Deford Hails the World Cup's 'Rock Stars of Sweat'
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The World Cup begins in Germany this Friday. We'll hear about the U.S. team's chances in a moment. First, commentator Frank Deford, who hasn't always been a cheerleader for soccer. But he says this tournament is far more important to more people around the world than that other big quadrennial sports event.
FRANK DEFORD reporting:
It is part of the conceit of the Olympics that they boast that the Greeks actually called off wars when the Games were on. Not quite true. During wartime, Olympic competitors and spectators would be allowed safe passage through war zones, but not even the Olympics could shut down good old-fashioned armed combat. I would suspect, though, that if a war got in the way of the World Cup that even the generals would demand an armistice.
Because America is one of the few places on earth that has escaped being infected with the soccer pandemic, it's hard for most of us to comprehend the passions which submit to the World Cup. There is an entirely different attitude present at an Olympics and at a World Cup.
The Olympics feels more like a film festival or a dog show or a big county fair. Sure, if we're into hog raising, we care whose pig wins the blue ribbon, but we don't get emotional about it. After all, what's the favorite event at the Olympics? The opening ceremony, which isn't even sport, just spectacle.
But the World Cup is something else again. The World Cup is sport in the raw, the epitome of the real football, the game that engenders the most emotions on the face of the earth, played by famous athletes - the rock stars of sweat -for the glory of their homeland.
We really couldn't even sense that when the Cup finals were played right here in America in 1994. The United States is so big and the locals so detached that we couldn't appreciate the kind of fervor that will be visible from the moment that the first ball bounces off in Germany day after tomorrow. Trust me; you have to be there. Baby, it's the top! In most of the world, the world is going to stop on Friday and it won't resume spinning again until July 10.
Of course, here, where there's more interest in the NBA and NHL playoffs or the baseball races, it might come as a surprise to learn that the United States squad is actually ranked fifth in the world in soccer. We've drawn a very tough round robin, rather excessively called, the group of death.
But then, people in football tend to hysteria and overstatement about what they call, the beautiful game. Obviously, though, if we're fifth in the rankings, we actually have a valid, if outside chance, to win the World Cup. Yes, the United States!
But our guys have an advantage over everybody else. Because we're the only country in the World Cup finals where soccer isn't important, it's less pressure on the American squad.
In any other country, a player makes a mistake in the World Cup, he's tarnished for life. But in a country where football is something that the Pittsburgh Steelers play, our soccer guys might as well be playing for the U.S. Bobsled Team. Unlike everybody else, they can relax and be loose.
Of course, consider what might happen if we actually won. If the United States, which really doesn't care about soccer, beats everybody who is passionate about it, we'd really be despised around the world. You think they hate us now? If we should win the World Cup, there would be absolutely nobody left in the coalition of the willing.
MONTAGNE: The comments of Frank Deford. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. His latest book is The Old Ball Game, out now in paperback. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.