Madden: What the World Cup has taught me

Mexico vs. Netherlands

Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Netherlands' forward Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (unseen) scores on a penalty kick past Mexico's goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa at Castelao Stadium in Fortaleza during the 2014 FIFA World Cup on June 29, 2014. (AFP PHOTO/ JAVIER SORIANO)




Posted on July 1, 2014 at 10:46 AM

I'm a sports fan. I can appreciate a great sporting event even if I don't appreciate the sport.

That's one of the things the World Cup has taught me. I'm not a soccer fan - I'm a World Cup fan.

Every four years, when the USA gets caught up in World Cup fever, people wonder if soccer's popularity is about to explode in this country. It won't. It never has, and it won't this time. We watch the Olympics every four years; no one ever asks if the popularity of swimming is about to spike. We watch Olympic sports not because we like those sports, but because it's the Olympics.

The World Cup is a fantastic sporting event. Games every day and nearly all of them important, especially now that we're in the win-or-go-home stages.

I'll tell you the basis of why I've never liked soccer, but I ask soccer fans to bear with me, because I'll criticize the sports I do like in a moment.

My biggest problem with soccer has always been the flopping. I think this is a cultural thing. In this country, we're taught to pop up after getting knocked down. In football, if you get hit hard, you jump right back up -- don't show the opponent any weakness. In baseball, if you get hit with a pitch, don't rub it. Just run to first base. In soccer, it actually works to a player's advantage to exaggerate an injury. Soccer players are frequently rewarded for flopping.

But what I've noticed from watching the World Cup on a daily basis for close to three weeks, is that I've become somewhat immune to the flopping. It's just a part of the game. The announcers generally ignore players who are writhing on the ground during a fake injury. They continue talking as if nothing has happened.

Flopping is the number one reason why I've never liked soccer. But I also never grew up playing it, so I have less patience for its flaws. Think about it: all of our favorite American sports have some major flaws. In the NFL, it's pass interference. A lot of those calls are based on the referee's judgement, calls that could go either way, but a pass interference penalty can be terribly punitive to the defense. It can be as many yards as the quarterback can throw the ball, or it can give the offense a first down at the one-yard line. The punishment is the same regardless of whether it was a very questionable foul or an egregious one. It's like a soccer penalty in the box - think of the one Mexico committed against the Netherlands during stoppage time. Regardless of whether a player barely commits a foul or plows through a guy, the penalty kick is taken from the same spot. 

Baseball was always my favorite sport growing up. But what's my defense when someone says it's boring? I can point out the nuances of pitch location, defensive positioning, and base running strategy, but in the end it's just a lot of standing around. NBA basketball has problems too - which include flopping - not to mention all the commercial breaks because teams seem to have an unlimited amount of timeouts. 

That's what soccer does right. They play, and they don't stop playing until it's halftime or the end of regulation. No commercial breaks. Games are finished in under two hours (unless there's overtime). You can set your watch to it. Fans stay in their seats for those 45 consecutive minutes of each half because the risk of missing one goal is too great. 

And there's no bigger sporting event in the world than the World Cup. That's not an opinion, it's a fact. When the stakes are so high, when an event is so important to billions of people, it's worth watching. 

I'm a big fan of the World Cup. I'm not ready to call myself a soccer fan, but I'm closer than I ever thought I would be.