By David J. Rothkopf
Sunday, June 13, 2010; B01
Soccer is the cereal that Mikey just won't eat.
Since the dawn of the World Cup, fans of the game have tried to sell soccer in the United States. European and Latin American transplants have promoted it. Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and David Beckham have headlined it. Brandi Chastain tore off her jersey and made the cover of Sports Illustrated after scoring the winning goal for Team USA in the 1999 Women's World Cup final, one of the most dramatic championship games ever played in any sport.
But while almost twice as many U.S. kids today play soccer as play baseball, according to some estimates, the World Cup just underway in South Africa will almost certainly not capture the imaginations of American sports fans the way it mesmerizes the rest of the planet -- not even with a U.S. team that battled England to a 1-1 draw Saturday in the Cup's opening round and with more Americans in the stands than there are ticket-holders from any visiting nation.
Why does soccer remain a global best-seller that America -- so addicted to consumerism that our economy is nearly dying of it -- finds utterly resistible?
Maybe the sales pitch is wrong. Pele spoke of loving the ball, of caressing it with his feet. Nike and others emphasize the joga bonito, the beautiful game. But perhaps the best hook for Americans is not the beauty of soccer, but the fact that the game is also, in truth, pretty ugly.
Soccer has all the chaos, violence, scandal, corruption and controversy that have made other popular American pastimes so big and so irresistible. Promoters shouldn't hide all that behind a veneer of bringing the world together with elegant players and swooping scissor kicks. For better or worse, Americans have come to expect beer and crashes at NASCAR races, showboating and rap sheets from football stars, and pro basketball players with mega-mansions and sex scandals. Soccer -- and the World Cup -- have all that and more.
The first step to help America connect with soccer's dark side is to tear down some of the sport's carefully cultivated image and understand the true nature of the World Cup.
Start with the fact that the World Cup is a bit of a fraud as global phenomena go. While sports writers extol its universal appeal, the quadrennial tournament is actually a pretty exclusive affair. Since the first cup in 1930, only a tiny club of four western European and three Latin American countries have won it all. In fact, three national teams have combined to win 12 of the 18 World Cups -- Brazil five times, Italy four and Germany (including West Germany) three.
The tournament's traditional champions have typically represented nations that during the past century were marked by defeats and setbacks. Spain, for example, now stands at the edge of a financial precipice -- but along with Brazil it has one of the best and most balanced teams competing in this year's cup.
So while soccer is touted as a powerful globalizing force, it has in part earned that status by keeping out or down some of the globe's most powerful nations. It's not just that the United States remains in the second tier of soccer's ranks. Other big and emerging powers, such as China, India, Russia and Japan, have also failed to leave their mark in the world's most important sports tournament. China has qualified just once, in 2002, and its team failed to score a single goal. India qualified by default in 1950 but refused to attend when told that its team, accustomed to playing barefoot, had to wear shoes. Japan is currently ranked 45th in the world, right after Gabon, Scotland and Ecuador, and three spots up from Burkina Faso. China, at No. 84, edges out Mozambique and Malawi. The Soviet Union's best showing at the World Cup was fourth place, in 1966.
They'll be cheering in Ljubljana (the capital of Slovenia), Tegucigalpa (Honduras) and Yamoussoukro (Ivory Coast) during this World Cup, but no crowds will be dancing in the streets of Moscow, Beijing or New Delhi, because none of their teams qualified. And though many in Washington will be tuned in, alas, a disproportionate chunk of those fans can be found on Embassy Row or in expat bars.
Maybe that would change, however, if America saw through all the glittering globo-babble and realized that the World Cup may be the last place on Earth where the United States can credibly play the role of underdog, the last remaining frontier where the country has yet to triumph over the old order dominated by Europe and its former empires.
If good old-fashioned American jingoism is not enough to stir the souls of potential soccer fans, watching the mayhem and drama that are the results of everyone else's nationalism, turmoil and rivalries certainly should be. The recent and not-so-recent history of the world will play out on the pitches and in the stands in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria and the other match sites.
This year, both Koreas will play, even as their armies stand at the brink of war. Honduras is fresh off a constitutional crisis. Mexico is battling to maintain control in the face of drug violence. Ivory Coast has been split by strife for more than a decade (although it is now united in despair over national hero Didier Drogba's fractured elbow). And old tensions -- some dating to wars centuries ago -- still fester among several teams: between Japan and the Koreas; between the Dutch and the Germans; and between Argentina and take your pick of Chile, England and Brazil.
