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The beautiful game


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A long time ago, John Bertos, an elegant gentleman who devoted much of his time and fortune to the hopeless task of promoting the game of soccer to an indifferent America, tried with the passion only very good soccer men can summon to explain to me why we don't get it, or even like it.

As the conversation occurred some 40 years ago, the best I can do is paraphrase John's thesis. Essentially, he said, "When people come to this country they quickly realize they must shed all their old ways, as swiftly as possible. They have to get rid of the language, the accent, the dress, the manners, the music, and even the diet, and they gotta do it fast! Soccer belongs to the old country. When you come to America you leave it, and move on."

So it's the dynamics of the Melting Pot that we have to blame for America's notorious disdain for the game that the rest of the world regards as divine and even sacred. Nor would I for a moment, my fellow immigrants, dare suggest that 300 million Americans could possibly be wrong.

Of course, you're not likely to agree this week. For about a month, soccer will be very fashionable. People will profess to understand and love it. There will be much talk about the proliferation of youth and club leagues and the marvelous inroads soccer is striking with the next generation. It will be the finest hour of the soccer moms. Should the US kids actually accomplish something significant -- for the first time ever -- the popular rage will briefly boil over and may even drive the oil spill off the front page for a day.

And then, right around Bastille Day, the lovely infatuation will come to a crashing and inglorious end and the whole soccer thing will implode becoming again a hazy, ill-defined memory. Whereupon Americans, when asked, will resort to mumbling something about the game being too esoteric, too plodding, too vague, too low-scoring, too tame, too boring. Few will come right out and say so, because it is egregiously "politically incorrect" to do so, but they will also be effectively saying that it is also "too un-American". For that's what they truly mean. It happens every four years; regular as clockwork.

Let me confess to being -- on that every fourth year --your basic and quintessential soccer dilettante who is totally turned off most of the time but bursts forth from the closet as a raging fan of the alleged "beautiful game" only too pleased to joyfully proclaim the wonders of the World Cup.

While confession can nicely clear the conscience, one admits all this with a certain embarrassment. It's an attitude that maligns this great game. There out to be a law that bans us from climbing aboard the merry World Cup bandwagon just when all the fun is about to begin. We are not worthy. We don't belong. We haven't paid the dues.

Having South Africa as the venue this time adds greatly to the charm of the festival, as if that were possible. There is no more fascinating corner of the world; historically troubled, for sure, yet the bailiwick of a valiant people who staunchly bear on in their determined effort to be a shining example for the rest of the world. They still have a darn good chance of making it happen, no matter the odds.

Having spent a month there about a decade ago I remain forever a fan of the new Republic of South Africa. It is a magnificent place where a story for the ages is still a work in progress. To know South Africa is to pray that this World Cup will be a smashing success highlighting for all the world not only the miracle of the host nation but the wondrous and endless potential of the entire African continent. This is a moment long overdue.

Inevitably, the spectacle got off to an uproarious start with stuff that gave the rest of the world the chance to guffaw. There were the elephants creating traffic jams and the grape-loving baboons roaming Cape Town's tourist haunts in search of vineyards to forage.

Then came the assault of the "vuvuzelas", those plastic trumpets traditionally favored by local folks that create an overwhelming buzz when played constantly by tens of thousands, which is precisely what happened at the first few games. The dreadful drone made the stadiums sound like nests of angry bees and it tainted television coverage all over the world being viewed by more than a billion people. It's not easy running such a monumental show.

Rather more serious is the petty crime -- too much of it targeting visiting media and fans -- creating daily headlines. It's a nation that still features a frontier edge. The rough and tumble remains commonplace. The burden will be on visitors to understand that this isn't Chicago. Some 500,000 guests are expected. That will profoundly test the nation's services and infrastructure which, while more sophisticated than outsiders suspect, is more "third world" than "first".

In the end, though, it is hoped all that stuff will be incidental. The odds would be better if the god-like Mandela were still able to serve. But the immortal Nelson is old, out of it, and grieving, having lost his granddaughter in a needless, pointless accident on the eve of the Games. South Africa must make it without him. Life is unfair. But South Africa must not bungle this moment. The stakes are huge.

Meanwhile the futbol which is what, after all, it is all about can be expected to be splendid. That much you can bank on. In the end, that probably means that after all the fuss and bother the usual suspects will be left standing when it comes down to the final four which is when it gets really, bloody serious. If so, Brazil would be there because Brazil is always there, and the Argentines too because they, with the incomparable Maradona in charge, are definitely back, and the Germans, because they may be even fiercer than feared which their opening match pasting of the tough Australians strongly suggested.

It's the fourth spot that excites greatest speculation. Highly artistic Spain is widely favored. But many like as much the Dutch, who are always in the mix. The wily and veteran Italians are defending champs. France won two Cups ago, but no longer features the noble Zidane. Many yearn for an African team to reach at least the semis. Best bet is Ivory Coast if mega-star Didier Drogba, who broke his arm just a week before the tourney, continues to repair miraculously. Otherwise, it would have to be Ghana. England's first match, ending in a disappointing draw, lowers their standing. Not having a dependable goalkeeper will do that. Dark horses include Uruguay, Paraguay, even Serbia. Then there's the team that confounded the traditionally mighty Brits in the first match.

That would be, of course, the American kids and there's the temptation to over-rate their plucky 1-1 draw with the Brits. Tactically, it raises their hopes. Artistically, it proves little. The modest achievement was all borne of sheer luck. A dumbfounding goof by England's luckless goalie handed them the point. Otherwise, they were significantly out-played over the length of the match, according to every knowledgeable soccer pundit on the premises. One would caution against an excess of euphoria, if you will. The inspired 1-1 draw that the hosts, South Africa, pulled off against Mexico was a bigger upset.

You should keep in mind that it's not our game. On the other hand, it was the Americans who featured the best player in that opening match, goal-keeper Tim Howard. But along the way Howard, a much respected pro, who in his day-job tends goal for fabled British soccer power Manchester United, got mugged, kicked and stomped upon. Just how healthy he remains and how well he rebounds may prove vital.

Can a goalie carry a soccer team as much as one can in the comparable game of hockey? We are about to find out. Welcome to the bandwagon, be you deserving or otherwise.

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