Soccer: The beautiful, dutiful game

Hanging there somewhere between the comic and the tragic, the right and the wrong, the left and the right, the truth and the lie, is our American relationship to soccer. Well, to football. Futbol. Fußball. Whatever. Even as the world gets smaller, how is it possible that at this late date we remain such strangers to The Beautiful Game?

The 19th World Cup, under way this week in South Africa, will at last change all that.

Unless, of course, it does not.

Because predicting the arc of soccer's popularity in the United States is a fool's errand. It is also a cottage industry. Never more so than during the quadrennial global tournament. Thus, by mid-July, we'll all be up to our necks in the oracular math of "what if?" What if the U.S. men do well? What if they do not? What if TV ratings are up? What if they are not? What of Slovakia? What of Slovenia? Or Fredonia? What if Landon Donovan plays like Landon Donovan McNabb? Whatever happened to Beckham and Pelé and all those sky-high hopes for stateside soccer? Who at long last will become the Prometheus of American footie? Of what real use is a goalkeeper, anyway? And what if tens of thousands of words a day are spilled into the Gulf of Lexico in service of the idea that meaning must be made of it all? Who cleans that up?

What if?

"Help!" cries the American sports fan. "Enough! I just want to know whether to send my noncontact sons and daughters to soccer or to band practice after school!"

So beyond the merely poetical or political, there are some practical aspects to all this. (And let the cynics among us remember, too, that if nothing else, the World Cup enlivens the dead air in the American sports calendar between the end of the NHL/NBA finals and the meaningless midseason seat-filler that is baseball's All-Star Game.)

As has been the case from the beginning of time, it is our American birthright to remain ignorant and disdainful of foreign things. Especially those things we do not understand and at which we are not altogether good. Like small cars, omelets and sensible plumbing. Prepare yourself then for the unsurprising onslaught of bad writing, bad thinking and bad faith among our newsprint and electric soccer commentariat -- including your online friends and neighbors and loved ones who still believe that soccer sucks and Europe sucks and that no one watches soccer and no one cares about soccer and that soccer just really, really sucks and Mexico sucks and soccer and South America all suck very much indeed. (Don't fret; an ocean or two away, this will be compensated for by the kind of smug, continental sports writing in which America is a nation of rubes and hillbillies and philistines because we fail to see the subtleties in either the offside trap or the work of Gilbert and Sullivan -- both of which are frankly more fun and interesting to perform than they are to watch.)

So then, painting by the numbers, we proceed: Why do European soccer coaches all look like gamblers from the great age of French cinema, or like hired assassins? From La Liga to the Premiership, from the Bundesliga to Serie A, the tailored cashmere coat is worn with the collar sprung; the loosened silk necktie hangs just so from the wings of a perfectly pressed dress shirt; the rueful look of high-stakes dissipation is that of a ruined viscount walking out of the Monte Carlo Casino at 5 a.m.; the deadpan thousand-meter stare reveals a man whose very soul has been taken from him. Zut alors!

All coaches from everywhere else seem to be dressed in ill-fitting team track suits, like fitness directors at a nursing home or expat Belorussian mobsters on their cell phones strolling the boardwalk out on Brighton Beach.

Which of these two aesthetics wins the day on the World Cup sidelines as nation faces nation? And which players fill the bench in the soft-focus background?

The players are all players, bien sûr, whether Dane or Argentine or Portuguese, Spaniard or Kiwi or Cameroonian. Lithe and fit, slender in the arms and barrel, handsome and not, graceful and not, wearing terrible clothes and with haircuts that make every professional pitch look like the opening moments of a mass prison break.

On the covers of OK! magazine or SportBild, they're global playboys, driving and crashing the gaudy hyper-cars they pay for with that colorful play money they call currency -- and the only thing hotter than the Lamborghini Gallardo they wrapped around that lamppost in Nice or Rio or Rimini last year is the pneumatic bikini model they were seated next to when they did so.

Waiter! More grappa here!

They are, in other words, the sum of the mindless clichés we drape them in. As is the game itself.

To Americans of a certain age, soccer seemed at once exotic and dull, inscrutable and not worth scrutiny. Not only un-American, it was anti-American. A game without technology, a game without scoring, a game without even hands, it had too few rules and too little event and too little contact. In a nation of spectacle and big horizons, it was a game with altogether too little.

That's mostly changed, of course, for many reasons, and a lot of us know the game well enough to see the beauty in it at last. To see the long arcs of possibility grow and flower from one end line to the other. To see the toughness in it, and the sweetness, too. To see the game as it is.

There's a reasonable chance that by now, you've even heard of Edson Buddle.

So you know, too, we've got a sprained Altidore, and that the Drogba may be broken; that Ferdinand's out of commission and so is Ballack; that Rooney and Fabregas and Essien and Mikel and Torres are nicked or bruised or bandaged.

You know that from Algeria to Uruguay and from the sportscasts on Al Jazeera to the sports pages of the Süddeutsche Zeitung the whole globe will ring like a struck bell with any news out of South Africa. Any news good or bad.

Thirty-two teams set out this week despite our preconceptions and our limited imaginations. Despite the stampedes and the evictions and the nonsense economics. Despite the bigotry and xenophobia, the corruption and the cynicism, the myopia and the racism and the graft and the cheap theatrics.

Thirty-two teams set out this week for the finals, on July 11.

On June 12, this Saturday, the U.S. opens against England.

One month from beginning to end to honor all those hopes and dreams, to overturn all those misconceptions and predictions, to answer all those criticisms and insults.

We ask a very great deal of our athletes. And we ask a very great deal of a lumbering world media that almost never gets what there is to get about a thing at its core, and in consequence multiplies strangeness rather than resolving it.

Other countries have other needs, some dire indeed; and I wish them well on behalf of every one of us. Because no game alone, no matter how beautiful, is sufficient in the face of our abject and murderous human stupidity.

Still, we must persist.

Still, we must play.

And play in every instant as if these games may save us all.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What are sports for?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.