July 1998
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By Xiao Jinhong

Hands up, all you Americans. Those of you who've never watched a game of soccer, put your hands down.

Not too many hands left, huh?

See, while the US of A has been preoccupied with the NBA championships (and wasn't it a pity that the Jazz just couldn't pull it off), the other 5 billion humans on this planet have been slowly but steadily working themselves up into a bloodthirsty, no-holds-barred, foam-at-the-mouth frenzy over the World Cup.

The what? The World Cup. The 16th edition in the series. France 98. Held in France.

Make no mistake, the World Cup is the biggest competition on Earth. It's bigger than even the Olympics. Do tickets to Olympic events go for hundreds to thousands of dollars, at tens to hundreds of times the face-value? Do people stay up all night to watch the Olympics? Do people travel thousands of miles to the Olympics, without any of the super-rare sold-out-for-months tickets, in the oft-vain hopes of scoring a scarce ticket from a scalper?

I didn't think so.

Now, if you're wondering at the attraction of twenty-two men chasing a round leather ball around a grass field, you have obviously not been initiated to the thrill of twenty-two well-padded men hammering each other to bloody human pulp while trying to grab hold of an oval leather ball. Or the visual delights of ten of the taller specimens of homo sapiens elbowing each other out of the way, as they attempt to shove a round ball through a tiny little plastic circle on a fibreglass board.

The true miracle of all this, is not that so many otherwise straight-thinking and logical members of the human race can lose so much reason over a few leather balls. Instead, it is that the few hundred millions stranded on the landmass called North America (yes, Canadians are just as unaware) are so strangely immune to the wonders of what is commonly called "the beautiful game."

Some say that it's because Americans can't bear the thought of being inferior to dinky little countries like Holland. Or that getting past the first round of the World Cup is, for the US team, no mean feat, while other countries like Italy and Brazil consider it their divine right to play in the final. Or that the odds of the US winning the World Cup are astronomical, and significantly inferior to Nigeria's chances.

Did someone say sour grapes?

Others say that Americans are used to the stop-start rhythms of American football (incidentally, soccer is called football in 90% of the world...) and basketball, and so are unaccustomed with the flowing uninterrupted 45-minute halves of soccer.

If so, why do Americans need so much advertisement time? Can't they control their bladders for 45 minutes at a go? When I watch an NBA match "live", I find myself spending at least as much time going to the kitchen and bathroom as in front of the TV. Probably a lot more, considering that a game with 48 playing minutes can stretch to three hours.

Or maybe it's the "low" score-lines. Scores of 1-0 or 2-1 just don't seem exciting enough. But if high absolute scores are absolutely thrilling, then a bad golfer must be a heart-stopping spectacle indeed. It is for me, but only because I get bored easily. And you can always just think of every goal as carrying 700 points. There you go, straight away soccer becomes the most exciting sport around. Without even tinkering with it.

Yet others suggest that Americans just "don't get it." Must be something in the water then. Because the South Americans get it. The Europeans get it. The Asians get it. The Africans get it. The Latin Americans get it. Name a country, any country, other than the USA or Canada, and they're sure to get it.

If you really don't get it, pick up a copy of Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch. Hornby wrote that fantastic opus High Fidelity, and Fever Pitch preceded that work. It recounts the life of a soccer fan. In case you're curious about the origins of the word "fan", the book will almost certainly assure you that it comes from "fanatic". Because Hornby's devotion to his team is mindboggling (and maybe even a little pathetic).

It is a beautiful game. There are few sights more impressive and exciting, than a diminutive player (with a name like Juninho) running down half the field, skipping past a series of lumbering giants (with names like Kohler) like nobody's business, with the ball seemingly glued to his feet, and finishing it off with an unstoppable cannonball shot into the roof of the goal, past the despairing fingers of a ponderous man-mountain (with a name like Koepke) which grasp nothing but air.

Whatever it is, the greatest competition known to mankind (except homo americanus) is going on right now. Jump onto the bandwagon, and yell at the top of your voices in the middle of the night (or day, depending on where you are) at what usually turns out to be a weak shot. Screwed wide for good effect. Get cursed at by family, friends and neighbours. Just switch on the TV and get lost in the magic. It's going to be a great month.

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