The "Boring" World Cup
By Neal Shaffer

For the sports-viewing public, last weekend was, by any measure, one of the most chock-full in memory. Baseball was continuing its interleague play experiment, which included a much anticipated Yankees-Giants series. War Emblem was seeking the first Triple Crown since 1978. The French Open finals and semifinals were being played in Paris. NASCAR was at Pocono, one of the more interesting tracks on the schedule. The NBA and NHL Stanley Cup finals were continuing (though they admittedly lack drama this year). The Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson fight was finally going to happen. And the World Cup continued in South Korea and Japan.

So here, then, is a brief recap: Roger Clemens plunked Barry Bonds, War Emblem got off to a bad start and finished near the back of the pack, Serena Williams beat her sister (the men also played a final, but nobody noticed), Dale Jarrett proved that NASCAR’s "youth movement" is still far from dominant, the Lakers and Red Wings marched on, Mike Tyson rolled over in the face of Lennox Lewis’s superior height, weight, reach, and skill. And the World Cup continued in South Korea and Japan.

While each of these events was worthy of attention, only the World Cup truly matters on a global scale. Although it’s a well-known fact that soccer is the world’s game, most Americans probably do not understand just how intense the difference is. Senegal’s defeat of defending champion France in the first round was immediately regarded as a candidate for the biggest upset in sports history. And to be fair, it probably was the biggest. Nothing that has happened on these shores save for the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" can even come close. True, the Diamondbacks’ victory over the Yankees in last year’s World Series was one of the greatest upsets in American sports history. Truer still, it was a far more exciting event than the Senegal victory. But only to a point. Outside America the notion of a "World" Series that includes only U.S. professional teams is a running joke. And with the probable exception of baseball-obsessed Japan, not many outside America care who wins it.

Conversely, America is just about the only country that doesn’t go mad about the World Cup. There is a perception that the event goes by completely ignored here. But that’s not entirely true. Between ESPN and ESPN2 all but a handful of games are being televised live. The remaining games will air weekends on ABC via tape delay, the lone exception being the June 30 final, which will air live on ABC beginning at 7 a.m. Therein lies the problem. While it’s true that the World Cup is not a major draw here, airing the games between 2 and 7 in the morning makes it hard to expect much. Still, the ESPN broadcasts are regularly drawing around 400,000 viewers, which is more than the draw for many of that network’s regular-season, prime-time NHL games. So to say that Americans don’t care about the World Cup is somewhat misleading. But still, our interest is decidedly not on par with that of the rest of the world.

It’s easy to explain why we wouldn’t watch a lot of regular-season hockey, non-major golf or tennis tournaments, or CART or IRL races. We like things that "matter" with all of their attendant drama, and in most sports those events are a pretty big deal here (Masters golf, Wimbledon tennis, the Indianapolis 500, the Stanley Cup, etc.). That’s a big part of the reason that the NFL is so successfulæ playing one game a week over a 16-game season tends to make the whole thing matter. But the World Cup is that event, the one soccer event that means something to the whole world. So why don’t we tune in?

Essentially, for the same reason that we don’t tune in to regular-season baseballæ it’s "boring." To enjoy a soccer match requires patience, attentiveness, and knowledge. These same things are required to truly appreciate a good baseball game. The difference is that baseball is our game. We invented it and shipped it to the rest of the world. We have no national heritage in soccer and, consequently, no national interest. Our team happens to be doing well this year, but that is an exception to the long-standing rule of U.S. soccer inadequacy (now would be the appropriate time to note that we are talking strictly of men’s soccer. Women’s soccer tends to be a bigger deal here, but the dynamic in play with women’s soccer is different and would merit its own discussion).

But just because we don’t really watch now doesn’t mean we shouldn’t or never will. For all its tedium, soccer is nonetheless interesting and, at times, downright exciting. And it’s fast becoming the sport of choice for American youthæ it’s safe and good exercise, and it requires no special equipment to play.

So consider this: last Sunday, when Russia lost a close match with Japan, thousands of fans in Moscow took to the streets and rioted. It was the latest in a long string of worldwide soccer violence that stems from a heady brew of nationalism, pride, and (usually) alcohol. While those reasons may not be the best, Americans could certainly learn a thing or two from a world that can muster that kind of passion for a "boring" sport.