Column: American fans not on the ball

Column: American fans not on the ball

I had questions and you, without a doubt, had answers.

Your words were sharp and free of constraint. Your eyes were dead set on me, intense and steady. Your stance on the subject was, quite simply, unbreakable.

What does soccer mean to the average American sports fan?

You told me it means wimps with ponytails and funny names. You told me it isn’t a real sport. You see little scoring and lots of fake pain and injuries. Athletes, you claimed, are not in abundance on the strange foreign lands of Germany, the site of this year’s World Cup.

You wondered if soccer truly meant anything here in America. You said your options (football, baseball, hockey, basketball) mean you have no time for soccer. What you see in soccer is 90 minutes of pure nothing: no action, no enticing ball movement, and hardly anything resembling the definition of what sport is to you here in the United States of America, a country just as crazy for athletics as any other on the planet.

But you, the soccer skeptic, had questions for me, and I answered them willingly.

I told you that soccer may in fact be the world’s best and purest game. It’s a tactical, thinking man’s game blending finesse, athleticism and impressive endurance. I said the game values offense and defense equally, and a true sports purist could find a little bit of beauty in every part of the game – a decisive pass, a well-placed header or an athletic free kick.

I told you the game is an art form in itself. It is a clash between two sides of 11 players, all with a focused goal, all aware of each other’s presence on a massive field and all aware of the physical and mental challenges it takes to produce goals – and win.

I noted that the pre-game festivities of a World Cup match – the teams’ entrances, the playing of the national anthems and the rising tension of the fans – are as exciting as anything American sports can bring you. In what American stadium, ballpark, rink or court do teams representing their national pride stand side by side, referees in between, with a roaring chorus of a crowd behind them?

I asked you to name a great snapshot of American sports. You gave me a look inside a packed Fenway Park on a Friday evening against the hated New York Yankees. You gave me the interior of Rexall Place in Edmonton where hockey fans from across the cold fields of Alberta meet. You added any NFL stadium on a Sunday afternoon with the playoffs on the line.

I had something even better.

I gave you the camera behind every soccer goal during the World Cup. The camera that shows a perfectly focused goalkeeper first eyeing the soccer ball, placing it down for a kick and then crushing the ball into the night. The camera then shows a modern, illuminated stadium full of chanting soccer crazies, and in one brief flash captures everything that is sacred about the world’s game.

I told you the energy, passion and nail-biting tension in the World Cup is matched by few other sporting events, and its four-year layoff brings on intense anticipation and interest.

I continued by saying the World Cup’s daily schedule is an ideal way to become vested in its natural drama. One way or another, I said, you’d be able to find a team or a player to latch onto.

Aside from the Olympics, I told you it’s hard to find a sporting event where references like “Americans” and “Polish” mixed with “Iranians” are as informal as they are there.

Our American sports mindsets are warped and cluttered with image after image of slam dunks, 40-yard touchdown passes and 450-foot home runs. Partly influenced by ESPN and partly by what we grew up on, the idea of a soccer pass being “beautiful” is just as foreign as the idea of “stoppage time” and being familiar with the last names on Portuguese jerseys.

But there’s something inherently brilliant about the game of soccer and it’s evident every four years when the sport is put on its highest stage at the Cup. It could be a David Beckham free kick into the net. The footwork of Ronaldinho. The intensity and leadership of Zinedine Zidane.

Soccer doesn’t want or need Top 10 plays. One match doesn’t create dozens of videotapes full of highlight-worthy moments. Each respective player isn’t on the field for the camera, the lights or for the offensive-hungry American fan.

There is often more action, flair and teamwork in a 0-0 soccer tie than in a defensive-oriented 74-62 NBA game or 17-10 NFL game.

It’s not too late to become a fan. You can put down your Budweisers, flip off the third viewing of SportsCenter and examine a soccer game if you’d like.

What you see is what you get in soccer. A truly historic, unchanging game for the ages.

Too bad most of this country will never get it.

– Jeff Powalisz can be reached at [email protected]

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