Nonetheless, soccer will be a tough sell in the host country. Is it a cultural blind spot that caused the game to finish 67th, after tractor-pulling, in a recent survey that questioned Americans about their favorite spectator sports? Or is it a national character flaw, the same deplorable thinking that recently caused the school board in Lake County, Fla., to require that children be taught that American culture is superior to all others? Or is it simply a matter of the U.S. sports fan's dance card being quite full enough with baseball, basketball and American football, thank you very much?
The footyphobes will be out in force this month, most of them arguing that it's the game's fault, not ours, that soccer has languished here. There isn't a U.S. daily without a Soccer Stinks beat guy. One of them, a basketball partisan at the Boston Globe, recently dismissed the game because you can't use your hands. What he forgets is that Cousy learned to go behind his back and Isiah invented the speed dribble because basketball has its own curious prohibition, against running with the ball. Because soccer's rules won't let you handle the ball, Leonidas, the Brazilian star of the 1930s, had to conjure up one of the game's most wondrous moves, the bicycle kick. Prohibition is the mother of invention.
At the risk of sounding like some eat-your-peas scold, we offer a few things the soccer-impaired can do to better enjoy the next four weeks:
•Treat the whole thing like the NCAA tournament. Brazil is UNLV, as concerned with stylin' as it is with scoring. Germany is Duke or Carolina, drawing confidence from its tradition and system. Argentina is Georgetown, chippy and unloved. Humdrum Sweden and Norway are the fourth and fifth Pac-10 teams to get bids—and as such, they'll be heading home early. ABC's professorial Seamus Malin and Univision's Andres (Goooooooaaal!) Cantor arc Packer and Vitale. And countries like Saudi Arabia. South Korea and Cam-croon are the East Tennessee States. Indeed, the Indomitable Lions (can there be anything wrong with a sport that produces a team called the Indomitable Lions?) were long shots to reach the quarterfinals in Italy four years ago. They beat the odds. So find this quadrennial's dark horse and give it a ride.
•Reexamine your roots. Chances are you can trace a parent, a grandparent or a great-grandparent to one of the foreign countries competing for the Cup. Unless your family has been ensconced in the Social Register for generations, you and millions of other Americans can likely claim as your own some team besides the U.S.
•Soccer is the world's simplest game. The ref doesn't carry a rule book, for there arc only 17 laws, and he has committed each to memory. So don't bother with the subtle differences between the Italian catenaccio alignment and the Swiss bolt, or the merits of the flatback four versus the lone sweeper. And don't sweat the numbers. There will never, to the game's everlasting credit, be such a thing as rotisserie soccer.
•Go. You needn't buy a ticket. (The event is all but sold out anyway.) Tens of thousands of fans will be coming to the U.S. just to mill about, to hole up in a bar, to sample the atmosphere. Find 'em. Chat 'em up. Tell 'em how Pippen is good-for-nothing and Bonilla is humorously overpaid, and they'll tell you about some blight-on-the-pitch lad with a lousy work rate who isn't worth his kit in transfer fees and should have never been capped. You may not entirely understand one another, but you'll each be airing a universal gripe.
Let's not kid ourselves: The World Cup is here simply because FIFA believes the time has come to crack the world's richest consumer market. But whether we're witnessing a birth or a burial shouldn't be the focus of the next four weeks. To dwell on that now would be a little like getting tickets to a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Romeo and Juliet and spending the whole evening wondering if Kevin is going to make it with Winnie on The Wonder Years.
When we go abroad, then we can turn into misanthropes. We can be offended at the naked lady in the pharmacy window and kvetch that the newspapers don't carry the complete major league box scores. But we aren't hitting the road this month. We're the world's host, and our visitors come bearing a cherished gift. This World Cup thing, it matters to them. As we watch them demonstrate how much, a surprising thing may happen: It may end up mattering to us.