The World's True Game

With the world cup now underway, billions of fans around the globe are eating, breathing and sleeping football--all except the Americans. A new film, "Once in a Lifetime," documents the struggle to bring world-class football to the United States. British filmmaker Paul Crowder recounts the story of the 1970s New York Cosmos, who played on an uneven field spray-painted green. Even after enlisting the then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to woo Pelé to the team, the Cosmos floundered. (Pelé threatened to quit after his first game, believing that the green paint on his feet from the faux field was fungus.) As Germany and Costa Rica opened this year's World Cup, NEWSWEEK's Jennie Yabroff spoke with Crowder about the state of the game in the United States and the world. Excerpts:

CROWDER: America seems to incorporate more than just the game within their sports--their games allow for drinking and talking and doing other things during the game. In soccer, it really is an attention-span thing. You've got to be there watching the whole thing. No disrespect to any of the other sports, but I find it ironic that baseball fans can sit for three hours during a pitching duel, and then call soccer boring.

It's a much faster game now. The fitness and stamina levels have gone way up. In that era, players would drink at halftime, smoke cigarettes at halftime, smoke while they were training. You can't do that [now] and be a professional player. People [also] want to see more goals, better football. Clubs--particularly those with money, like Manchester United--are far more international now.

I like seeing an international team. It makes tournaments like the World Cup even tighter. There are countries doing well in the World Cup now that never used to, and that's partly because their players get to play in other countries. South Korea got to the semifinals in 2002, and that's because they've got six or seven players playing internationally.

The African nations, Asian nations, even Australia, are definitely improving, stepping up.

At the end of the day, it's always the South Americans. This may be a bold statement, but I feel like FIFA adapts the rules to the Brazilians a little bit.

They're really tamping down on shirt-tugging and any slight fouls to allow the flair players to emerge. That favors teams like Brazil. Teams like Germany and England have physical players who play hard. It is a physical game, it's a contact sport. If you play a hard physical game, you can wear another team down, and they're trying to make it so you can't get any little small tackles here and there, small fouls you can use to stop the other player's flow. If you're a small team, you've got no chance unless you can play a physical game where you can stifle teams and maybe get a point.

The referee standard usually is pretty good because you've got the best guys in the world out there. Oh, oh, oh! Offsides! Is that a goal? It's a goal! It's a goal! 3-2. Game on! This is what's great about the World Cup, what's happening right now. Seventy-five minutes into the game, Costa Rica down and out, now they're right back in it. If they could get an upset here in the first game it would be incredible. Costa Rica shouldn't have a chance against Germany. Wow, brilliant, brilliant. Sorry, I've lost my train of thought.

Right. There was an incident in 2002 in the Korea-Italy game, but for the most part it was the best refereed tournament for consistency and accuracy. The quality is getting up there. The worst thing they have to deal with is the diving and the faking--it's just really bad. These guys are falling over like flies.