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Passion of the Cup

Soccer is the world's sport, except in United States

Posted: Wednesday June 7, 2006 10:34AM; Updated: Wednesday June 7, 2006 1:16PM
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Landon Donovan will lead the U.S. squad into the World Cup in Germany.
Landon Donovan will lead the U.S. squad into the World Cup in Germany.
Simon Bruty/SI

It is part of the conceit of the Olympics that they boast that the Greeks actually called off wars when the Games were on. Not quite true. During wartime, Olympic competitors and spectators would be allowed safe passage through war zones, but not even the Olympics could shut down good old-fashioned armed combat. I would suspect, though, that if a war got in the way of the World Cup today, even the generals would demand an armistice.

America is one of the few places on Earth that has escaped being infected with the soccer pandemic, thus it's hard for most of us to comprehend the passions which submit to the World Cup. There is an entirely different attitude present at an Olympics and at a World Cup. The Olympics feels more like a film festival or a dog show or a big county fair. Sure, if we're into hog-raising we care whose pig wins the blue ribbon, but we don't get emotional about it. Tomorrow we'll drop over and see who has grown the finest cucumbers. After all, what's the favorite event at the Olympics? The opening ceremonies -- which isn't even sport, just spectacle. The Olympics is fun and games ... in that order.

But the World Cup is something else. The World Cup is sport in the raw, the epitome of the real football, the game that engenders the most emotions and is played by famous athletes -- the rock stars of sweat -- for the glory of their homeland. We really couldn't even sense that when the Cup finals were played in America in 1994. The United States is so big and the locals so detached that we couldn't appreciate the kind of fervor that will be visible from the moment the first ball is kicked off in Germany on Friday. Trust me, you have to be there. Baby, it's the top.

Most of the world is going to stop on Friday, and won't resume spinning again until July 10.

Of course, here, where there's more interest in the NBA and NHL playoffs or the baseball races, it might come as a surprise to learn that the United States' squad is ranked fifth in the world in soccer. We've drawn a very tough round-robin, rather excessively called the Group of Death ... but then, people in fútbol are prone to hysteria and overstatement about what they call "the beautiful game."

Obviously, though, if we're fifth in the rankings, we have a valid (if outside) chance to win the World Cup. Yes, the United States. But our guys have an advantage over everybody else: Because we're the only country in the World Cup finals where soccer isn't important, there's less pressure on the American squad. In any other country, a player makes a mistake in the World Cup, he's tarnished for life. But in a country where football is something the Pittsburgh Steelers play, our soccer guys might as well be on the U.S. bobsled team. Unlike everybody else, they can relax and be loose.

Of course, consider what might happen if we actually win. If the United States, which really doesn't care about soccer, beats everybody who is passionate about it, we'd really be despised around the world. You think they hate us now? If we should win the World Cup, there would be absolutely nobody else left in the coalition of the willing.