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Let’s talk about the World Cup

My daughter playing soccer at age 4

See, Americans play soccer. Including my daughter.

I’m going on a business trip to a part of the world that cares a great deal about what is happening in Brazil. I’m not talking about the destruction of the Amazon rain forest or the civil unrest. I’m talking about the World Cup (although it is a source of that civil unrest).

Why don’t more Americans get into the World Cup, even though we now qualify for it fairly regularly? And why isn’t soccer more popular here, even though the MLS is growing in popularity and global reputation and a large number of children play youth soccer? It’s not for the reasons people think.

(Note: I’m calling the sport by its American name. If I call it “football” or — heaven help us — “footy,” the NSA will flag me as a traitor and exile me to Russia.)

Some Americans say they don’t like soccer because it is boring. They like sports with lots of scoring. If that’s the case, why were we so excited when Josh Beckett of the Dodgers pitched a no-hitter? And why do we complain about a ball being kicked up and down the pitch, but we’re happy to follow hockey? (Go Kings!) It’s essentially soccer on ice with a much smaller object to track.

I think the problem is that Americans don’t dominate soccer the way we do other sports. We’re good, but not Argentina and Brazil good. If we contended for the World Cup this year (and we probably won’t with the group we’re in and without Landon Donovan), you bet more Americans would watch.

The same thing happened with women’s gymnastics. When the Eastern Europeans dominated, we might tune in during the Olympics when someone good was on or when a gymnast’s highlights were accompanied by the theme for a soap opera. When Mary Lou Retton won in 1984, Americans really started caring about women’s gymnastics.

But why should we wait until we win before we start rooting for the home team? That’s something we do in Southern California, but not the rest of the country. Red Sox fans stayed devoted to their team during their 1918-2004 drought. The Chicago Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908 and probably won’t this century either, but fans still flock to Wrigley.

Soccer fans are like that around the world. In my community, the Mexican team has a large and devoted following. Mexican fans love El Tri, even when they choke in the semis as they usually do. England has been torturing their fans since 1966. They’re as much a “wait ’til next year and hope” team as any American baseball team.

So, tune into the World Cup and root for the team of your choice. And tell me what team you’re rooting for in the comments below.

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