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U.S. needs a kick in the grass

Posted: Wed July 8, 1998

Possibly it was just a coincidence that the international Ministers of Culture chose this quadrennial time of the World Cup to meet and discuss the crisis of social hegemony that America has established over the rest of the civilized world. The irony, of course, is that right now, during the World Cup—this is the one time left in our lives when America has no influence over the rest of the world. All that matters is the futbol—that football that America has nothing to do with.

  A soccer fan
After Argentina booted England out of the World Cup, devout English fans suffered from flagging spirits.    (Doug Pensinger)
Unfortunately, few Americans really appreciate exactly how much the World Cup does mean to most countries on Planet Earth. Myself, I've been fortunate enough to see the phenomenon in several different nations. For instance, I was in Rome two World Cups ago, sitting in an outdoor bar, watching the Italian team, the Azzuri, play Argentina. When the Argentines kicked the winning goal, the manager of the café, in anguish, immediately turned off the TV and summarily dismissed a capacity crowd. He didn't want our money; he didn't want us. It was simply too depressing for him. And we left, in silence.

Then last week, when I was in London, two days after the English lost, one major tabloid felt obliged to eschew all the news and scandal to, instead, take up its entire front page with this headline message: COME ON EVERYONE, CHEER UP.

Foreigners, of course, simply cannot understand why Americans are immune to this disease. A diatribe in one respected London newspaper last week accused us of only liking sports we can win. In fact, this is not so. Interest in the Ryder Cup was virtually nonexistent, so long as we routed the British every time. As soon as it became us vs. all Europe, and we could—and did—get beat, the Ryder Cup's appeal multiplied tenfold. Likewise, we've never had the least bit of interest in the world basketball championships, and our devotion to the Dream Team had much more to do with art and celebrity than with competition.

The fact is, Americans have simply grown up without much interest, generally, in international sport. No, we grow up caring about Boston vs. New York, or Oklahoma against Nebraska, and we simply don't give a hoot whether the whole U.S. of A. can beat up on Belgium or Peru.

In a way, it's too bad. At World Cup time, when I see how it is in these other countries, I always feel jealous of them—of what they suddenly share together as a people, as a nation; of their passion, their fearless zeal in the face of defeat. Sure, we all watch the Super Bowl together, but some of us are for one team and some for the other, and the rest of us are just there for the afternoon's company and the good clam dip. It's not a whole lot different than watching the Academy Awards or Miss America.

There are so few things that can bring people together anymore, and the World Cup serves that purpose for so many countries. It's excessive, of course, and a few wild young men use it as an excuse for mayhem, but mostly it is simply a benign and wonderful form of patriotism, using a game instead of a war to bind a people in common spirit.

It's quite funny, really. As much as the game of soccer bores me, the World Cup never fails to enthrall me. Especially when I am experiencing it in one of its family of nations, I am so terribly envious that we, in the United States, don't have anything like that to embrace us and make us all care, together. Unlike these other countries, we don't know what it's like to take a great big emotional risk together every four years—probably to lose. But so what? Then we all can: come on, cheer up, together. And that's good, too.

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

Related information
Previous Frank Deford Commentaries
World Cup main page
Grant Wahl's mailbag/semifinal predictions
Cool France wakes up to soccer fever
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