Every 48 months, certain events produce a fever-like rise in interest among the general populace.
Olympiads create passionate enthusiasts of figure skating, swimming and track & field. Presidential elections lead to exponential increases in the number of people enthralled by politics. Leap years send people scurrying for primers on numerology and the Gregorian calendar.
And the World Cup generates extraordinary affection for soccer.
For four weeks (even with the inevitable dip when the United States is eliminated), headers, corner kicks and equalizers are mentioned in a high percentage of sports conversations. Folks who don’t know the difference between yellow cards and green cards become temporary soccer buffs every four years, like clockwork.
I am one. And I am not ashamed.
Diehard fans know the biggest international stars and the most-promising domestic players. They follow the English Premier League, the Champions League and Major League Soccer. They can hold in-depth discussion on different styles of play and tactical strategies, including the pros and cons of using solo attackers versus a duo.
That’s not the case for Johnny-come-latelies and Mary-just-got-heres. We embrace “the beautiful game” momentarily and then proceed with our soccer-free lives until the next World Cup rolls around.
But even with that lack of background and knowledge, our emotional deposits can match any true believer.
Our hearts dropped like everyone’s when Geoff Cameron’s horrendous mistake led to Portugal’s first goal early in Sunday’s match. We were elated when Jermaine Jones tied the score in the 64th minute and ecstatic when captain Clint Dempsey – playing with a broken nose – chest-bumped the ball for a 2-1 lead in the 81st minute.
With less than 60 seconds remaining, the U.S. was on the verge of winning its first two World Cup games for the first time since 1930. But in a flash, Portugal forged a gut-wrenching tie on a beautiful cross and a diving header.
A vacuum hose in our mouths couldn’t deflate us any faster.
Some year-round fans scoff as we dash in and leave just as quickly. They’re torn between resenting our sudden interest and wanting more of it during the three years and 11 months in-between. They don’t understand why the world’s most popular sport isn’t as beloved here as football, baseball and basketball.
Whether the game eventually gets there, or it’s destined to be categorized as “other” for the foreseeable future, ill will toward microwaved fans doesn’t make sense.
I don’t hear of 10,000 people gathering for public viewing parties to watch other sports. I don’t see NFL, MLB or NBA crowds display the same passion as Major League Soccer throngs in Seattle, Kansas City or Portland.
No, the sport hasn’t captivated me and many others, but it’s definitely growing and World Cup-interest can’t hurt.
Besides, it’s unfair to use this international tournament as the measuring rod for soccer’s attractiveness. Dynamics change when top athletes compete with their country’s name on the uniform. Stars and stripes drum up support like nothing else in sports, even when the game in question isn’t wildly popular.
There’s also something to be said about the high stakes. Preseason games don’t motivate the masses as much as regular season games and our collective attentiveness always ratchets up during playoffs.
The Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves have met 10 times this year with nine more to go. But the matchup will be 19 times more dramatic if they meet in the postseason.
The World Cup, like the Olympics, wouldn’t be as engrossing if it occurred every year. The long interval when it’s out-of-sight and out-of-mind whets the appetite for casual fans who otherwise don’t follow the game at all.
Soccer heads are discouraged that their sport hasn’t taken hold yet, despite predictions 20 years ago that it’s the next big thing. However, they should continue to be patient, which shouldn’t be hard.
They often wait more than 90 minutes for one goal between two teams.
That’s not a dig at the game. I have come to understand that scoring – or the lack thereof – is only part of the experience at a match. The standing and cheering, singing and chanting, makes soccer a participatory event as much as a spectator sport.
NFL fans might as well be patrons at the Masters by comparison.
Hope for mass appeal remains for the faithful. The ESPN Sports Poll has been around for two decades, but this is the first year that MLS and MLB were equally popular (at 18 percent) among 12-to-17-year-olds. In 2012, the poll found that soccer trailed only football as America’s favorite sport among 12-to-24-year-olds.
It might take another five or 10 World Cups before MLS even approaches that level of interest.
Or it might never happen.
Whatever the case, true fans should welcome and encourage extra company during the international soccer-fest.
Instead of bashing the bandwagon, they should help with the driving.