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It's our world, but their World Cup

Posted: Wed May 20, 1998

We are now about to enter that strange quadrennial phase, when, all of a sudden, the United States of America, the world's only superpower, finds itself on the dark side of the moon ... while the rest of the planet Earth goes bonkers over the World Cup.

That's soccer, the bizarre sport you purposely play without the use of your hands—the very devices that raised humankind above lesser beasts. And you wonder why we're the world's only superpower.

  Tony Adams
While the rest of the world flips for soccer, the U.S. stays happily detached.    (Ben Radford)
Already, mad fan disease is sweeping the globe. The usual riots in South America. In England, a poll of young men found that 95% of them would rather watch a World Cup game—even on television—than make love to "the woman of their dreams." And you thought they were nutty in Green Bay.

And, as much as all the world points its toes for the Germans and the Brazilians, perennial powers on the soccer pitch, for now all the antipathy is directed at the French, who are hosting the Cup this time around. Four years ago, in a unsuccessful effort to stir up interest in heathen America, the World Cup was played here, in our huge football stadiums, with minimum domestic interest. But now, in France, the stadiums are petite and the European ticket demand is sky-high. When the French finally put some ducats on sale for the rest of the world, it became impossible even to get through to the box office on the telephone.

In fact, it is approximately as difficult to buy a World Cup seat this year as to score a goal in a typical World Cup game (which is, invariably, one-nil). Europe went apoplectic, growing even angrier at the French than under normal, everyday circumstances. In typical British tabloid understatement, The Daily Star declared: "A good kicking on their Gallic derriere is the only language the greedy frogs understand."

The French have promised to try to be nicer. The government has dispensed a booklet, entitled "Bonjour '98," which encourages French cab drivers and maitre d's and the like not to get too angry if visiting fans don't, for example, pronounce futbol with a perfect accent. Isn't it wonderful? When the World Cup is on, nobody even thinks to complain about Americans.

I think, in fact, the best part of the Cup is that, for once, we in the United States are basically out of it. In everything else, we are up to our ears, out front, in keeping the peace, threatening war, enforcing agreements, financing, pontificating, making movies, winning gold medals. But for once we can be just like Sweden or Switzerland.

Oh, we do have a team in the World Cup, in a first-round group with Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia. It sounds like a typical week with Sylvia Pajoli of National Public Radio, doesn't it? But the only people in the U.S. who care about soccer are those odd, disparate extremes of rich suburbanites and newly arrived immigrants. What a wonderful sitcom it would make—maybe even replace Seinfeld!—as the Junior League blonde just out of Wellesley falls for the uneducated young Caribbean immigrant ... at a soccer game. It's the '90s version of Abie's Irish Rose.

In the meantime, though, soccer belongs to the rest of the world, and we are the only sane people around, using our hands and our minds together, as God intended, so that we might regain the world as soon as the madness finally ends in France in July.

These commentaries, which appear each Wednesday on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, are posted weekly by CNN/SI.

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