Howard: Hate soccer? Other reasons to watch World Cup

The first-ever World Cup on African soil begins June 11 in South Africa, and American sports fans know the drill by now. Every four years at about this time, the rest of the world squints at us and asks us the same pointed question: If 60 zillion people around the globe are planning on tuning in to every minute of this year’s tournament, then why not you, America? — as in, “What’s wrong with you?"

But American ambivalence about the World Cup is not a litmus test on how crass we can be. (That would be the infield of a NASCAR race.) And being ambivalent about soccer doesn’t make the Euro-snobs more sophisticated than us, or the samba-loving South Americans more fun and high-spirited. It’s not like if you dislike the World Cup, you couldn’t possibly appreciate the finer things in life other than a day-night doubleheader.

I’ve been thinking that maybe Americans would jump on the World Cup bandwagon more if the World Cup’s boosters realized that part of our “problem” is the month-long tournament seems be too much about, well … soccer, and not enough about all the other reasons to love the World Cup.

Just to prove it, here’s a quick list I compiled of why this year’s World Cup is worth tuning into:

The U.S. team’s psychodrama opener against England
Anyone who reads the Rottweilers of the British tabloids knows the Brits have the world’s biggest sports inferiority complex. For weeks now, England’s World Cup team has been reminded that in 1950 the United States recorded one of the greatest upsets in soccer history by knocking off England, 1-0. And not coincidentally, this year’s American team is planning to wear jerseys modeled after the ones that 1950 U.S. squad wore. As the Brits might say, that’s diabolically brilliant! A massively inspired stunt!

The U.S. team was shaky defensively in its past few World Cup tune-ups. England is a darkhorse pick to contend for the title, along with Spain, Brazil, Portugal, Germany, Italy and Argentina. Yet some experts are picking the Yanks to upset England in their June 12 World Cup opener anyway. If that happens, Wayne Rooney, goaltender David “Calamity” James and the rest of England’s squad might want to look into Australian passports. The American team only has to get out of pool play and into the second round to have a respectable showing.

The injury thing
You know what I mean. Only in soccer does a player barely get hit, then writhe on the ground as if he's in the death grip of some invisible python. Out comes the stretcher. Off the field he's carried, gasping like some beached trout — only to sprint back moments later looking perfectly fine, like some just-healed pilgrim at Lourdes yelling, “Look mamma, I can WALK!”

Cristiano Ronaldo, who hopes to lead Portugal to glory, loses many best-player-in-the-world votes to Argentina’s Lionel Messi because he flops so much. Didier Drogba of the Ivory Coast is probably second. If he could play striker, the Celtics’ Paul Pierce would be third. (See the 2008 NBA finals, the “Wheelchair Game.”)

The “Group of Death”
No, this isn’t the NFC East, pigskin nuts. This scare-your-pants-off term is always used to describe the toughest pool in the World Cup’s eight-group opening round. But why not appropriate a little soccer lingo into your everyday life when, say, your wife tries to drag you to some snoozefest dinner party (Honey, not the Group of Death!), or the Marlins send out the same lineup the next time they face Philadelphia ace Roy Halladay. They should just say a rosary instead.

The lost-in-translation nicknames
Brazil’s best player is Kaka. No. Really.

The geography pop quizzes
If you fall in love with American midfielder Michael Bradley’s game during the World Cup, no worries. You can follow him the rest of the year at Borussia Mönchengladbach, which — is, um ... where, exactly?

The controversial new ball
Adidas made it especially for this tournament. It’s called “The Jabulani” because, as we’ve already seen, soccer likes to grandiosely name everything. Here’s U.S. backup goalkeeper Marcus Hahneman’s review of The Jabulani: “It’s horse----. It’s the worst soccer ball I’ve ever played with. It’s plastic. It feels like s--- when it comes off your foot. It moves like crazy. It swerves. … You can’t tell what it’s going to do.”

Oh dear.

The Diego Maradona watch
The greatest — and perhaps most troubled — star in Argentine soccer history also stands accused of being the worst manager in this year’s 32-team World Cup tournament. Some critics say that the Argentines are so talented they’d have a better chance to win with no coach.

Already, Maradona has been criticized for playing the great Messi out of position, using 78 players during World Cup qualifying but somehow never fielding the same lineup twice, delaying his start of team preparations because his dog bit him in the face, and, more recently, running over a cameraman’s foot with his car after a training session, then profanely chewing out the cameraman “for putting your leg where it could get run over, man.”

Maradona has also promised to run naked through the streets of Buenos Aires if Argentina wins it all, which is making everyone feel a bit more grateful about that Lap-Band surgery he had a few years ago.

Is soccer a great game, or what?

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