Perhaps it's because I'm writing this on a Friday the 13th that coincides with a full moon (which won't happen again until 2049), but I'm sorta' feeling semi-generous about soccer. I know, I'm gushing. (I suppose I could have written this to coincide with the opening day of the World Cup, but I had to wait to see if Brazil was actually open for business.)
In the past, I've been rather harsh. I once wrote that "soccer is only popular in countries where chickens walk down the middle of the street. The reason that it's not popular here in America is because we have options ...like electricity." That, of course, was facetious. I know for a fact that there are several countries in the world that have soccer fans and a dependable source of electricity.
Part of my longstanding animosity toward soccer can be traced to an article I read in The Los Angeles Times in 1966. The World Cup was being staged in England at the time and the headline read, "Is Soccer the Next Big Thing in America?" Forty-eight years ago, the answer to that question was "No." The answer 48 months ago was still no. Even 48 hours ago, it was still mostly "Hell, no!"
It's been a half-century since that piece in the Times and soccer still hasn't caught on in a big way. To be sure, more Americans are playing soccer today than did in 1966. At the same time, there are also more cases of Americans with measles today than back then. At least one of those trends can be traced to ignorant parents.
I have always contended that soccer is a great entry-level sport. Kids wear shiny uniforms and get to run around outdoors. My daughter started playing soccer when she was three and my son when he was four. (I guessed that he would have the shorter attention span and I was right. They had both moved on to other sports by the time they each were six.)
There has been a growth in high-school soccer, and, before I forget, congratulations to FC Tucson, which, apparently, does everything the right way. They've kept the Kino Sports Complex from being an absolute disaster and they were on ESPN's Top Plays. Way cool.
A kid I coached in track loves soccer and told me that I should watch the World Cup. I've already watched one-and-a-half games and I've seen three game- and tournament-altering bad calls and enough flopping to make a fish seasick.
That's one of my biggest problems with soccer. I like my athletes to be tough. One of the good things about soccer is that you don't have to be freakishly tall (as many basketballers) or huge (like football players). But doggone it, if somebody kicks you in the shin (for which you are wearing shin guards!), don't have a seizure. Get your sorry butt up and go kick the other guy in the shin.
I was talking to someone from Tucson who has been working the past couple years in Germany. He said, with a straight face, that soccer players are the best athletes in the world. (They must have year-round Oktoberfest where he lives.) I readily agree that soccer players are good athletes. They're in great physical condition and once or twice in a 90-minute game, somebody does something really athletic. Every year, around Christmas time, ESPN has a half-hour show featuring the greatest goals scored in the world that year. It's fun to watch. But greatest athletes in the world? Come on.
One of the problems with that argument is that the start of the World Cup coincided with the NBA Finals. Let's try this. You get the best soccer players from the country of your choice (Brazil, Germany, Italy, whatever). We'll have them play a game of soccer against players from the two teams in the NBA Finals. Just imagine Chris Bosh or Tim Duncan in the goal, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili handling the ball midfield, and Kawhi Leonard marking (guarding) Neymar. On a corner kick, who on Brazil is going to out-jump 6-foot-8, 270-pound LeBron James for the ball? We'll assume that the soccer team would win, but what would the score be? Three-zero, maybe four-zero?
Then have the same two teams play a game of basketball. It would get nasty in a hurry. If the hoopers kept their foot on the gas, the final score would be 175-0 or so. Then, to break the tie, they could play tennis against each other. We know who would win that, also, what with the basketball players knowing how to use their hands.
I think the best thing that could happen would be for the United States to win the World Cup and then not stick around for the awards ceremony. Just tell FIFA to mail the trophy because we have to get back because NFL training camps are opening. You think the world hates us now?
As for soccer ever becoming the Next Big Thing, I just don't see that happening. It might pass hockey and even baseball, but that would still put it in third or fourth. Still, you should never say never. Check back with me during the next Friday the 13th/Full Moon. I'm guessing that my answer to that question will be "Uh ... no."