Such political backdrops have been a defining part of World Cup soccer since the early days. The second tournament, hosted in 1934 by Benito Mussolini's Italy, featured a local star who had been banned for life from soccer because of bribery charges but somehow managed to get reinstated in time to compete. Fortunately for all, given Il Duce's temperament, Italy won the cup. Four years later, at the competition in France, the Italian team received an unsettling message of encouragement from the dictator: "Win or die." (Italy won again.)
During the regional qualifying rounds before the 1970 World Cup, riots involving Honduran and Salvadoran soccer fans contributed to what has become known as la guerra del fútbol -- an actual shooting war between the two Central American nations. The conflict had no clear winners, but at least El Salvador earned a spot in the cup.
And the 1986 tournament, held in Mexico, saw a quarterfinal match between Argentina and England, two nations that had recently gone to war over the Falkland Islands. Argentina lost the war but won the soccer battle, 2-1, on two goals -- one illegal, the other glorious -- by Diego Maradona. (Maradona's "hand of God" goal was a blown call so momentous that it makes umpire Jim Joyce's recent mistake that wrecked a perfect game by Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga feel downright little league.)
Perhaps the most brutal instance of domestic strife intersecting with soccer followed the 1994 World Cup. Days after accidentally scoring against his own team and contributing to a 2-1 loss to the host U.S. squad, Colombian defenseman Andres Escobar was gunned down outside a bar in Medellin; one theory points the finger at drug lords who were putting money into Colombia's soccer teams.
The grand marketers of the soccer world play down political subplots to important games, but they are a big reason the world views soccer with such passion. National, regional and ethnic grudge matches are played out on the pitch in a way that makes Ohio State vs. Michigan seem like a mild difference of opinion. And that's not even counting the excitement provided by hooliganism or the game's recurring theme of dirty play.
The final piece of soccer's ugly appeal seems tailor-made for American tastes: Top players (and their wives and girlfriends) have turned the sport into the world's favorite form of reality television, a nonstop soap opera. Over the years, footballers have gone from average-size, average-looking, average-paid representatives of everyman to parodies of excessive star culture, such as tatted-up David Beckham and his linguine-thin wife, Victoria.
This is the part of the game where we despair as Argentina's Maradona goes from undersize soccer genius to bloated, drug-addled misfit, suspended for a year for cocaine use and kicked out of the 1994 cup for using a banned substance -- only to show up in South Africa this month as the coach of his country's team.
It's where we watch as money corrupts and changes soccer in much the same way it distorts most mainstream American sports. Beckham, according to Forbes the world's top-paid soccer player, made an estimated $40 million last year in salary and endorsements, while the 20 other best-paid players each made more than $10 million.
Suddenly, these conglomerates-in-spikes are more closely marked by paparazzi off the field than by defenders on it. Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo goes on a few dates with Kim Kardashian (explain to the world that we don't watch soccer, but we watch her), and it is international news.
Everyone in England knows that national star Wayne Rooney sought out prostitutes as a teenager before settling down with wife Coleen. But Rooney, perhaps the second best player in the world after Argentina's Lionel Messi, has a hard time keeping up with the melodrama surrounding former English team captain John Terry and his extramarital affair with his teammate Wayne Bridge's ex-girlfriend, Vanessa Perroncel.
And that scandal hardly achieved the sleaze of several top French soccer players -- including national team star Franck Ribery -- who this year were caught with an underage prostitute who had been working out of a hot Parisian nightclub.
In short, the real-life off-field exploits have started to outstrip the tawdriness depicted in television dramas such as Britain's popular "Footballers' Wives" -- and the parade of mug shots and legal revelations that punctuate "SportsCenter" every night.
On the field and off, soccer provides an endless story line packed with the villains, dirty deeds, sex, drugs and violence that are essential elements of any entertainment hit. No matter the audience, there's an irresistible narrative: For nationalists and for globalists, for revolutionaries and for traditionalists, for lovers of the game and for lovers of scandal, there is a subtext and a passionate argument surrounding every match, every goal. For every face in the crowd beaming with joy, there is someone crying through his face paint; for every hug, there is a glare or a shove or perhaps a war.
The ancient Greeks said drama is about conflict, and so too is this game. In the same way that drama produces transcendence, so too does this game. And that's where the beauty comes from. Oh sure, you'll see it in masterful offenses, teams of 11 men thinking as one, midfielders seeing three moves ahead, strikers streaking down the field at top speed, balls defying physics. But much of what is truly bonito about this game is the universality of its ugliness and the extravagance of its highs and lows. It is a heightened reality like any opera, a universal truth like any faith, a game every bit as beautiful and as ugly as the planet that it -- perhaps more than anything else -- helps unite.
David J. Rothkopf is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of "Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making."