Nelson Antoine, AP
The 2014 World Cup is the premier sporting event on planet Earth.
If I wrote this anyplace else on the globe, it wouldn't be even remotely controversial. But in the United States, such declarations can get you crammed in a locker — or worse, unfriended on Facebook.
The Internet, sports radio and cable news is populated by plenty of talking heads that equate soccer to things like the plague, the bird flu and any movie starring David Spade.
Why so much hate?
When I brought up the World Cup to one of my sports-nut pals, he responded with this classic anti-soccer rant. “It’s hard to say what I hate more. The constant, infuriating, mindless backward kicking? The offensive onslaught of a 2-1 match? The tripping? The flopping after the tripping? The career-threatening-looking injuries that inevitably follow all the flopping? The only thing I like about soccer is when it’s over. Oh wait, they just added five minutes of stoppage time to the end. Make it stop.”
I replied: “So, just to clarify, you don't like soccer then?”
Perhaps he’s forgotten I’m a noted soccer expert with significant playing and coaching experience. (I played in middle school and have coached my son’s team for two years in our local peewee league. We’re a scoring powerhouse.)
To my friend — who asked to remain anonymous so “soccernatics” don’t hunt him down — I offer my own opinion that the 2014 World Cup is the greatest show on Earth.
The arguments against it are silly.
The players flop too much. Really? Have you watched an NBA game lately? And the constant complaining to the refs isn't any different than what you see on any given Sunday in the NFL.
Speaking of the NFL, how many times have you seen a quarterback get pushed over after the ball is gone? He always throws his hands up in disgust, often while still on his back. "That big, bad man pushed me! After you blew your whistle!”
What about those wide receivers who whine that a cornerback tugged on his jersey? Or the punter who gets run into and rolls around on the ground like he's been hit at close range by a circus cannon?
Oh, and soccer games are too low scoring. Seriously? Like those 2-0 baseball games? I love baseball, but when a game goes nine innings and the final is 1-0, we call that a defensive pitchers’ duel. But in soccer, good defense is illegal torture and all 1-0 games should have to put bags over their heads.
Rowdy fans? Sure, soccer fans, especially outside the U.S., can get wound up. But given the thousands of professional soccer games played every year and the number of so-called “riots” — is it really worth hating the whole sport? And if you don’t think we’ve got rowdy fans here, you haven’t been to Lexington, Kentucky, after a Wildcats championship, or Boston or Denver or L.A. after winning a title.
To those who call the tournament boring, maybe you’re on the wrong channel? Sunday’s 2-2 game between the United States and Portugal was thrilling! Sure, there could have been more goals, but isn’t there excitement in the anticipation of those rare scoring chances?
Face it: Soccer is the great equalizing sport.
All one really needs is a ball and a field. Don't have a field? A dirt lot will do. Don't have dirt? Cement works, too. I’ve seen it all.
Years ago walking down the streets of Ipatinga, Brazil, a handful of boys invited me and a friend to join them in a sloppy field with no lines and only rocks to mark the goals. As missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we wore white shirts and ties; the boys wore shorts and tank tops, or no shirt at all.
What did it matter?
These kids, no older than 10, dominated us. Before long, the heavens opened and the floods came and we could barely see or hear the boys begging us not to leave and to play a little longer. Already soaked to the shins, we stayed and played until our schedule demanded we return home and get changed for evening appointments.
As we said goodbye, I saw joy on the boys’ faces as together we recognized that for a few moments, these white 19-year-old Americans in shirts and ties were really no different.
That’s what soccer does.
It’s why Costa Rica can beat Italy. It’s how Spain, a favorite to win it all this year, is already on a homebound plane over the Atlantic.
Football and baseball are great. Basketball is tons of fun. But soccer is the sport that brings billions together on the most level playing field in sports.
And that’s why I'm watching the World Cup with record numbers of viewers in this country and around the world.
It’s the greatest show on Earth.
Jason Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars" and "The Wednesday Letters." Learn more at jasonfwright.com, or connect on Facebook at facebook.com/jfwbooks or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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