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The Boston Globe

Sports

Bob Ryan

Interest in this Cup out of this world

The xenophobic, American-Sports-Are-The-Only-Sports party poopers are ecstatic. The World Cup is proceeding without us.

Saturday would have been an extended Fourth of July for millions of Americans, those who had contracted a serious case of World Cup Fever. Restaurants and bars across the land would have been overflowing with happy patrons watching team USA engage the mighty Argentines in futbol combat. There would have been innumerable house parties. For two more glorious hours, we would have remained connected to an event that draws the attention of billions — that’s billion, with a “b” — across six continents, and, for all we know, even in Antarctica.

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But it was not to be. We were not playing Argentina because on Tuesday afternoon we lost to a better team. What I most prize in sports is my version of justice, and justice was served, without question, in our match with Belgium. We had our opportunity to advance to the quarterfinals, and we fell short.

The World Cup experience lasted for 16 days, during which we won a game, lost two, and tied a fourth. We broke no new ground. We have gotten this far before.

We had not, however, gotten this far with the kind of enormous national interest we had this time. There was something different about the experience this time, and one of the questions before us is just what benefit, if any, the sport of soccer will receive from this 2014 World Cup experience? My short answer is, “I have no idea.”

What I do know is that this World Cup experience proved that when it comes to sports interest in this country there are two distinct camps. There is the meat and potatoes crowd, for whom sports interest consists solely of the American staples: football, baseball, basketball, and perhaps a little hockey, with an occasional NASCAR, Masters, US Open tennis, and Triple Crown race thrown in. And there is the smorgasbord crowd, who not only love and appreciate all the sport activities favored by the meat and potatoes crowd, but who also have room on their sporting plate for more nontraditional pursuits, and who love becoming involved in international events because they provide an interesting diversion from our routine America-first sporting obsessions.

We all can’t like everything equally. I have my druthers, and my first priorities are baseball and basketball. Out of context, soccer is fairly far down the list, probably no better than sixth, after the Big Four and golf. And I understand completely that if you truly don’t like something, you don’t like something.

I realize that I can’t make you like soccer, any more than you can make me like beets, UFC, and that screeching banshee from hell known as Patti LaBelle. But what the World Cup represents is not just a tournament to determine the best national team in soccer/football/kickball, whatever someone wishes to call it. It’s about plugging into an activity that truly engages more people on this planet than any other entertainment pursuit. In country after country, in continent after continent, soccer is the currency.

There are exceptions, of course, the USA residing at the top of the list. But there is no argument: Soccer is the most popular team sport in the world. Basketball is a distant second.

To me, if you can’t develop an interest when a US national team is involved in a competition that commands the attention of more people worldwide than any other kind of entertainment pursuit, you cannot legitimately identify yourself as a “sports” fan. You really don’t love competition for competition’s sake. You are a parochial American, period. Doesn’t make you a bad person. It simply categorizes you and identifies you for what you are; that’s all.

Is soccer flawed? Yup. I hate offsides, but I hate it in hockey, too. Why is there no sudden death, no golden goal? Makes zero sense to me. Added time, and games ending on a referee’s whim, rather than having a proper clock? Makes less than zero sense to me. And the flopping? Yeah, it’s bad, but it’s nothing better officiating couldn’t cure. That Englishman Howard Webb doesn’t seem to have any trouble identifying the thespians when he encounters them.

But guess what? All our games are flawed. And in the case of soccer, becoming involved in someone else’s world, one that apparently makes perfect sense to them, even if it strikes we Americans as peculiar at best and absolutely illogical at worst, is part of the charm. It’s good for pompous Americans to get over ourselves every so often.

Finally, there are moments showcasing extraordinary athleticism that are well worth waiting for. The Ronaldo-Varela collaboration that gave Portugal its last-second draw with us was a memory-bank keeper for the rest of our sporting lives. And what about Tim Howard? Perhaps the lasting takeaway from the entire World Cup experience was the emergence of 35-year-old Tim Howard into the realm of A-list American athletic celebrities. You can bet that his name is now on the lips of every other great American athlete as someone they would like to meet, if only to say, “Wow!”

I feel better off as a sports fan for having had this experience. I plan on following through, enjoying this totally pleasant diversion from our normal routine, right through next Sunday’s championship game.

Meanwhile, I wish Ian Darke could narrate my entire life. Oh, what a cracker that would be!

Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.
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