The World Cup tournament is about to start, and all over America sports fans are asking the question: "The World Cup? Is that tennis?"
No, you sillies, it's soccer, and it happens to be the most popular sport in the world as determined by both fan interest and riot deaths. Many nations shut down entirely during the World Cup. Granted, some of these nations shut down for pretty much any excuse, including low tide. But the World Cup really is a huge international event — except, of course, in the United States, where it generates about the same level of public excitement as the season finale of The Bachelorette.
In this country, soccer is still seen mainly as a game played by suburban kids who eventually outgrow it and take up traditional American sports such as golf and shopping. That was pretty much my experience. I first played soccer in elementary school gym class, where we had 42 players per side and could kick the ball for an entire academic year without scoring a goal. In college I played intramural soccer, but only because we were required to do a sport, and intramural soccer posed the least threat of exercise. This was in the '60s (if you catch my meaning) and our soccer games consisted of guys standing around the field in random mellow clots having philosophical discussions about topics such as Jimi Hendrix. Every now and then the ball might roll past your clot; if it got close enough, you might try to kick it to one of the other clots, but you would never consider actually running after it.
After college, soccer and I parted ways for several decades. Then, in late June of 1998, my 17-year-old son and I went to France, where my wife, a sportswriter, was covering the World Cup. I will now attempt, using my extensive vocabulary and professional writing skills, to describe what Paris was like that summer:
Talk about a party. I've been to the Olympics, World Series and Super Bowls. Compared to the World Cup, these events are a meeting of the Des Moines Rotary Club. The World Cup causes entire nations to go insane. Scotland, for example. Scotland qualified for the 1998 World Cup, and although the Scottish team was not favored to win, the Scottish fans blew away all other nations in the competition for the title of Most Alcohol Consumed by Men Wearing Traditional Highland Costumes and No Underpants. You knew this because they would frequently entertain the public with mass kilt-liftings. They also serenaded crowds on subways with World-Cup-themed songs, including one, set to the tune of Winter Wonderland, declaring that Brazilian soccer superstar Ronaldo was . . . OK, I can't tell you in a family newspaper, but it was not complimentary.
The Scots made up this song because Scotland's first match in 1998 was against Brazil, a soccer superpower. Scotland playing Brazil is like Justin Bieber fighting Mike Tyson. But this didn't deter the Scottish fans at all; they had their national pride, plus their traditional attire, plus a really funny obscene song, plus an unbelievable tolerance for alcohol. They were in France to represent their country, a proud posse of kilted, mooning maniacs. Despite the fact that their team did not win a single match, they kept right on representing it. I wouldn't be surprised if some of them are still over there.
And that was just one country. There were 31 other teams, and their fans were just as enthusiastic, by which I mean unhinged. For a month they traveled to matches all over France, and every match was a huge party. My son and I were in Marseille during a Holland-Argentina match; we didn't have tickets to get into the stadium, so we watched on the beach, where giant TV screens had been set up among the French bathers. There were thousands of screaming, singing, dancing face-painted Dutch and Argentine fans, and I can honestly say it was one of the most exciting sporting events I have ever seen, because a LOT of the lady French bathers were topless. You'd go to the concession stand, and you'd turn around, and YOWZA there would be a lady French bather standing right behind you, acting as though she was not basically naked, which she was. I recall my son going to the concession stand numerous times.
The soccer match was also quite good. I believe the winner was either Argentina or Holland.
The final that year was between Brazil and -- much to the surprise of the French -- France. Brazil was heavily favored, but France won, and the whole country went berserk. My son and I spent that night on the Champs-Elysees, swept along by a boisterous river of several million wildly happy French people.
Q. How happy were they?
A. They were so happy they were actually hugging Americans.
"Enjoy this!" I shouted to my son, as we were being French-hugged. "Tomorrow they'll hate us again!"
My point is that for excitement and atmosphere and a general United Nations of craziness, there is no sporting event that approaches the World Cup.
"So what," I hear many American sports fans scoffing. "Soccer still sucks. Nobody ever scores and the players are a bunch of weenies with 1978 haircuts and names like 'Pupa' who fall down writhing in fake agony every time they come into contact with an opposing player or stray mold spore."
Yes, they do dive. Not to single out any one nation, but the Italian team spends so much time on the ground that some of the players have developed primitive root systems.
I personally find the diving to be one of the more entertaining aspects of soccer, which is a wonderfully theatrical sport. But don't be fooled by the histrionics: Soccer players are amazing athletes, playing a sport that requires extraordinary toughness and stamina -- and, at the international level, almost unbelievable skill. Scoring a goal in soccer is one of the most difficult feats in sports: Everything favors the defense, so the offensive players usually have to do something brilliant just to get off a halfway decent shot. That's why there aren't many goals. But that's also why, when the goals do come, they tend to be spectacular. And because goals -- especially World Cup goals -- are so rare and valuable, the tension preceding them is often deliciously unbearable, leading to the cathartic moment -- GOOOOOOALLL -- that can cause an entire nation to erupt in joy, and plunge another into years of black despair.
I truly believe that, even though many Americans say they hate soccer, if they gave it a fair chance -- if they took the time to actually watch a World Cup match or two -- they would still hate soccer. I don't know why this is, but apparently it's not going to change. I've given up arguing with guys who tell me how boring soccer is, but will happily spend four hours watching a baseball game in which 97 percent of the action consists of batters calling timeout.
I don't care. I love soccer, and I love the World Cup, and I'm rooting for the inexperienced but likable U.S. team. On Saturday, when the U.S. plays its opening match against England, I know exactly where I'm going to be: watching my daughter's dance recital. Really. Both events -- this is proof that God dislikes me personally -- are scheduled to start at the same time. And since my wife will be in South Africa covering the match, I'll be in an auditorium watching dance performances by hundreds of girls, only a tiny percentage of whom are my daughter. This is the mature thing to do, and I made the decision willingly once it became clear that the alternative was divorce.
But I definitely will watch the rest of the World Cup. And for the last week of the tournament I'll be in South Africa, joining in the biggest party in the world. I'll do my best to represent my country with honor, dignity and class.
Or, at the very least, with underpants.