World's Right; We're Wrong

June 11, 2006

The averageAmerican eats three hamburgers a week, 16 orders of French fries a month, 25pounds of candy a year ... and is profoundly uninterested in the World Cup.Soccer, it appears, is the only thing we don't want crammed down our throats.What does this attitude toward the World Cup say about the U.S.? It illuminatesmany of our least flattering qualities as a nation, not least of which is abreathtaking incuriosity about the rest of the world. (For more World Cupcoverage, see page 54.)

A new Roper pollsays two thirds of Americans aged 18 to 24 can't find Iraq on a map. (Halfcan't find New York City on a map of the U.S.) When Paraguay plays Trinidad andTobago in Kaiserslautern, Germany, on June 20, it will seem less like a matchthan a geography test we didn't study for.

We also don't liketo acknowledge foreign innovation, which partly explains why you've never heardof Kerlon Souza. He's an 18-year-old Brazilian midfielder who invented the sealdribble--he can flick the ball from his foot onto his forehead in heavytraffic, then dribble the ball just above his eyebrows while slaloming arounddefenders at full speed.

Thankfully, videoof Souza's parlor trick is available on the Internet, which smuggles soccerhighlights into American homes, past the unsuspecting gatekeepers atSportsCenter. Like the Internet, the seal dribble is a quantum leap, agame-changing innovation that dwarfs the forward pass in American football. AsSouza has said, "Nobody can get the ball without fouling me."

Brazil's mostbrilliant player, Ronaldinho, is victimized by another insidious American bias:We will not abide ponytails on any athlete not named Chris Evert. In soccer theworld's superstar du jour--Ronaldinho today, David Beckham before him, RobertoBaggio before him--inevitably wears a ponytail at the peak of his fame. But trynaming a single American male athlete who has ever gotten away with one.(Besides Secretariat.) It's part of a broader tonsorial xenophobia that has buta single salutary side effect: It killed the movie career of Steven Seagal.

Soccer doesn't fitour self-image. We fancy ourselves ass-kickers, not grass-kickers. The Americanmisapprehension that soccer is played by ponytailed pansies may derive from thegame's epidemic of diving. Francis Lee, Manchester City midfielder of the 1960sand '70s, has the world's worst Wikipedia entry. Not only is Lee discredited asthe Pioneer of the Dive, but he also earned another, even less appealingepithet after football, when he became a toilet paper magnate known as the BogRoll King.

While diving isindefensible, the fact remains: Soccer players--running nonstop for two45-minute halves--are fitter than athletes in the NBA and are probably morefrequently concussed than those in the NFL.

And they have thebest names in all of sport. This year's World Cup will feature Angola's AntonioLebo-Lebo and Arsenio Love, the Ivory Coast's Boubacar Barry and the Brazilianmononyms Fred and Kakà. One of Ghana's final cuts was Junior Agogo. We can onlyhope he has a brother named Whiskey.

Congress hasproposed walling off the Mexican border: Subliminally, our World Cup aversionmay have less to do with red cards and yellow cards than green cards. We aren'tthe world. And likewise, the world isn't us. The sport we care most deeplyabout, American football, holds no interest to the rest of humankind, unlessyou count fans of the Rhein Fire.

So let's open ourminds, if not our borders. Check out the video of Colombia's goalkeeper, LuisMartinez, scoring on Poland last week in a freaky, fluky, length-of-the-pitchpunt that was viewed half a million times the first 24 hours it was posted onyoutube.com.

Check out themind-blowing, 11-minute video on Nike's Jogo Bonita website, in which 130people from 30 countries each briefly dribble a ball before passing it out offrame to the next person. (One guy traps the ball on the back of his neck andkeeps it balanced there while he drops and does push-ups.)

Watch the clip ofJohann Cruyff dekeing a Swedish defender out of his socks in the '74 World Cup,when the great Dutchman--for the first time on a world stage--feints right andbackheels left in one bewildering motion. It's like witnessing the discovery offire and is viewable by entering into any search engine the phrase Cruyff Turn,the name by which the tactic has been taught ever since.

Watch all thesevignettes, and if you still don't like soccer, you don't like sports. You onlythink you do.

> If you havea comment for Steve Rushin, send it to rushin@siletters.com.

Ronaldinho is the victim of an American bias: We willnot abide ponytails on any athlete not named Chris Evert. Try naming a U.S.male athlete who got away with one.

PHOTOSIMON BRUTY

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)