looking for reasons that the World Cup is something special -- unique -- in the world, watch Costa Rica v. Poland next Tuesday. Both teams have lost their first two matches, and neither can progress into the tournament's second round; after Tuesday's game, they go home. It would seem to have the makings of a really lousy match -- Kansas City Royals v. Tampa Bay on a hot late-August afternoon: nothing to play for, nothing at stake. Worse, even; soccer is a game of will, of charging down the field over and over and over again even though the chances that any one charge produces a goal is cruelly small; where are the players going to find drive and desire for 90 minutes of intense effort with "nothing at stake"?

In fact, of course, there's lots at stake - that's what makes this the World Cup, and why I can virtually guarantee you that it will be a terrific match, full of passion and intensity, the stadium filled with supporters, each teams' last chance to show its fans and the world that it deserved to be here, that it's worthy of all the high hopes that had been bestowed on them. Go Ticos!