June 28, 2006

Americans Fail To Drink From World Cup

To the beer-drenched, profanity-yelling, flag-covered and face-painted soccer fans watching the 2006 F.I.F.A World Cup in Germany at the local bar, or in their living rooms, soccer is not just a game. It has propagated the arrest of over 400 fans, given 96 people criminal records, and has caused innumerable drunken debacles resulting in injuries ranging from the simple bruise to not-so-simple concussion and alcohol poisoning. It has inspired millions to let both their national pride and their animosity towards rival countries grow stronger with each win, loss, or tie.

But what is it about this sport that is so enthralling . . . and so European? Why does it seem that in the midst of growing international energy and athletic obsession, many Americans seem to be carrying on their lives as if this pivotal sporting event that occurs only once in four years is not happening at all?

"In Europe, people follow soccer all year when Americans tune in only a few weeks before the World Cup. As soon as the World Cup is over, Europeans are already watching and getting ready for the next tournament. Soccer is their national and international sport," said Ken Pascual, president of the East End Men's Soccer League of East Hampton. He continued, "In other parts of the world, soccer players are constantly in the public consciousness, they are national icons."

Englishman Phil Eyre, Suffolk County Regional Director of the United Soccer Academy who runs Southampton's youth soccer program, agrees that while soccer is more than a sport in many parts of the world, it plays a relatively insignificant role in the lives of most Americans. "Soccer is [England's] national sport. Everyone plays from the moment they walk," he said.

American's estrangement from soccer, however, might be a result of some of the fundamentals of the sport. Charlie Bateman, long time soccer player and sponsor of a men's team in East Hampton, suggested Americans' overall apathetic view towards soccer is due to "our county's athletic culture in which people like points. They do not like sitting through a 90 minute game that ends with a 1-0 score," he said.

Those point-obsessed fans, however, are missing the point, some might argue. Eyre, for example, says the beauty of soccer is in its seemingly planned, yet utterly impulsive nature, not in the point outcome of a game. "The closest sport to soccer is ice hockey." he said. "There are no set game plans, and it allows for creativity. It is a mind game like chess: soccer players must watch what the opponents are doing, and they must express their own personality in the game."

"The psychological component of the game is extremely important," Bateman agreed. "Even with all the talent in the world, a huge part of winning is mental."

World Cup 101

Just as the soccer pros need to constantly be on mental edge during the game, soccer fans need to be in the know about who they're watching, and how the intricacies of passing, shooting, punting and scoring combine to create such a fast-paced and exciting sport. For those of us who see nothing besides a moving ball on the screen, one way to engage ourselves is to become familiar with what, in fact, we are watching, and how the dozens of games played during the World Cup will eventually allow for a single winner.

The structure of the World Cup is quite straightforward. Thirty-two teams qualified and were divided into eight different groups. The teams in each of the groups played a three game round-robin which ended on Friday, and the top two teams in each group qualified for the knockout competition that began on Saturday. This single-elimination competition will continue through the final round, which will be played on July 9th.

This compelling format enables each team to play multiple games before being eliminated from the tournament. Fans often follow both their national team and its competitors in order to size up the competition for future games and rounds. "I have been following the U.S., Korea, Argentina, Brazil, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy," said Bateman.

Although he feels that ultimately Brazil will win the World Cup over Germany in the final round, Bateman watches each game with equal excitement in hopes of seeing some great soccer. "I love seeing the high level soccer players putting their skills out there," he said.

Eyre, like many fans, views the World Cup with unconditional faith in their national team. Although he admits, "you can never write Brazil off," Eyre is sticking by his true colors and says, "England will go all the way."

Other soccer viewers, such as Juan and Wilson, of Sag Harbor, who are so addicted to the sport they watch it whenever they get a chance, even at Laundromats and other public places with televisions, examine past trends when placing their bets on this year's winner. "I think Spain or Argentina will win," said Juan, who grew up in Colombia and is bitter that his national team didn't qualify for this year's tournament. "Brazil has won about six times already, and another country's up for victory," he said. "But I hope to see some surprises and upsets as we get closer to the finals."

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