Dreams of a rabid fan
I am an American soccer fanatic. But I can’t believe who else are also soccer fans now.
When I did an event recently at my local bookstore in Montclair, New Jersey to discuss my new book about the World Cup, I was shocked by who showed up. A bunch of ’tween girls. They knew all about Lionel Messi, Fernando Torres, and Tim Howard (pictured above). Amazing.
For everyone else out there who knows more about Derek Jeter, Tom Brady, and Kobe Bryant than Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba, and Landon Donovan, I thought I would break the whole thing down — World Cup wise.
First of all, why is this such a big deal? Why is ESPN bombarding us night and day with all those slick promos? Why did Nike make a truly epic commercial that’s better than most Hollywood movies? Because soccer has truly become a global sport. A sport that now generates massive revenue.
There’s a reason Pele is the one of the most famous sports figure in the world. His sport is so simple anyone can play it. You don’t need sticks or bats, masks or pads, helmets or ice. Anyone, anywhere in the world, can play soccer. All you need is a ball. In fact, if you don’t have a ball, you can play with a grapefruit. That’s how Pele started when he was a kid, and he did okay for himself.
In America, our championships are national ones. Soccer, on the other hand, has a world championship with a deep and rich history. It is probably the most universal sport. Any kid anywhere in the world, from the dark heart of Africa to the frozen tundra of Iceland; from the arid wasteland of East Texas to the hardscrabble ghettos of South America, can dream of leading his country one day to glory by winning the World Cup.
That’s why on June 11, hundreds of millions of humans will gather in bars, barns, parks, taverns, caverns, caves and bunkers, some crossing great deserts just to find a radio so they can listen to the kickoff the World Cup 2010 against Mexico in Johannesburg.
It’s also why 204 teams played 848 matches and scored 2,337 goals for the right to become one of the chosen 32 nations who get a chance to be the champion of the world. It’s why the whole world will be holding its breath for a month this summer, erupting in cheers, moaning groans, and going quite mad, until a new champion is crowned.
Here’s how it works. It starts with eight groups of four teams. Each team plays three games. The top two teams in each group advance, the bottom two go home. Then it’s on to the Elimination Stage — Win: live to fight another day. Lose: instant extermination.
The American team will debut against England on June 12, 60 years after the Miracle on Grass. Long before video could zoom around the galaxy at the speed of sound, a proud group of undermanned American soccer players destroyed England, then the masters of the soccer universe. No one gave the uber-underdog Americans a shot against the pedigreed professionals. How little has changed. The USA team is a 66-1 longshot. But if Tim “T-Ho” Howard, Clint “Eastwood” Dempsey, and Landon “Manchild” Donovan are all healthy, they will give England a rude awakening, exactly as they did 60 years ago.
Watch for America to advance. In part, because of the “luck of the draw.” Group G is the infamous Group of Death, Group C, of which the U.S. and England are a part, is the Group of Club Med. Algeria? Slovenia? Not exactly soccer superpowers. That is no accident. The powers that be, and all their money, desperately want America and England to: 1. play each other in their debuts, resulting in through-the-roof global ratings; 2. make it through to the next round.
In fact, there’s A LOT riding on the U.S. hosting the World Cup in the near future. Don’t be surprised to see self-confessed soccer fanatic President Barack Obama give some serious face time to South Africa this summer.
The other night, as I drifted into a peaceful sleep, I had the kind of dream only a true lunatic rabid fanatic can have. I dreamt T-Ho Howard stonewalled the galaxy all month, that Manchild Donovan won the Golden Boot for most goals, and that Eastwood Dempsey stared down the world with his Dirty Harry glare, and America beat mighty Brazil in the final.
American coach Bob Bradley and his kid lifted the trophy over their heads, dancing with their teammates while Americans everywhere united in mad ecstatic jubilation. And we finally regained some credibility with the world. What? It could happen.
PLAYERS TO WATCH FOR:
Wayne Rooney, a tenacious goal-scoring bulldog. He will score goals, but at some point he will explode like a hand grenade on a landmine.
Lionel “The Flea” Messi is pound-for-pound, the greatest player in the world. Yes, he does weigh 104 lbs. soaking wet, but still, the man is a maestro, a modern artist/dancer/madman.
Matthew Booth is a hulking yet surprisingly skillful bald-shaved defender who looks shockingly like a huge Q-tip.
Park-Ji-Sung, Manchester United’s Energizer Bunny, is the hardest working soccer player in show business.
Gianluigi Buffon is one mad handsome dashing cat between the posts. If he’s not the best goalkeeper in the world, he’s certainly on the short list. Buffon is no buffoon.
Cristiano Ronaldo is ridiculously, sickly talented, and so easy on the eyes it almost hurts to look at him. The downside: he’s a delicate genius, fragile as a hothouse flower.
WORLD CUP FACTS:
• One in four people in the known universe will tune in.
• It’s estimated there are 250 million registered soccer players in the world
• Uruguay’s José Batista, one of the fiercest hard men in World Cup history, was once sent off 56 seconds into a match for nearly breaking a Scotsman in half.
• Andres Escobar, a Colombian who scored against his own team, was shot 12 times in his home country, while onlookers yelled, “Goal!”
• In Latin America, American players are regularly pelted with everything from batteries to baggies full of warm liquid waste.
• Best Team Nickname: Cameroon, The Indomitable Lions
• Worst Haircut: Carles Puyot of Spain. “Tarzan” from Barcelona sports a ‘do that equal parts Conan the Barbarian, Prince Valiant, and trailer trash mullet.
• Legendary African hardman Rigobert Song is not only the youngest player ever to be ejected from a World Cup, at the tender age of 17. He is also one of two players to be sent off at two different World Cups. You may have heard of the other: Zinadane Zidane. I’m rooting for Rigobert to break the record.
• 1 million condoms have recently been shipped to South Africa. Many of them will be used.
• Soccer is the most popular participatory sport in the USA, numbering more players than all the other major sports combined.
• Country that bought the most tickets to World Cup 2010: America.