The Brits in the packed crowd at Floyd’s in Brooklyn, N.Y., could hardly contain their laughter. As England battled Paraguay in their opening World Cup match at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, the tension inside the pub was building as fans downed pint after pint. But despite the action on the screen, the best ABC’s commentator could do was throw out useless bits of trivia. Gary Neville was best man at David Beckham’s wedding, apparently. Prince William deserved a mention, as well, for some peculiar reason. There were plenty of clichés, too. England striker Peter Crouch, at 6 foot 7, is a “big man.” There was some mention of him being the “jewel in England’s crown,” whatever that meant. The jewel in the commentator’s crown, on the other hand, was this absurd analysis: the England team feels like they’re playing at home because Germany is just a short flight away from London.
What happened to the passion of the beautiful game? The tension of the buildup, the appreciation of the perfect pass, the cringing of the crowd as a striker dives in the box? Fuggetaboutit. The World Cup in America is a different world altogether, full of unnecessary acronyms like P.K.’s (penalty kicks), graphics that pop up out of nowhere to block out inspirational dashes towards the goal, and a barrage of useless trivia intended to appeal to those number crunchers posing as sports fans who follow ERAs and boring batting averages. Most Americans seem to enjoy the spectacle, but not the game itself. Such is the tragedy of watching the World Cup in America.
But in tragedy, one can find comedy—and even beauty. Even though most Americans—including this year’s commentators on ESPN and ABC—simply do not get football, this may be one of the greatest countries in the world to watch the World Cup. For one, every four years, we football fans become an exotic breed. Curious Americans watch as we dance through the streets in our national colors after a win, or cry into our beers after a loss. (Brits are only stoic on the surface. After drinking in the wee hours and watching our team lose, we tend to weep like little bawling things.) And given that America is the ultimate melting pot—ABC, can you spot the cliché?—there are legions of foreign fans with whom to share the moments. On Sunday, I watched the Angola-Portugal match with a group of excited Angolans at a French restaurant in Brooklyn, and hope to head to Little Brazil in Manhattan for the Brazilians’ next match this weekend. I plan to watch Sweden finally falter against England on Tuesday (we haven’t beaten them since 1968!) at Good World Bar and Grill, a Swedish joint on Orchard Street. If I can fit it into my schedule, maybe I’ll return to the mall in Koreatown in Queens, where I celebrated South Korea’s magnificent 2002 run with thousands of cheering and chanting expats. I missed the carnival of Trinidad and Tobago’s draw against the Swedes last Saturday at Sugarcane in Park Slope, but I hope to be there with a mojito in hand when they face off against Paraguay.
Football in America is something of a paradox. While most Americans don’t get the globe’s favorite game, roughly 20 million Yanks play it. Sadly, most of them are suburban kids—and once they reach the age where they can play competitive American football and basketball, they seem to repress those fond memories of kicking a rotund object into a net. And despite the influx of immigrants from footballing nations (a few ESPN-like stats: there are more than 40 million Latinos and over a million Koreans in this country, and close to a million Americans of Polish descent in New York alone) city pickup games are still found mostly in untended parks a world away from those well-groomed Little League infields.
I struggle with this paradox. Perhaps I’m being an idealist, but there is a certain equality about soccer in America, too. (I write “soccer” because the word, contrary to popular belief, is not an Americanism. It’s a derivation of Association Football, and the Brits were actually the first to use the term soccer to differentiate it from Rugby, which is officially known as Rugby Football.) In this country, women play the game seriously, and are often better than the men. In local coed leagues, the women usually run rings around the men. The ladies know their stuff, too: I wouldn’t have been nearly as prepared for this World Cup had it not been for Sarah, a friend of mine who runs a Web site called soccerhotties.com. She knows that there is far more to footballers than hot hairstyles and long legs. The American women’s team won the World Cup in 1999, and superstar Mia Hamm is a household name. Asking the average American to name a men’s U.S. player, on the other hand, would be like asking him to name the capital of Ivory Coast.
And ironically, the lack of passion for soccer may well be the best thing about the game in America. Here, one can display a certain amount of patriotism without it getting ugly. Here in New York, I can chant “Ing-a-lund” without being branded a thug. A French fan will not cross the road when he sees me coming with Three Lions on my shirt. And if the English meet the Germans in the latter rounds, fans in bars like the Red Lion in the village will be more likely to trade jokes than punches, unlike their hooligan counterparts in Germany.
Can America ever be a true footballing nation, where traffic and the economy grind to a halt during big matches, painted fans wage war and grown men cry when their country loses? Probably not. But America may turn out to be the footballing nation of the future. This, after all, is a country where my niece, who is almost 4, can attend an MLS soccer game without her uncle having to worry about a stadium riot. It’s a country where the über trendy can buy a Zimbabwe soccer shirt at Fred Segal in Hollywood. Soccer moms are the sport’s symbol here, not beer-swilling sadists. But I do hope that someday Americans as a whole will learn to appreciate the game itself—the intensity of a tough tackle, the thrill of a dash down the wing, the chaos of a scramble in the penalty box, the tension before a free kick and the teamwork of a good buildup—rather than ruining the viewer’s experience with time-wasting trivia or ghettoizing adults who play the game for fun. Four years ago, a friend and I were happily kicking a ball around in Central Park, when an attendant decided to confiscate it. I convinced him to give it back instead of paying a fine. But I really wish I could have persuaded him that the game I was playing—the one the rest of the world lives and dies for—is really beautiful. That would have been a footballing victory to be proud of.