WE'RE GETTING cabled this week. No choice. The cable company may be bloodsuckers incarnate, but because the networks refuse to carry anything from the world's greatest sporting event -- soccer's World Cup, which started in Italy on Friday -- right-thinking people everywhere are raising a glass to Ted Turner, global visionary, man of the decade, whose TNT channel is broadcasting the competition.
Every non-American has a sticking point in his praise of this nation. For myself, I can argue persuasively that K-12 education is a triumph, that the contras were saints, that Eastern Airlines often takes off on time.
What I absolutely cannot do is excuse or explain America's indifference to professional soccer. This is the world's greatest democracy, and soccer is the world's most democratic game. You need no fancy equipment, no bats, no shoulder pads. You hardly need a ball (I've seen kids on Caribbean islands play with a tightly wound bunch of rags). It's the game most easy to understand. It has only one specialist position (goalkeeper), only one moderately complex rule (offside). You don't need to be big, strong, tall or even particularly fast -- when Franz Beckenbauer, now the manager of West Germany's much fancied team, was in his heyday in the 1960s, he seemed to go through a game without breaking sweat.
Perhaps America's indifference to soccer is part of a general puzzlement about "abroad." Watching a country's soccer team is the quickest way to get a fix on what makes a society tick. Holland's great teams of the 1970s (whose motto, for those who think that the designated hitter rule and other specializations are the cat's whiskers, was "Everyone does everything") looked as if they'd stumbled out of a dope-ridden dive in Amsterdam, and probably had. Keen observers knew that perestroika was on the way when they saw the exciting Russian team of the early 1980s. Brazil's determination to be another dreary Great Power has been marked by a calamitous decline in the quality of its side. The Brazilians used to practice by doing an hour's samba; now they look as if they read stockbrokers' circulars.
American soccer-lovers will of course protest that millions of their stubborn kids play the game every weekend and that, for the first time since 1950, a fresh-faced team will represent the United States in the World Cup. Pshaw! You can't learn soccer in the suburbs, you shouldn't really play on a field until your teens. Soccer is the City Game, meant to be played by snotty-nosed kids dodging cars in Glasgow and Liverpool, Naples and Sao Paolo. Bethesda doesn't make it. Everywhere but here, soccer is the game of the working class.
I love the fact that no intellectual pretension surrounds soccer. There's been no "Summer Game" and "Boys of Summer" written about the sport. No European or Latin American equivalent of George Will would ever devote his time to a book on it (this alone is a great recommendation). There was, it is true, an angst-ridden, existentialist German film called "The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick" in the 1970s (there is a slim link between soccer and existentialism -- Albert Camus played goalie for Algeria) but I fell asleep while watching it.
Nobody -- not a writer, not a hype-laden TV commentator -- can help you love soccer. You have to do it yourself. It helps if you're raised with love for the game in your bones -- my dad was born on the street next to Liverpool Football Club's stadium, my mum born two blocks away -- but this is not essential. A modicum of American open-mindedness, an appreciation of beauty, and a subscription to TNT are all that's required. Then you'll understand why, when the Elliott grandchildren ask me if I ever saw Gorbachev, I'll say "Yes -- but I saw Hungary destroy Brazil in '66, I saw Ricky Villa's goal in '81; I saw Platini; I saw Pele . . . ." And -- even if you don't -- they will know exactly what I mean.
Michael Elliott is the Washington bureau chief of the Economist and his money is on Holland.