Wednesday June 9th, 2010

The first World Cup was held 34 years after the modern Olympics began, but -- except for that hallowed part of the globe featuring amber waves of grain and purple mountains majesty -- the championship of real football has come to mean far more to humankind than do the Games. There is simply no passion for anything in sport as that which begins Friday in South Africa.

It's not that fans most everywhere else are so devoted specifically to soccer. Rather, the last half century or so shows a distinct rise in the interest of team sports, with a corresponding decline of attention to individual sports. We love our teams. Even as the world blurs and amalgamates, we find identity with our teams. We live and die with them, whether they represent our city, our country, our college, our school.

The sports in the United States which have suffered the most significant declines in popularity are all individual competitions: boxing, horse racing, track and field. Meanwhile, basketball, ice hockey, even soccer and lacrosse get far more attention than they used to. It's fashionable to say baseball has lost esteem, and it has -- but only relative to football. Teams rule. Yeah, teams.

To be sure, many individual sports have their devoted fans. The U.S. Open and Wimbledon will attract plenty of attention in the days ahead, but much as we might root for Mickelson or Nadal, it's nothing like the fevered zeal we hold in our hearts for our teams.

A poll among English fans revealed that one-third of them would agree to do housework for a year and 12 percent of them would give up all sex for a year if, by doing such a deal with the devil, they could guarantee English victory in the World Cup. Somehow, I just can't imagine one out of every eight Englishmen forfeiting sex for a year just so that a countryman could win at Wimbledon or St. Andrews.

For goodness sake, priorities.

The Olympics has embraced team sports more and more, but, even with celebrity Dream Teams, the Games remain more of a variety show. After all, the hottest ticket to the Olympics isn't even for anything athletic, but just for a fancy meet-and-greet: the Opening Ceremony. By contrast . . . like it or not . . . the World Cup is pure, raw, down-and-dirty unadulterated sport at its best. There are no World Cup hymns. There are no podiums for the runners-up. Losers walk.

And if the United States should upset mighty England in the teams' opening match Saturday, I can only imagine that throughout that sceptered isle both sex and housework will be forgotten.

We Americans have no idea what the World Cup means to that big, old world out there beyond Sarah Palin's front porch. No idea at all.

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