France fans hold up banners relating to recent stories surrounding the french team, prior to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Group A match between France and South Africa at the Free State Stadium on June 22, 2010 in Mangaung/Bloemfontein, South Africa.
I used to think you had to love soccer to enjoy the World Cup, which turns out to be as fallacious as thinking you can’t enjoy seafood unless you love SpongeBob SquarePants.
I don’t know when we’ve had a sporting event that’s more entertaining than this World Cup. Heck, I don’t know when we’ve had anything as entertaining as the monthlong worldwide circus that is being held in soccer-mad South Africa.
I call South Africa soccer-mad out of a feeling of obligation to American readers who are soccer-sane. But that's a redundancy in most countries. It’s soccer-mad Brazil and Germany and England and Uruguay and even North Korea, where pretty much everything is mad by Dear Leader decree.
I never got the madness part until this year, when the French started whining and the English were sniping, when the North Koreans started getting magical communications directly from Dear Leader, and the South African fans got messianic about making mindless and mind-altering noise on their vuvuzelas, which were derived from torture devices used during the Inquisition.
Add tempests over officiating and red cards and coaching decisions and team strategies and you’ve got an event with more plot twists than a Dan Brown novel, more manufactured melodrama than “Jersey Shore,” more weeping and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments than the Old Testament.
It’s making blizzards out of a snowflake, mountains out of anthills, high drama out of low comedy. It’s non-stop reality TV without the need of producers to inject conflict and controversy.
We don’t often think of it, but interest in a sport is directly tied to how much drama it produces off the field. The reason we don’t think about it is because usually we’re moaning about how disgusting the dramatic behavior is and how wonderful the world would be if every athlete behaved like a perfect little boy scout — or girl scout — and no one ever argued with a manager or flipped off the fans or spewed unpleasant sentiments on an official.
What nonsense that is. The ratings for this year’s U.S. Open were up more something like 35 percent over last year, and some of that had to do with the fact that Tiger Woods is coming off his public embarrassment.
Terrell Owens makes the NFL more interesting. The old Bronx Zoo made baseball a delicious and guilty indulgence. Michael Phelps got way more interesting after he took a bong hit. The Kobe-Shaq war was wonderful for basketball, and the great LeBron Sweepstakes are doing the game no harm, either.
Instead of berating miscreant athletes and megalomaniacal owners and greedy agents, we should be lining up to thank them for making the games so fascinating.
That’s soccer’s secret, and it’s seldom been as clear as at this World Cup. It’s not so much about the games, but about the drama surrounding them.
If France had flown down to South Africa and quietly lost three games and meekly and humbly gone home, few outside of France would have noticed or cared. But send the team’s star home, have the players go on strike, the trainer quit and the nation’s sports minister deliver a tear-stained locker room speech straight out of the Knute Rockne Greatest Hits album, and you’ve got a story that anyone can dive into.
I ate up every purple adjective sacrificed to the cause of telling the story, including this gem from coach Raymond Domenech, who described his rebellious team as “an aberration, an imbecility, a stupidity without name.”
That’s not just an angry rant. That’s invective worthy of Shakespeare.
The fans picked up on it, with French supporters cheering on South Africa’s victory in the Tuesday game that completed France’s ignominy.
The Brits, a pre-tournament favorite, are wracked by internal dissent that’s become very external, and their goalie, Robert Green has become a Bill Buckner-esque figure for fumbling a save and allowing the United States to tie their match. The Brazilians are wringing their hands over their team’s new style of play which features more solid strategy and less individual freelancing. Sani Kaita, a Nigerian midfielder, is getting death threats because he collected a red card.
And I almost forgot: a South African was killed — murdered, slaughtered, bludgeoned to death — by his own wife and family because he wanted to watch soccer and they wanted to watch a religious program.
And all of this is just in the first two weeks. There’s another two weeks to go and it can only get more outrageous — and thus, more fun.
World Cup fever: I finally caught it.