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Saturday, June 12, 2010

South Africa strikes first! The News and Observer strikes again!

Posted by on Sat, Jun 12, 2010 at 1:16 AM

Siphiwe Tshabalala scores the first goal of the 2010 World Cup for host country South Africa.
  • Andy Mead/ YCJ
  • Siphiwe Tshabalala scores the first goal of the 2010 World Cup for host country South Africa.
It's late as I type after the first day of the World Cup. Among other things, I spent the evening at Cary's Galaxy Cinema where I hosted a screening of Looking for Eric, the new Ken Loach film about a Manchester, England, postal worker and his obsession with 1990s Red Devil superstar Eric Cantona. Carolina RailHawks coach Martin Rennie spoke afterward about his own appreciation of the enigmatic French striker.

I enjoyed the film tremendously, as did, apparently, the rest of the audience. (However, one couple left about 15 minutes in; I found out afterward from a theater employee that they found the characters' working-class Mancunian accents too difficult to parse. Much of it was actually kind of simple, once you got used to it: "fook-fook-fook-fook-fook.") The story was pretty basic, but it was a compelling portrait of working-class lives and the relief that football provides. The climactic scene was awesome, too. I'm a sucker for Loach's rah-rah working-man tales, and with this film's addition of Manchester football madness to the mix, I was sold.

Now to the World Cup: The games today weren't first-rate, but I was thrilled, as was Thad Williamson, that South Africa, the lowest-ranked host nation in Cup history, survived its first game with a well-deserved draw against Mexico.

For the afternoon fixture between France and Uruguay, I met a Triangle Offense colleague at Bull McCabe and, although I enjoyed the companionship greatly, the game was a brutal, negative affair. Thirty-three fouls, five yellow cards and a red later, the score was 0-0. The only highlight was the karmic pleasure of watching the French appeal for a handball after a late Thierry Henry shot hit a Uruguayan defender's arm. Otherwise, there were the (pretty damn annoying) vuvuzelas to keep us company.

Upon returning home this evening, I opened up my Raleigh News & Observer to check out the N&O's preview of the World Cup. On the inside was a nice spread in which area soccer celebrities, including the RailHawks' Rennie, retired U.S. international Eddie Pope, area superfan Jarrett Campbell and others gave their thoughts and predictions on the Cup.

But what was disturbing was the short, resentful screed by Luke DeCock on the front page of the sports section. Entitled "Will Americans watch?," it bears extensive quotation.

After decades as the world's biggest sporting event the United States doesn't care about, the World Cup opens today very much a part of the mainstream sports world here.

It's hard to say if that's because ESPN bought the rights and is forcing the World Cup down our collective throats, or because American interest in a truly global event now justifies ESPN's new saturation coverage. Either way, interest in the World Cup on these shores has never been higher.

It's a bizarrely sour lede in which he manages to say, a) The U.S. doesn't care about the World Cup; b) but now it does; c) and it's possibly because of an ESPN conspiracy; d) and now, "interest ... has never been higher."

The piece continues:

Of course, FIFA, the sport's governing body, is either very lucky or very sneaky, because to assure the attention of American sports fans, the U.S. team opens Saturday against England in a rematch of soccer's greatest upset, when the semi-pro Americans beat the powerful English 1-0 in 1950.

So, soccer is such a dicey proposition in the United States that it requires an engineered dream Saturday matchup to command American interest. There's no question that today's pairing draws the interest of the non-fans and the soccer-curious, but why not just celebrate the occasion rather than spread dark speculation? (Also, this is pedantry, but North Korea's defeat of Italy in 1966 was a greater World Cup upset than the Yanks' victory over the English.)

Next, and we're almost done:

In any case, for the next month, World Cup soccer will vie for American hearts and minds with NCAA conference expansion, the U.S. Open and Washington Nationals' pitcher Stephen Strasburg, having successfully elevated itself from the fringe to the forefront.

DeCock really seems threatened here! Frankly, if all the World Cup has to contend with are the three items on his terribly busy summer agenda, it's going to be a blowout.

I don't have anything personal against DeCock. He's a smart, irreverent sportswriter, but I really wish he would think about his priorities. It doesn't seem to have occurred to him that it's bit odd that he spreads so much of his rapt attention on the Carolina Hurricanes, which is a fine hockey franchise, but also a team that plays a sport with no organic connection to the Sunbelt, and a sport that virtually no one around here plays on an recreational basis.

On the other hand, thousands and thousands of children and adults play soccer in the Triangle every week and every day, in formal leagues and on any bare patch of grass or dirt. And tens of thousands more will be watching the World Cup for the next four weeks. (As I point out here, soccer is America's most popular team sport when participation is considered.)

But soccer somehow continues to not be a legitimate sport in the eyes of the News and Observer's sports department. Indeed, they almost never commit staff resources to coverage of the Carolina RailHawks, preferring to send interns, or to reprint press releases or the very capable reports from the McClatchy-owned Cary News. And when called upon to cover a global occasion like the FIFA World Cup, they can't stop holding their noses.

In fairness to DeCock, though, I couldn't agree more with his parting shot:

In an increasingly global era, Americans will join their neighbors, allies and enemies around the world in one united belief: hate [sic] of the vuvuzela, the horns that will provide the droning, annoying audio background for every game of the tournament.

Oh lord. Just as I was about to press "publish," I found yet another N&O story in this insipid vein, set to publish in Saturday's edition.

Headline: "We like soccer, but we love hoops;"


America's tepid interest in soccer has been set to boil several times over the decades, from Pele's arrival in New York in 1975 to the U.S. women's World Cup victory in 1999 to David Beckham signing with the L.A. Galaxy in 2007.

But football, the kind with helmets and shoulder pads, still rules America in 2010.

Let's just pass around a hat to raise money to send the N&O's sports department to an NFL fantasy camp for the next four weeks.

I'm supposed to be writing about Friday, but now it's Saturday. And you know what's happening today!

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