By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) I’ll give the recent soccer action this: It meets my two simple criteria for watchability.
A) It consists of the best in the world at what they do competing at the highest level. There are great athletes capable of great things at any moment, working at high speeds.
B) It’s clearly an actual sport.
The first is to distinguish the activity from something like the NCAA basketball tournament, our annual gambling spasm in which teams of mostly future insurance salesmen engage in a shot-missing contest while being screamed at by an angry man in an expensive suit. Or college anything, for that matter, or women’s anything. Male professional athletes are more compelling because they are bigger and stronger and faster and better, which is the whole point of sports, particularly the ones for which we cede TV time.
The second criterion rules out such things as Winter Olympic silliness, in which we are expected to care about the apparent best in the world at things that were made up so the United States could win stuff. I’m thinking of the “extreme” snowboarding trick shows and ski-gymnastics that pad the medal count for the good guys in a clever use of reverse-engineering, paving the way for upcoming American-friendly events like the Freestyle Fetishistic Gun-Worship, the four-man Proud Anti-Intellectualism team and the 200-meter Being Obese in a Midwestern Airport.
No, soccer is real enough and appealing enough, especially for this time of year after hockey and basketball, before football and during bad baseball. And the rules aren’t that difficult to understand, at least at a level that allows for some appreciation and enjoyment.
In the interest of full disclosure, I played for many years as a kid, both outdoor and indoor. It wasn’t much of a career, considering that it peaked in eighth grade and slowly deteriorated with each season of everybody else around seemingly becoming faster and more talented, but it did have highlights — like a freshman-year goal at Glenbrook North (we lost 7-1), a sophomore-year goal at Waukegan East (a 5-4 win) and a 35-yard laser beam to the top left corner against Maine West in my junior-year JV season that was disallowed because Alex Starikovsky was offsides (I don’t remember the outcome because I’m too bitter).
But I’ve never been that big a fan of the game, for whatever reason. When the World Cup comes around, however, it’s worth some attention, keeping an eye on the outcomes and sharing in some of the predictably overblown nationalism, while also handling the usual cast of soccer supremacists, proselytizers and Please Like My Sport desperados who need it all to be something more than an entertaining, flag-draped distraction for this country. It is still that, but it percolates along a little bit each time around, leaving behind some evidence of growth that’s helped more and more by the increasingly global interconnection of the sports community. It’s a Small World Cup, after all.
There’s plenty of high-level play going on, even amid all the comical flopping taking place in impoverished jungle villages under FIFA’s malevolent auspices, deserving of at least casual conversation.
I got to have an exchange last night with my German neighbor, for example, negotiating the possibility that our two native nations could agree to a nil-nil draw that would ensure advancement to the final 16 for both. He was all for it, let the record show, and we two unofficial ambassadors concurred that it would be the best business decision for both, if not the most sporting.
I’ll be watching Thursday, monitoring Ghana vs. Portugal too, and doing so while only superficially aware of who all the players actually are or how the complicated advancement permutations are evolving with each minute and each goal.
I don’t really care that much, but I don’t mind pretending when there’s nothing better to do.