FIFA Fever

Today let's not talk about the oil spill or Afghanistan or
Elena Kagan.

Instead, I'm going to admit that like two billion or so other
people around the world, I have spent the past few weeks glued to the
television set watching World Cup Soccer. It's like eating cashews. I
can't stop.

Today let's not talk about the oil spill or Afghanistan or
Elena Kagan.

Instead, I'm going to admit that like two billion or so other
people around the world, I have spent the past few weeks glued to the
television set watching World Cup Soccer. It's like eating cashews. I
can't stop.

But as I go through my days saying things like, "Hurry up and
finish this interview, I want to see the Netherlands play Slovakia," or
"I know they're playing the U.S., but I think the Ghana team has soul,"
I recognize that I'm getting a lot of blank looks.

Maybe you're not a sports fan? Or maybe you tuned out after
Ghana eliminated the United States?

Tune in now. Don't miss this. It's the best of the best of the
best, and it only comes around every four years. Believe it or not, it's
even better when your team has been eliminated. Then you can watch the
play unimpeded -- admire the art for arts sake, if you will. And watch
your emotions shift with the play.

Since I'm trying to watch as much of as many games as possible
and still earn a living, my thoughts are more or less random. In no
particular order:

- In the worst rout in recent memory, the North Korean team was
whipped 7-0 by Portugal. The team got a second chance against the Ivory
Coast a few days later and lost 3-0. Then it went home to a brutal and
censoring dictatorship that does not take losing lightly. Is the team
OK? Are the players in prison? Are they even alive? Even the Portuguese
team has expressed concern. I think they should have offered them
asylum.

- It's fun to watch the games in Spanish. It's the same
television feed, but the announcers are more emotional.

- And sometimes it can be amusing to watch the game with others.
I watched the first half of the US-Ghana match at Kipling's Pub. When
the television cameras showed Bill Clinton talking to Mick Jagger,
someone muttered "He's not getting any satisfaction," and someone else
shouted, "Lock up your daughters."

- Some of the referees have been making terrible calls. The
cameras catch their mistakes -- for example, the German goalkeeper
catching an English ball in the net (goal!), throwing it out and fooling
the referee. Everyone saw the mistake in replay -- the players, the fans
in the stands and the world watching on smart phones, televisions and
computer screens. But the goal wasn't counted. At first FIFA, the
international organization that runs world soccer, reacted defensively --
just as any dictatorship (or country run by Dick Cheney) would. Instead
of fixing the problem, it announced that it would censor instant
replays in the stadium. On Tuesday, however, thanks to world-wide
condemnation, FIFA president Sepp Blatter promised to investigate using
technology to guard against incorrect goal-line decisions. Now people
are wondering if he really means it. In any case, it can't help the
Americans or the British now.

- Although World Cup soccer is as macho as it can get, I love
the words the commentators use to discuss the game: They speak openly of
magic, artistry and creativity. They call it "the beautiful game." The
players caress each other. Some of the winners trade their sweat-stained
tops with the losers as a sign of affection and respect. Where was the
word "respect" at the NBA Championships? (Even Kobe flew down to South
Africa to check out the real athletes.)

- Speaking of athletic skill, I marvel at the conditioning of
these players. They run back and forth over the pitch -- the length of an
American football field -- without stop for 45 minutes at a time. They
jump. They fly.

- Although national pride is certainly on display, it's a bit
jarring to hear that an athlete who is leaving everything he has on the
field for Slovakia spends most of his time playing for Liverpool.

- Fans come to the games wearing outlandish costumes -- the surly
French in Louis XIV costumes and wigs, the Brazilians draped in green,
the Americans with red-white-and-blue-painted faces and curly wigs. I
wonder if they feel silly on the way back to their hotels after their
team has lost.

- Soccer may bring the whole world together, but as Dave Zirin
writes in The Nation, "There is simply no sporting event on earth more
entangled in politics than this brilliantly bombastic tournament.
Anytime you have half the earth tuned in -- as colonies play their former
colonizers and dictatorships challenge democracies -- politics follow
like rainbows after rain."

But basically, it's mostly about money. Many of these players are
multi-millionaires who drive Lamborghinis to the stadium and date
baronesses. (Don't believe me? Check out: www.nydailynews.com/sports/worldcup2010/galleries/the_hottest_wags_of_the_2010_world_cup/the_hottest_wags_of_the_2010_world_cup.html)
(WAG is British slang for "wives and girlfriends.") A goal or a block
can mean a new contract and a new supermodel. They may be playing for
their country, but they're also playing for their agents and for
themselves.

I'm going to miss it terribly when it's over.