Trying to explain either soccer or the World Cup is a pretty thankless task, but I’m going to try to give it one more go. I don’t expect to make a lot of (i.e., no) converts, but maybe generate a little bit of understanding.
The World Cup
The World Cup is a kind of “surrogate warfare,” if you will, where nations compete but nobody gets hurt. (A few athletes suffer athletic injuries, but no more than in any other kind of sports competition.) Whole countries (sometimes continents) get to feel the pride of competition and of defeating an “enemy” without anyone actually getting hurt.
It’s very cathartic.
Right now, we have the “Cinderella” story of the Moroccan National Team, on whose success rides not only the hopes of Moroccans, but for the moment, the entire continent of Africa. Soccer reflects the global economy, in a sense: all the wealthy and most successful teams reside in Europe. Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, AC Milan, Juventus, and so forth. These teams can buy the best players in the world, which include the best South American players, and now also the best African players. And the occasional Korean or Japanese.
These exported African, Asian and South American players and coaches are bringing their experiences back to their native countries, and their national teams are becoming ever more competitive. Morocco will be the first Semi-Finalist from Africa, and could be the first finalist. And little countries like Croatia — who would have no chance in an actual war of any kind — can beat large and armed countries on the field of soccer.
And therefore, the passion.
The Beautiful Game
It’s not hard to figure out what Americans don’t like about soccer. Not enough scoring. It wasn’t always this way, but over the last four or five decades, tactical awareness — and in particular, the offside trap — has decreased scoring quite a bit. Hence the all-too-many 1:1 and 0:0 draws that populate the World Cup (and soccer in general).
In actuality, soccer is a lot like basketball, except they are on opposite ends of the scoring spectrum. In basketball, athletes with remarkable skill find ways to get to the basket and shoot. About half the shots go in. In soccer, athletes with remarkable skill engage in a geometric ballet, trying to find a path to the goal, shooting occasionally but rarely scoring. It’s the ballet, and the ability of these athletes to control the ball with their feet and other body parts (but not the arms and hands) that is so beautiful to watch. You wouldn’t know how difficult it is until you’ve tried it.
Americans will have a passing interest in the World Cup four years from now when it is jointly hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada. But in general, Americans will never “get” it. Not in my lifetime, I’m sure.