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Monday, June 17, 2002

Just because the United States doesn't view the World Cup with the same passion other countries feel doesn't mean that the U.S. victory over Mexico this morning isn't important to us. It's just not as important as it would have been to the Mexicans, if they had won. Here, it's just soccer. It's not even "football," as it is in the rest of the world. But don't try telling Argentina that it's just a game. Or Senegal.

I wonder what the rest of the world thinks about the U.S. side's appearance in the quarterfinals for the first time since 1930. Most of the time I get the feeling that other nations don't think much of us. They don't like our arrogance, and they resent the relentless penetration of American culture, often crowding out local traditions. And now this. Only eight teams left, and one of them is ours. I'm sure they resent us even more, because they don't think we belong.

The American networks don't like soccer because it's not chopped into bite-sized chunks. They can't stick a commercial between innings or during a time out. It must kill them to have to wait until halftime to sell their products, especially since nothing seems to be happening. In a bad soccer game, where the ball is batted back and forth at midfield for interminable periods, who can blame us for drifting away?

The World Cup isn't bad soccer, though. It's a series of great match-ups that get better and better during the four weeks leading up to the final. The eight teams that are still alive deserve to be there, even the United States. The fact that they must now face Germany and probably elimination (McGovern defeats Nixon!) should give heart to the traditional football powers of the world. It's not likely you'll have us to kick around for much longer.

It would help, of course, if soccer were a little more like baseball. Wait! What I mean is that baseball is a more democratic game, decided more by the players than by the officials. Sure, the umpires call balls and strikes and outs, but they don't call fouls and penalties. They can't make a team play a man short because of something they thought they saw out of the corner of an eye.

I guess the biggest thing wrong with soccer, in American eyes, is that we didn't invent it. How can it be the world's most popular athletic endeavor, yet not only did we have nothing to do with creating it, but we're also (until now, anyway) not very good at it?

Now we want in on the big party, but we're getting an awfully late start. I don't believe we invented women's soccer, but it came around recently enough that we've already won a World Cup. That has to help. Besides, the women play with less whining and diving and pained expressions and pretending they're hurt. We appreciate that.

We are proud of our men's team, though, for winning an elimination game for the first time ever. The 2-0 win over Mexico was the first shutout for the U.S. in World Cup play since 1950, although it's slightly tainted by a missed call that announcers and commentators can't keep themselves from going on and on about.

And even if we lose to Germany, we have four years to work toward improving our game, and improving our attitude toward it. The next World Cup tournament is in 2006.


Looking through the low-hanging oak branches at the grove of trees to the south.

I can't let the thirtieth anniversary of the Watergate break-in go by without reminding myself that being skeptical of politicians is a healthy attitude. Even more importantly, free and open access to information is critical, especially when people in our government are asking us to take their word on faith.

Thank you to the founders of this nation we take so much for granted. Thanks for setting up a framework that protects an inquiring, thorough, responsible, fearless press. When there are things we need to know, the only way we'll know them is by the free flow of information. Watergate was the sharp poke in the ribs we needed to remind ourselves of this.

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