Starting this Friday, South Africa will host the most-watched team sporting event on the planet. A precious-few national teams (32 to be exact) will compete for soccer’s ultimate quadrennial prize. Americans who pay attention will get to know the names Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney, Kaka, and Thierry Henry. But if America’s best player, Clint Dempsey, were to walk down Beale Street this Friday night — with his uniform on — he’d be virtually unrecognized. Such is life playing “the beautiful game” in a country that swoons only for home run hitters, high-flying hoops, and hot quarterbacks. This month — and every four years — the U.S. soccer team is Rocky Balboa.
For a country that didn’t qualify for World Cup play between 1950 and 1990, just being at the party is a big deal. (The U.S. squad is ranked 14th in the world by FIFA, the sport’s governing body.) Since finishing third at the 1930 event, America’s best showing was at the 2002 World Cup — hosted jointly by South Korea and Japan — when the Yanks reached the quarterfinals. Playing in a group that includes England, Algeria, and Slovenia, the U.S. has a decent chance at surviving into the “knockout” round of 16. This is a team that beat the world’s top-ranked squad from Spain just last summer. But no win is a given. Apollo Creed in Rocky’s golden robe.
Some thought the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s victory over the Soviet Union in 1980 would spawn generations of American-born puck-slapping superstars. Never happened. And soccer is unlikely to take hold among big-spending, sports-loving spectators in America as long as the Yankees are playing baseball and the Steelers are playing football. But mark this down: If the U.S. ever completes its Rocky Balboa turn and wins the World Cup, that fabled hockey team will own the second biggest upset in American sports history.
• I spent a year as a boy in Turin, Italy, and owned stickers of Juventus stars like Dino Zoff and Claudio Gentile before I had my first baseball cards of Lou Brock or Ted Simmons. Five years after my family returned to the States, Zoff and Gentile played integral roles in leading Italy — the Azzurri — to its third World Cup title, and first in more than 40 years. The biggest soccer tournament in the world, somehow, felt familiar to a 13-year-old American boy who otherwise couldn’t get enough baseball.
I later played in a state championship soccer match as a junior in high school (we were soundly whipped). My wife was an All-State player at the same high school in Vermont, and she won a championship in her last match. Today, each of my daughters plays soccer (my 7-year-old in both the fall and spring). The game has, somewhat accidentally, become our family sport. It’s a language all four of us can speak. And the World Cup will be an event each one of us can relate to, if only from the profound distance of the amateur game we’ve each known. Speaking a shared language with the rest of the world — even if it’s just soccer, even if only for a month — is redeeming.