25 June 2010

I've got a fever - and the
cure is more World Cup

I suppose you could call me one of the great unwashed when it comes to soccer. Although I know the game (I played on Homewood High School's club team in 1980 during my freshman year, back when the game was more of an oddity than a varsity sport in Alabama), and I know about some of the more famous names and clubs, but that's about it. I rarely watch games on television (actually, I never watch games on television, because I so rarely watch TV anyway), I don't much care how Manchester United fared this past season, and I can't name a single MLS team other than the Los Angeles Galaxy.

But for the past two weeks, I've watched more soccer than I have during the rest of my life. The 2010 World Cup has caught my fancy, and I've found myself at least checking into the games from South Africa several times a day. And not just the U.S. games, either; I've been watching Uruguay, Mexico, Switzerland, and lots and lots of other teams. But why? I think I've found some answers.

1. The ESPN full-pitch blitz

If you've turned on ESPN any time during the past two weeks, you've seen the World Cup. Lots and lots of the World Cup, in fact, every single game played so far. I doubt any of the previous tournaments have received this kind of coverage in the U.S.
And I have to admit, ESPN has done a great job thus far. ESPN brought in play-by-play announcers and commentators from across the world of soccer to help with the coverage. I'm especially enjoying Ally McCoist, a Scotsman whose brogue has entertained me every time he has called a game. Can't understand half of what he says, but I'm sure it's quite on point.
As an aside, the ads during pregame and at halftime (none are shown during the playing of the game since there is no stoppage) from Nike and Adidas have been also enjoyable.

2. The drama! The intrigue!

The first two weeks of the World Cup provided plenty of drama and intrigue, and that doesn't even count what happened on the field. France kicked a player off their team, and the side responded by completely falling apart at the seams and going home early, as did reigning champion Italy. The English side, full of global soccer stars, can't seem to play together as a team and endured the wrath of every media outlet in the U.K. And you can't forget about the secretive North Korean team -- their inclusion in the tournament certainly adds a new twist to the term "Group of Death".

3. History and spectacle

It used to be said that "there's nothing like a Grateful Dead show" (with which I heartily agree), but I have to say that there has been nothing like this 2010 World Cup. It is the first Cup to be played on African soil, and the South African hosts have pulled out all the stops to impress the world. Heck, I even like the constant droning of the trumpet-like vuvuzelas!
The fans attending the matches have had a great deal to do with the spectacle as well. I've seen all kinds of costumes, including a few Elvises at U.S. matches. It certainly appears that everyone is having a very good time.

4. Healthy nationalism

It may be only at the Olympics that you see this many people from around the world having such a good time together. Everyone seems to be supporting their own teams while respecting the others. It's almost heartwarming, really. Perhaps, when it comes to soccer, it really is a small world after all.

5. U.S. success

Knowing the history of U.S. soccer in international competition, I'm somewhat surprised that the team made it out of the first round into the knockout stages. But they did, in dramatic fashion. The team has shown tons of heart, a never-say-die attitude, and what the side may lack in talent it makes up for in determination. The team doesn't quit, even when it appears that all hope is lost -- and it certainly looked that way last week when the U.S. went down by two goals to Slovenia, and then again when time was running out against Algeria. Yet here they are, looking to move forward -- and with the way the bracket turned out, there is hope that the team could make some noise deep into the Cup. We'll see starting today with the game against Ghana.

Hand me my vuvuzela, wrap me in a flag and hand me a beer. Kickoff is coming, and this non-believer just might end up being one of the converted before it's all said and done.

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