Viewpoint: World Cup wonder

By Steven Braid, Sports Writer
Published July 17, 2011

There’s something magical about the FIFA World Cup.

How else do you explain a nation passionately supporting a sport that it has apparently no interest in during the in-between years? Paling in comparison to other sports’ fan base during the non-World Cup years, soccer fandom in America suddenly comes to life at the sight of seeing the red, white and blue take on the world. Whether watching the men or women’s team, Americans find themselves sitting on the edge of their seat during every World Cup game.

Most American sports fans will say they like watching soccer. But if they were at home in search of some good quality time with their television and a sports game, the sport of choice probably wouldn’t be soccer. Given the choice between watching a Major League Soccer game and any other sport, most people would opt for the NFL, NBA, MLB or even the NHL. Most Americans would probably prefer to watch at least half a dozen other sports before watching MLS.

But why is it that when the U.S. is competing in the World Cup, the sport has America’s full attention? Sports fans who couldn’t care less about soccer suddenly have up-to-date knowledge of the sport and believe themselves to be expert analysts and strategists. Non-sports fans are suddenly intrigued and delighted to participate in water-cooler conversations at work.

Not only do non-sports fans rise from the dead during the World Cup, but there also isn’t another sporting event that ignites such enthusiasm and fervor among them.

Everyone knows what Brandi Chastain did in 1999. Her penalty kick goal that won the Women’s World Cup and her celebratory disrobing is an iconic moment in American sports.

And any person with a capable memory won’t be forgetting what Landon Donovan did any time soon. His dramatic goal against Algeria during the group stage of last year’s Men's World Cup had the whole nation running around their houses screaming with pride and excitement.

And now, Abby Wambach is the latest soccer player to receive instant fame through the World Cup. Her miraculous header against Brazil mesmerized the nation and cemented her into American sports lore, as athletes and even the president tweeted about her goal. Her repeat performances against France and Japan only made the legend grow.

So what exactly is it about the World Cup that gets America watching?

Well, it definitely has nothing to do with our love for the sport, that’s for sure.

Some might answer that we’re enthralled because of our patriotism. But when’s the last time a United States national team was as celebrated as when the men’s or women’s national soccer team is in the World Cup? It definitely wasn’t the USA Basketball team — nicknamed the “Redeem Team” — that finally won the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics after countless failed efforts at various international events. Nor was it the USA women’s soccer team that won the gold medal at the last two summer Olympics, two achievements that received little fanfare.

You might have to go all the way back to the 1980 Olympics, when the United States hockey team won the gold medal at Lake Placid, to find a time when most Americans were investing so much effort into following a national team. But still, they were mainly celebrated for beating the Soviet Union, our cold war rivals and hockey powerhouse.

While the Olympics might have us all cheering for USA, the multitude of events divide our unity.

The FIFA World Cup is different. Our undivided attention is focused on soccer, and soccer only. The competition electrifies the whole nation, creating an inextinguishable unity. During group stage games, fans are preoccupied by soccer, glued to their televisions. And during knock-out round games, American flags and USA soccer jerseys can be seen draping even the most casual fans. We watch because it unites us.

In unity, we all watched USA’s agonizing defeat to Japan on Sunday. It was a crushing blow, but also a feel-good story. For Japan, the win lifted the spirits and hopes of a nation that had been crushed by disaster. It brought immense joy to a country that hasn’t had many reasons to smile as of late.

So maybe there is something magical about this tournament after all.

Steven is a Daily sportswriter.