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France's Fabien Barthez and Brazil's Ronaldo , negotiating

World Cup 2006
How Could 300 Million Americans Be So Wrong?*

I can think of just three places on the world stage where the United States is an underdog: The United Nations, Iraq and soccer’s World Cup. We don’t do well as underdogs, if our collective opinion of Iraq and the U.N. are any guide. And when it begins in Germany on Friday, English-as-the-only-language fans this side of the Rio Grande will make a point of treating the World Cup as a foot fungus infesting the television universe for a month. Ridiculing the World Cup is such a point of national pride that the Wall Street Journal eight years ago felt compelled to defend the event in an editorial: “Fans of what is the world’s most popular sport tend not to walk out on it for long stretches, not when victory is defined by scores of 1-0 or 2-1. For this, soccer is routinely ridiculed by sportswriters in the U.S., who are stupid. If they weren’t stupid, they wouldn’t mock soccer.”

A game boasting a few billion fans doesn’t need defenders. Soccer thrives with or without the United States. But it’s a pity that a nation so compulsively appreciative of sports is so contemptuous of the king of sports — just because it hasn’t found a way to dominate it. A pity this year especially. The American team in Germany is the best ever assembled by the United States for a World Cup. (That semi-final finish in Uruguay in 1930 doesn’t count: It was the first World Cup, you could count the number of countries involved on two hands, and the Latin American host was probably scared that, true to form, the United States would invade if it wasn’t allowed an honorable showing.) As bad luck has it this time around, the Americans landed in the most difficult of eight groups for the initial stage of the competition, drawing Italy and the Czech Republic — both of them soccer Godzillas — along with Ghana.

Still, with a little well-deserved misfortune for the dull and corruption-trailing Italian team and Ghana obliging as a sacrificial lamb, the Americans have a chance of making it out of the Group of Death and all the way to the semis again. (Nutty, sentimental prediction: they will.) They’ll have to overcome some anti-Americanism from Europeans who, lacking a serious foreign policy of their own, think soccer games are a substitute and bigotry an acceptable form of team-allegiance (in 1990 Serbs and Croats began their genocidal civil war at a soccer game). That’s the downside of soccer. The sport’s fan base is a haven for racists and knuckleheads burning for fights. American fans in comparison are models of courtesy. But just because William Faulkner was a drunken lout half the time doesn’t make his novels any less magnificent. Great soccer games are like that: Leave the sound and the fury at the edge of the field, let the players show off their art.

If the Americans make a go of it, the other great reason to watch the team this year — 22-year-old Eddie Johnson, the spectacular striker and graduate of Palm Coast High School — will have a lot to do with it. His nine goals in 18 international games is by far the best ratio of any American player, and one of the reasons even Italy fears its encounter with the Americans on June 17. Johnson would be a deity in any European or Latin American town. In Palm Coast he’s getting no more attention than the World Cup itself. Can 5 percent of the world’s population be that alien to the universal language for the other 95 percent?

Common complaints: Soccer games are interminable, dull, incomprehensible. True enough at times, but what sport doesn’t have its duds? And compared to what—baseball, a game of suspended animation? Basketball, where 12 seconds at the end decide two hours of bouncy-bouncy-bouncy? Football, where most plays are scrums of beefy things grabbing at each other? Between time-outs, commercial breaks and referee conventions, it’s a wonder football isn’t compared to a Congressional caucus more often — all meatheads, all the time. It does take mild concentration to enjoy a soccer game. The 45-minute halves aren’t interrupted even on television so if you get up every six minutes according to your usual commercial clock, you won’t get it. Each game has its rhythms, its plots and sub-plots that build minute by minute with nerve-wracking intensity. Stretched over 30 days, the World Cup is that modern Homeric epic no single American playoff or even the Olympics can match in beauty and global passion.

So for the next two weeks, no more Tuesday columns from me. You know where I’ll be. It happens once every four years. It’s my one allowance of unrestrained, unapologetic fanaticism. Oh, and it’ll be Germany and Brazil in the final, Brazil taking it in style, 3-2, despite Germany’s home-field advantage: art before method.

(*) Perhaps for the same reason that 62 million Americans could be so catastrophically wrong.

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