Saturday, March 27, 2010
World Cup vs. NCAA tournament
OK, maybe we're stacking this question a little: After all, this is the World Cup section of ESPN.com. But with March Madness going on, us Americans in the audience have hoops on our minds. But here are some quick takes on why the World Cup is better than college hoops' annual spectacle. Debate below.
Unlike the NCAA tournament, which interests primarily 65 colleges that put entirely too much money into a sports program and a few basketball nuts, the World Cup is a worldwide event that has much more meaning than just what happens on the field. There is a political resonance that has kept regimes in power (Argentina in '78) and quenched the thirst of a continent desperate for recognition (South Africa in '10). Whereas the NCAA tournament isn't even the premier event in its own sport, the World Cup attracts some of the best-known and most talented competitors from around the world, as in most countries soccer attracts the best young athletes. It's also more significant, since it comes around only every four years and crowns a champion of the world, rather than of just one country.
This is like trying to choose between a Ferrari and a Maserati. The NCAA tournament is a must-see event, but the sheer scale of the World Cup -- the length of the qualifying process, the cultural clashes, and the fact that with a few exceptions, it involves the very best players on the planet -- make it even more compelling.
The NCAA tournament and the World Cup both offer the best qualities of competitive sport. There's a heightened sense of urgency, as players know the opportunity to perform on such a stage doesn't come around very often, perhaps only once. There's also the unpredictability. Even though everyone anticipates the unexpected to occur, you still find yourself feeling surprised as those events unfold. Finally, there's the fan experience. College athletics is the closest thing American sport has to matching the passion and support of international soccer. The music, the colors, the uninhibited nature of the students supporting their school creates an environment between opposing sides that is fiercely local, almost tribal, and always wildly entertaining, even for a neutral.
What distinguishes the World Cup from the NCAA tournament, however, is in the style and not necessarily the substance -- specifically the relationship between amateur and professional. March Madness is a competition of amateurs. They may be the future NBA stars of tomorrow, but for now they're in the early stages of their development, still prone to the mistakes and emotions their youth suggests. However, no one would argue that college athletics are entirely amateur, and the NCAA tournament is the culmination of the professionalization of the sport, played in arenas far from each school's home, in games filled with lengthy TV timeouts and missing the most important fan constituency: students.
While the NCAA tournament professionalizes the amateur, the World Cup turns professionals into amateurs. There will be no starving students on display in South Africa. Most are millionaires. But they won't be playing for paychecks or contract extensions. The beauty of the World Cup is how the very best players in the world take a break from the game as a business and approach it with the passion and intensity that can only come from wearing the shirt of your country. For a few weeks every four years, fans and players alike can embrace the qualities of the game that made us fall in love with it in the first place.
They're both great tournaments, with underdogs taking on powerhouses and the fans getting involved big time. But the chanting, mingling and most of all, passion, at a World Cup can't be topped. And of course, it's called the "World" Cup, not a competition only involving teams from one country. Soccer or football, whatever you want to call it, is simply the most followed sport in the world.