Hard not to fall in love with the World Cup 

click to enlarge Itaquerao Stadium
  • Andre Penner/AP
  • Neymar and Brazil got a final work out in at Itaquerao Stadium before they play Croatia on Thursday.
Like it or not, the World Cup is here, and if you’re in the “not” camp, consider the following a respectful plea.

If you’re in the “like” camp, I hope you’re wearing a cup. That fence has to be pretty uncomfortable. Anyone not in the “not” camp is likely in the “bat-crap crazy about” camp. And should be.

I certainly am, and it has almost nothing to do with the fact that I played soccer from ages 7 through 20: club teams as a tween, men’s leagues as a high schooler, intramurals at USF.

Those experiences certainly informed the fan in me, but I’d be a fan of the “beautiful game” today even if I’d never been exposed to it as a young athlete. It’s that intoxicating.

Reason No. 1, and really the only reason anyone should need to fall in love with the game if they’re a true fan of all things athletic, and the real-life parallels and lessons offered therein, is passion. If soccer at the World Cup level isn’t attractive to you, you’re either actively fighting your instincts as a sports fan or lacking a soul.

How can one’s soul NOT be stirred by stadiums filled with nationalism, pride and unconditional love every four years, as qualified countries come together in search of the truest world champion any sport has to offer?

Can’t appreciate the insane athleticism, precision and years of dedication required of a man who can, in traffic and under pressure from all angles, boot a ball 60 yards and onto the foot of a teammate on a dead run down the pitch? Fine. At least appreciate the reaction of those who do appreciate it. Whether it leads to a goal or not, foreheads will be slapped, eyes will bug, throats will open and bedlam will ensue.

For a pass!

Listen to the songs being sung, the collective musical and vocal celebration of man, country and sport. Each of them has likely been committed to memory by those engaging in the auditory orgasm from the time they could speak.

You’re a baseball fan? You get a kick out of the lunatics in the left-field bleachers in Oakland, where drums beat, flags wave, and strangers accept and love one another based on nothing more than a common affinity for the Green and Gold?

Multiply that by, oh, about a billion. That’s what’s happening in Brazil, every day, every second, for the duration of a tournament that’s as much about survival as it is about skill.

Making the World Cup team is hard enough as it is. Ask Landon Donovan, who, despite being perhaps the most recognizable and popular player in the United States over the past decade, was left off our squad even though he still has more than enough left in his legendary tank to make a difference.

Not that Donovan didn’t help the U.S. qualify. He did. So did a lot of other guys who won’t be wearing red, white and blue in what’s considered this Cup’s most difficult draw. They call it the “Group of Death,” and if the Americans emerge from it with any life, it’ll be considered a fairly stunning upset.

Donovan, though, is already DOA as far as the Cup is concerned. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann said, “Thanks but no thanks,” and took ungodly heat for saying it.

Hardcore, right? Yep. And wholly fitting. This isn’t a popularity contest. It’s about going for something that instantly turns those who get it into deities in their homelands, for life, and the men making the big calls could care less about what anyone thinks of their calls.

Legacies are at stake, not Twitter followers.

Qualifying itself is a pain, too. The travel is nuts, the training even more so, and it’s all done as the guys doing it balance it all with their “day jobs,” i.e., playing elite international soccer somewhere else.

Then there’s the tournament itself. You’re not just playing against the best talent from around the globe. You’re doing it under suffocating pressure, and as you move on, the pressure morphs into vicelike skull compression.

Not enough scoring, you say? Too slow for you? Pay attention. There’s absolutely nothing slow about the game at this level other than America’s general warming to the spectacle.

Do yourself a solid, soccer-doubter. Commit to one game. Make it a U.S. game. Go to a downtown San Francisco bar and watch it with some loonies. You’ll walk — let’s be real: you’ll stumble — out of that place a believer. A fan.

A passionate fan. I promise.

Mychael Urban, a longtime Bay Area-based sportswriter and broadcaster, is the host of “Inside the Bigs,” which airs every Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon on KGMZ “The Game” (95.7 FM).

About The Author

Mychael Urban

Mychael Urban

Mychael Urban has been covering Bay Area sports for 25 years and has worked for MLB.com, Comcast SportsNet Bay Area and KNBR (680 AM).
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