One of the pleasures of foreign travel is learning the sports of other countries. I learned cricket in India — it’s a good game, really — and in Ireland I discovered hurling, a sport in which it is still possible to swing a long wooden stick into the unhelmeted side of a man’s head.
But it was in Korea that we had our most intense exposure to a foreign sport. Our stay coincided with the 2002 FIFA World Cup, co-hosted in Japan and South Korea, in which the Korean team exceeded all expectations and survived to the quarter-finals, coming in a respectable fourth place. At the time, I wrote about the powerful emotions that the World Cup unleashed and the strangeness of Korea’s attempts to play host to the world.
It’s a truism that Americans have never warmed to soccer, and perhaps we never will. It’s true that there can be 45 minutes of nothing happening, which can be pretty dull to watch. Unless you care who wins. And that’s the secret. If you couldn’t give a shit whether Ukraine beats Tunisia to make it out of the first round, then watching the two teams toss the ball around listlessly for an hour while the score stays 0-0 will understandably be duller than televised bowling. But if Ukraine’s fate is important enough to you that you will cry if they lose, that hour of stalling takes on the emotional intensity of an hour spent stalling Krushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis: What are they doing? When will they strike? Are the Tunisians gearing up for an attack, or are they just weakening? Oh, God! WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN?
At the moment, I can’t see America mustering that kind of passion about an international contest we’re unlikely to win. We can barely stay focused on the Olympics these days. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, our international rivalries have been reduced to feuds with warlords, gangsters and smalltime Oriental despots who know how to enrich uranium. The real passion will be in the countries that love soccer, like Brazil and Germany, who met in the 2002 final (Brazil won), and in countries like Korea, where simply playing in the Big Leagues is still cause enough for a burst of national pride.
Even so, I encourage you to watch a few of the games, and if possible, to follow the flow of the tournament. All the games will be broadcast in the US, on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 (here’s the schedule). Give it a shot. Root for Korea, if that helps. Maybe bet a little. And then maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to enjoy the exquisite agony of nothing happening on a football pitch.