Thursday, June 08, 2006


"Homer, give the Olympic torch back!"
"Never! They've pre-empted my favourite programs for the last time!"
"Every four years . . . "

OK, so maybe you dislike soccer, or don't pay it much mind.

Now the World Cup is here and you feel it's your sworn duty to inform the world the game is silly and an exemplar of how the rest of the world is hopelessly backwards for playing it while you, the smug Mega-American who did not appreciate the irony in Denis Leary's "Asshole" song, is not. (Don't feel smug, Canada, you're included in here too, to a lesser extent.)

Every four years, the same lazy swill peddlers who somehow luck into jobs as big-city sports columnists recycle the same dreck they wrote before the last World Cup -- just as they did during the most recent Winter Olympics, come to think of it. Here's Tom Powers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press -- whom I won't give the satisfaction of linking to -- writing the other day. (Here's another blogger's take on it, though.)
All the Department of Homeland Security has to do is monitor the city-by-city television ratings of this month's World Cup soccer tournament. Agents should be dispatched to any area in which the ratings reflect an unnaturally high level of interest. That likely signals a concentrated pocket of illegals.

Ho-ho-ho. What kind of mentality thinks this is incisive, or witty? It's the mindset the late, great Bill Hicks was lampooning when he said, "I'm from the States -- as you can tell from my complete lack of sophistication."

Let's just leave at saying Powers, his dubious ilk and the choir they think they're preaching to -- which is a very small choir, by the way -- need to STFU. They are Stupid, Tiresome, Fatheaded and Unoriginal.

My friend Neil Acharya and I were talking last night (well, early this morning) and he hit on why soccer grinds America's gears: because here you have a sport that's played and enjoyed throughout the world, and the U.S. played no part in that whatsoever.

Now, since we live in a confessional age, let me say that I am a reformed soccer hater, or more accurately, a failed soccer hater. Yours truly never played the game outside gym class or adopted a favourite team, but three of the other four members of my family played in high school. So it was out there. But an obsessive interest never took. If you were a kid growing up in a cable-free household in rural Ontario, it wasn't exactly easy to follow the Premiership or Bundesliga, and I didn't have close ties to an ancestral homeland that would spark an interest. (As someone whose ethnic background isHeinz-57 rural Canadian, ethnic identity comes up once a year in my family exactly once a year: at Christmas, when my mum makes her Swedish tea ring. And Sager is actually of German origin. Don't ask.)

Anyway, baseball is my favourite sport and I started playing it as a kid in the mid-'80s, when participation in youth baseball and soccer leagues across Canada was near an all-time high, fueled by this country having two successful major-league teams.

Those days, in all respects, were long gone by last spring: the Expos gone, the Jays coming off a 95-loss season in '04 and the organizers of youth ball leagues everywhere grateful simply when their registration levels only dropped a little from one year to the next. Soccer, at the grass roots, seemed to be muscling baseball out because it was sold as an easy option to lazy parents: lower registration fees, less equipment to buy, all that running, and you can sit in your lawn chair and yap on your cell phone without worrying about getting drilled in the thorax by a foul ball. In a small way, it was like observing the end of an era.

So I'd point out that Canadians were giving themselves a raw deal, not appreciating that this country has been much more successful in baseball, producing more elite players and faring better in big tournaments than we ever did in soccer. (And this was before we beat the U.S. at the World Baseball Classic. Sorry to keep bringing that up, but I'm only going to do it until the end of time.)

Typical of self-loathing Canadians, many don't realize that for a northern country with a small population, we have a good track record in baseball -- yet these people always notice and yuck it up when the latest FIFA rankings list us somewhere around 84th, eating the dust of some banana republic. Again, that's another column.

Or I'd muse how, isn't it odd that as soccer, the game with that involves all that running, has become the No. 1 sport among youths, that the childhood obesity epidemic has grown worse?

Did I really believe something that simplistic? I said it and I wrote it, but Neil cut to the quick when he pointed out, "You tried to resent soccer, but you were too intelligent to."

As Hicks -- the American comedian who was revered in England, the country that gave us football -- mused, your values are just the extension of learned experience. They aren't real. (Strange coincidence: Bill Hicks died in 1994, the same year that the U.S. hosted the World Cup. Weird.)

So let the game in, between now and the final on July 9. To do otherwise is to mark yourself as a sports dinosaur. As a Time article noted, in India, where cricket is king, soccer is earning its place, because putting soccer alongside cricket -- not necessarily in place of it -- is seen as a sign of modernity.

Instead of pulling a Powers and complaining about having soccer shoved down your throat for the next month, learn to like it, as Chicago Sun-Times scribe Rick Telander seems to have. It shows an ability to appreciate other countries. Or as Eddie Izzard once put it to a U.S. audience, "You do know there are other countries?"

Yes, soccer is sixth in the Out of Left Field hierarchy, after baseball, hockey, Canadian football, American football and basketball. It will stay No. 6 for some time yet, but it's closing the gap all time.

Now I have 24 hours to learn as much as I can about my adopted country for Germany 06 -- the stout, stolid Swedes. Wish us luck.

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