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Saturday, September 20, 2014
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Published: Monday, 6/30/2014

COMMENTARY

World Cup is an oasis in a desert

Soccer creates excitement because not much else is on

BY THOMAS WALTON
BLADE COLUMNIST
Walton Walton
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I’ve figured out why soccer, a game that excites the rest of the world but elicits yawns most of the time in America, gets our attention for a few weeks every four years during the World Cup:

Not much else is on.

Major League Baseball is entering the “dog days of summer” part of its schedule. The National Basketball Association playoffs have ended. Same for the National Hockey League. National Football League training camps haven’t opened yet, and college football is a couple of months away.

So millions of Americans park themselves in front of their televisions and watch Cameroon play Mexico or Colombia take on Cote D’Ivoire, even though they have no idea where Cameroon is and probably thought it was a cookie. Cote D’Ivoire? Isn’t that soap or something?

I tune in too, although matches that end scoreless — I think the technical term is “goalless draw” — do not entice me to watch others.

What gets my attention is the spectacle. Americans like to think we have the best of everything. We dare to call our baseball championship the World Series, although only one team that has played in the series — the Toronto Blue Jays — is from outside the United States. Professional football’s title game is dubbed the Super Bowl. We can be a smug bunch.

However, elsewhere around our big blue marble, soccer’s the game, as the World Cup reminds us. The political world may be sniping and griping — business as usual. But nothing matters as much as World Cup futbol in places such as Costa Rica and Nigeria.

Or, for that matter, in the host nation of Brazil, which has prepared for years to show itself off. The venues are spectacular, the scenery stunning — especially the beaches, if you know what I mean. The television coverage is outstanding, with cameras seemingly everywhere but in the stadium bathrooms.

Even the crew aboard the International Space Station has taken a few breaks to watch World Cup action. I didn’t know they had cable.

The pregame ceremonies are worth tuning in early. The grand march of the teams onto the field, the exchange of flags, the posing for pictures, the playing of the anthems, and the raucous and colorfully garbed fans are unlike anything else in sports.

But when the ceremonies end and the games begin, many Americans have little appreciation for soccer’s international rivalries and no grasp of the game’s nuances and strategies. For most of us, soccer is an endless series of trips back and forth with nothing to show for it. A game that ends with a 3-2 score pretty much qualifies as an offensive explosion.

Perhaps the relative scarcity of goals explains the wild celebrations that follow them. The guy who scores is immediately run over by his deliriously happy teammates and hugged and pummeled almost to the point of bodily injury. The unfettered joy on the celebrants’ faces is a nice contrast to the near-death grimaces displayed when an opposing player enters their comfort zone and it’s time to feign injury.

Two opponents brush together so lightly their hair isn’t mussed, and I guarantee one of them will fall to the ground clutching a body part and screaming in agony as though he’s been shot. The idea is to gain the referee’s sympathy, and even better, a yellow card or the dreaded red card of disqualification for the offending player.

Either these guys are wimps, or they can flop better than the NBA. I’m pretty sure they’re not wimps.

Some World Cup stars are so big in the sport they go by one name. Fred? Seriously?

Still, we can marvel at the skill required to move the ball up and down the field using only one’s legs and head. How far do world-class soccer athletes run during a typical match of 90 minutes or more? It’s measured in miles.

According to FIFA, the World Cup’s governing body, World Cup athletes cover between five and seven miles during a match, often at full sprint. No other sport demands so much endurance and speed.

These are the best-conditioned athletes in the world. Conversely, baseball’s best hitters average fewer than 300 feet a game, plus whatever modest distance they travel on defense.

Unfortunately, the actual cup they seek may be the ugliest trophy in sports. Somewhere a space alien is missing his lava lamp.

But I’m nitpicking. For one month, we’re all soccer fans, screaming “U.S.A!” Our team has advanced to the knockout round. We need to appreciate the players’ talents and enjoy the spectacle, which runs until July 13.

Then life for America — if not the rest of the planet — can get back to normal.

Thomas Walton is the retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday. His commentary, “Life As We Know It,” airs each Monday at 5:44 p.m. on WGTE-FM 91.

Contact him at: twalton@theblade.com



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