Soccer is the most popular sport in America. And not just because it's World Cup time. It's been the most popular sport in this country, as in the rest of the world, for many years. It's true that soccer is still in its formative stages as a mass spectator entertainment competing in a crowded marketplace of amusement options, but when participation is considered, soccer is America's game.
I grew up reading a lot of baseball literature that contained nostalgic, knowing references to "sandlot" hardball, but I'm not sure I've ever actually witnessed a pickup baseball game. Hockey and football, too, contain barriers of infrastructure, climate, equipment and a requisite tolerance for casual violence that inhibit informal participation. But soccer, like basketball, requires only a ball and a minimally furnished playing area.
The quadrennial FIFA World Cup is the only obvious opportunity for many to experience the game in its spectator form—the chants, the songs, the xenophobia, the threats of violence. Soccer as a spectator sport is surprisingly active—a quality soccer crowd will be singing fight songs, or derisive, obscene ones, as it urges its team onward.
The supposed American resistance to the professional game, a puzzle that's been chewed over for decades, is a phenomenon born of factors too complex to discuss here. The United States first fielded a national team in 1885 and there have been intercity professional soccer leagues since World War I. But the enduring image of soccer being somehow un-American is perhaps a question to be filed away with "Why hasn't socialism taken root in America?" (Maybe the word "soccer," derived from "association football," the sport's official name in England, sounds like "socialism"?)
It's true, though, that one of the outstanding qualities of soccer is that it is a democratic game. Although the sport has its marquee attractions, like Portugal's gloweringly metrosexual Cristiano Ronaldo, it takes 11 players with similar skill sets to grind out a winning goal at one end while keeping the opponent's shots out of your own net. Unlike sports where size is a crucial selection factor, soccer does not demand that one be of freakish dimensions (there are no 290-pound professional soccer players). The consensus "best player in the world" is a 22-year-old Argentine named Lionel Messi, who stands a modest 5-foot-7 and weighs 150 pounds. His bread and butter is his ability to dart between larger, less agile defenders. And, as spectacular a goal scorer as Messi is, he still scores less than once a game. But his magical strikes, when they occur, inspire ecstatic, quasi-religious rapture.
The best teams, too, do not always win; an inferior opponent can pack its defensive area, fend off 20 shots and sneak in a goal of its own on a counterattack. Thus, it's entirely conceivable that this Saturday's marquee matchup between the upstart Americans and the game's inventors, England, could end up favorably for the Yanks—much as it did the last time these two countries met in the World Cup, six decades ago.
Despite the level playing fields of soccer, the Goliaths will be the ones to survive the grueling, 32-team, month-long contest. Root for Ivory Coast (and the United States) while you can, because the final rounds will surely contain the likes of Brazil, Spain, Argentina, Holland or Germany. You can catch those teams at home, on your computer or in any bar that has a television. Some bars are extending their hours to accommodate the early morning games, and at least one movie theater—the Galaxy Cinema—will show games for free on the big screen. May the best—and luckiest—team win, and may millions of Americans blow off daytime work in favor of cheering for America's game.