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The World Cup is the real Super Bowl of fútbol

Fri, Jun 23rd, 2006
Posted in Commentary

Every four years the countries of the world get together to see which nation has the best soccer team. They call it the World Cup. Brazil won in 1994 and again in 2002. France won it in 1998. This year, Brazil is picked to lead the pack, but I have my money on the Netherlands, although host Germany is playing well.

Unlike the Olympics, which every four years measures individual and team competition in a range of sports, the World Cup is all about soccer, or, what the rest of the world calls, football (fútbol). It involves 11 men playing against 11 other men and each team trying to put the ball in the other teams goal. The team with the most goals wins.

Football is the major sport in most countries of the world, and the World Cup gives developing countries the chance to play David against Goliath developed nations. Ecuador beating Poland last week 2-nil and Ghana winning over the U.S. 2-1 will be remembered in both countries for years.

Soccer is a relatively new sport to the United States. The first time I played soccer was in 1978 with a bunch of 10 to 13 year old boys on a grassy patch of hill near the village of Horabau, on the island of Guadalcanal, where I served in the Peace Corps. The soccer pitch had been scraped raw in the middle by the constant play of bare feet kicking a round little ball up and down the field trying to place it between two sticks planted vertically in the ground.

The universal appeal of soccer is that it is a poor man’s sport - a spot of ground, an inexpensive round ball, and a hand full of eager kids and you have yourself a pick-up game. The rules are pretty similar to ice hockey.

The Horabau field was situated on a knoll overlooking the Pacific: to the north was Iron Bottom Sound, the site of five naval battles between the US and Japan during World War II; to the south was a grassy plain that ascended toward triple canopy jungle and the mountains. We would play about five in the afternoon, when the baked earth was starting to cool and the wind off the ocean made the heat tolerable.

I was a decent enough athlete in my youth, a capable player in baseball and basketball, but soccer tested untapped skills. You can only use your feet, knees, chest or head to strike the ball; no using hands, no catching the ball, no one arm tosses to a teammate. And that is the reason I played with the little kids - I just couldn’t keep up with the young men who ran circles around me. It didn’t matter that I was nearly 30 years old and one of the tallest people in the country, all this feet stuff was like trying to polka in a hay field with your arms behind your back.

After a year in the kids minor league, I migrated up to playing with the older youth, but only as a defensemen clogging up the middle of the field. I didn’t have the skills for being a striker, for leading the offense on attack. Only as a slow defender who wasn’t afraid to use a little muscle in the scrums was I useful.

While I learned the fundamentals of soccer from kids on the sandlots of the Solomon Islands, my love of soccer grew when I lived in Hong Kong and began watching English Premiere League football on TV. Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea are the soccer equivalents to the Packers, Lions and Vikings of American gridiron football. And, so, now, every four years when the soccer world turns their attention to the World Cup, I too, stop, and grab the remote.

My son has also caught the Cup fever, which can be a passport to meeting new people. Traveling in Western Europe with his German class last week, he emailed me to say that he had just watched Germany beat Poland 1-0 in extra-time with “25 Deutschlanders in a dark room in our hostel in Treiberg (Switzerland).”

Thirty two teams qualified for the World Cup after competing in regional qualifiers. Sixteen teams will pass out of group play to the next round (unfortunately the US team will not); then eight, then four, then two will move on.

I’ll be watching on July 9, when the winner of this World Cup’s 63’d match will be crowned the best football team in the world. The rest of the world will be watching also, to the real Super Bowl of fútbol.

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