Monday, July 10, 2006

COLUMN: World Cup

When it comes to sports appreciation, I am the lowest of the low. I am the guy that every TRUE enthusiast wants to kill. I am... a fair weather fan.

It's true. I used to LOVE watching the NBA -- until Krause broke up the Bulls and Jordan became a full time shoe salesman. I didn't give a hoot about NCAA ball -- until Dee Brown led the Illini into a fighting force. I was never a big fan of baseball -- until last year, when the White Sox decided to show their muscle; next thing I knew, I was high fiving strangers in bars with every win.

You can't blame me entirely. It's no fun to watch sports without someone or some team to root for -- and, living where we do, those opportunities don't come too often. I mean, what, am I supposed to be a Cubs fan? I prefer my teams to occasionally WIN, thanks.

And you "real" sports fans can't hold it against me, either. To a degree, we're ALL fair-weather fans. We as a people could effectively care less about men's gymnastics or the 100m breast stroke -- until every four years, that is, when the Olympics fill us with Team USA pride. As soon as the Olympics are over, we could care less. Who's that kid who won all the swimming medals at the last Olympics? I've already forgotten his name.

So, as a self-confessed fair-weather fan, there's been only one thing on my mind the past couple weeks. That's right, baby -- I've had a nasty case of World Cup Fever.

Soccer is a namby-pamby sport, and, as such, is played and adored by namby-pamby countries. By that, I mean every country on Earth except ours. I like to think that we Americans have the decency to realize that any sport where it's acceptable to TIE is a sport not worth watching.

In all honesty, though, I kind of like watching soccer, and I know that the sport's American fanbase is growing in leaps and bounds. But I don't watch it for the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, or even the bizarre complacency of a tie. Instead, I watch it the same way I watch rugby, or cricket, or Olympic handball -- with a puzzled look on my face.

As I've come to understand it, the goal of soccer is simple. Team A kicks a ball, while Team B does their best to sever the legs of Team A at the kneecap or below. I always thought soccer players wore long socks because they were weenies; truth is, they wear those socks to hide the blackened, bruised flesh that once were their calves.

Eventually, one team accidentally kicks the ball into a goal -- no, excuse me, a goooooooooooooooooooooal. Then the team's supporters take to the streets and pummel each other wildly until sun-up. The winner of the match is then determined by mathematically calculating the number of felony arrests divided by the amount of lager remaining in the host country.

And while we're on about soccer violence, how can a sport like this cause fans to erupt into hooliganism? The other day, I watched a Cup match that "erupted into a fight." Now, there was no sound so I couldn't exactly make out what the players were saying, but to my eye, it looked like this:

"Oh, terribly sorry, chum, I seem to have placed my foot into your groin."
"Correct, mate. Dreadfully painful, this."
"A thousand apologies. Perhaps I could offer you a cup of tea after the match?"
"Spot on. Earl Grey if you please. Cheerio!"

I mean, come on. Where's Dennis Rodman or Mike Tyson when you need 'em? If the US team really wanted to make an impact in the World Cup, let's just introduce lead striker Ron Artest. The first time the ref pulls out one of those little red cards, Artest would just deck him, then leap into the stands and deck his entire family. Here in the USA, our hooligans aren't the fans; they're the ATHLETES.

One thing the soccer players have picked up from us Americans, though, is our intuitive ability to flop and cry foul. You know how in the NBA how frustrating it is when a player commits a minor foul on a guy who then flops on the ground as though he's been hit by a Mack truck? Soccer takes that to new heights.

I saw one clip from a Cup match where a Brazilian player was fighting for the ball, then suddenly flailed to the ground clutching his leg as though the opposing player had just driven a spike through his kneecap. In slow motion replay, however, you can see that the two players DIDN'T EVEN TOUCH. That guy doesn't deserve a red card; he deserves an Oscar.

All told, though, the Cup went according to plan. Once again, Team USA went in with high hopes and went out in the first round from bad plays and bad officiating. Once again, Team England had 70% of their country watching but couldn't get past the quarterfinals. Once again, I couldn't understand a single one of the crowd chants.

I'm not giving up on soccer, though. One of my best friends holds season tickets for the Chicago Fire -- maybe I'll go check out a game next season. But only if they're doing good. And only if the weather outside is fair.

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