AN AMERICAN SPORTS FAN EXPLORES THE WORLD CUP

Special to The Hanging Shad by Vincent Mauro, Jr.

The World Cup—ESPN has been blasting us about this soccer tournament for about 6 months; how important it is, how the world stands still for a one month every four years etc., etc. OK, I bought into the hype. Now what?

I’m a sports fan. Surely I can get into the greatest tournament on earth (apologies to the NCAA, World Baseball Classic and Olympics) but how do I do this? I hit the books, or more accurately, I hit the internet. Let’s start with the really basic stuff like the rules to soccer.

Now I’m not an idiot. I know the ball needs to go into the net to score, clearly that’s the most important rule to know. So I flipped open to a rules site, started reading and found some familiar stuff –“offside.” Great! I know that one from my countless hours of (American) football watching.

Offside’s in soccer is determined when the ball is kicked rather than when the player receives the ball. In order to be offside, a player must be on their attacking half of the field, be involved in the play, and be closer to the goal line than the ball and any of the opposing team’s players. Offside’s does not apply on corner kicks, throw-ins, and goal kicks. If offside is called, the opposing team gets a free kick wherever the offside player was when he was offside. If the player is level with his last opponent, he is not offside.

What? It’s not when linemen jump before the ball is snapped? Ugh. You know what, forget the rules. I’m savvy enough of a sports fan to know when watching a game in a bar to look for the guy that looks like he knows what he’s talking about. When he starts screaming at the TV that’s when I jump in and it’s the same in every sport, “Call it both ways, ref!” “That’s bulls@#$*!” “Someone’s got money on the game” and the old standby, “You’re killin’ us ref!”

Next, I need to know some of the story lines. So the best player in the world is Lionel Messi of Argentina who is coached by the once greatest player in the world Diego Maradona and they don’t like each other. Ok, this is easy stuff to interpret so this is like LeBron James being coached by Michael Jordan and Jordan keeps telling the press and anyone who will listen he’s greatest and LeBron hasn’t won anything yet. OK good stuff; make a note watch an Argentina game.

Next, inevitably someone will bring up how bad the US team is and how they don’t compare to the rest of the world, blah, blah, blah. I definitely need an answer. OK, how about this?

My starting 11 for the US would be, upfront Lebron, Dwayne Wade, and Randy Moss. Next I’ll need some grind-it-out role players and playmakers, so I go with Derek Jeter, Dustin Pedroia, Chase Utley, Peyton Manning and Chris Paul. Now a couple of defenders—I’ll take Darrelle Revis and Troy Polamalu. And I’ll stick Dwight Howard or Shaq in the net.

Now I know none of these people can kick the ball but I’m guessing if soccer was the number one sport in this country and they played it instead of baseball, football and basketball, these fellas would be pretty good.

I’m now at my biggest problem about this tournament: Who do I root for? Well obviously, I’m rooting for Uncle Sam’s boys as long as they are there, but who else do you root for? Or better yet, who do you root against?

I grew up at the end of the Cold War. I don’t remember the 1980 USA/USSR hockey game, but the movie “Miracle” is a must see. The Soviets didn’t participate in the ’84 Olympics so I couldn’t root against them then and by ’88 the Berlin wall was on the verge of toppling and for every Olympics since, the US has been the team the rest of the world roots against. So there hasn’t been a good international villain for the United States, China? North Korea? Iran? Last I checked the Taliban didn’t qualify.

So I’m stuck, I need to find a good and worthy villain. Where are the Yankees to my Red Sox or the Cowboys to my Giants?

There are 32 teams. There must be someone to root against, so I have to narrow it down to the top-ranked teams:

Spain, the Netherlands, Germany?

Ah, Brazil. Here we go, they have won the cup a bunch of times and they call their brand of soccer the “Beautiful Game.” Oh yeah, here is a team to root against.

I have a hard time picturing Vince Lombardi, Lou Holtz, Billy Martin or Red Auerbach imploring their guys to play a better “Beautiful Game”. When the coach draws up a play, is it on a board with flowers?

England/Portugal. Ok here’s another two to root against. First, I like Irish pubs and none of those guys are rooting for the Queen’s team so England is easy to root against. And they got a guy named Wayne Rooney who is a superstar and makes tens of millions—he’s easy to dislike. Portugal has Christiano Ronaldo. He’s the guy every woman loves and every guy hates or wishes they could be him for a day so that makes Portugal the “boy band” team and thus on the list to be rooted against.

Italy. Can’t root against them, my grandmother will haunt me.

France. Oh yeah, way too easy to root against them, can you say Freedom Fries?

So now I’m ready. I got my team to root for and many more to root against. I got my USA t-shirt and a good American lager in my hand. I’m ready for tip off or kick off or whatever it is. I’m ready to join the world in this sports spectacular.

Now I’m predicting about 45 minutes into the first match, I’ll be checking the score of the Red Sox game, rooting for whoever is playing against the Yankees, thinking about who the number one pick will be in the fantasy football draft and if all else fails, I can always throw the Giants Super Bowl DVD in and watch David Tyree’s catch again.

But at least I did try this time.