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From the couch: Not drinking Cup Kool-Aid

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Brian Lowry

A media columnist and critic for Variety since 2003, Brian Lowry spent seven years at the L.A. Times and has contributed to both NPR and TV Guide Network. He writes weekly for FOX Sports. A UCLA alum, Lowry proudly attended the '95 title game. MORE>>
 
   
 

If you have been caught up and thrilled by the excitement and pageantry of the World Cup, this probably isn't the column for you.

USA player performance grades

Making the grade

Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan earned high marks at the World Cup for the U.S., but what about their teammates? Ives Galarcep grades the U.S. performances in South Africa.

If on the other hand you have tried (really, really tried) to watch soccer on TV and simply can't get into it — including the U.S. loss to Ghana — pull up a chair.

There's a strong tendency to wonder if this is some jingoistic thing — as in chanting “USA! USA!” — responsible for rejecting one of those rare sports America fails to dominate. After the June 23 win over Algeria, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann sarcastically but not inaccurately dubbed soccer the U.S.’ “fifth-best team sport,” one being shoved down our collective throats by the rest of the world “using only their feet.”

More melodramatically, a Wall Street Journal reporter wrote that the game-winning goal “may have kicked a hole in the ancient force field of prejudice that has always kept Americans from fully embracing the world’s game.” Oh puh-leeze.

That’s because prejudice, for me anyway, isn’t the problem. There is a cultural element here, but I think it has more to do with playing sports growing up and thus being able to appreciate basketball, football or baseball when practiced at their highest form. I've singled to left, but I'll never jack a 98-mile-an-hour fastball into the bleachers.

Today, one of soccer’s main selling points in the U.S. appears to be how easy it is for kids to learn (hence the image of suburban “soccer moms”), with a proud dad recently telling me how much fun he has watching his 6-year-old daughter run around trying to kick the ball.

As a viewer or fan, however, the fact a game can be played by children isn't a ringing endorsement as TV diversions go.

Granted, there's also a cultural bar for hockey, but at least that game features people racing around on skates at breakneck speed. The puck always seems to be this close to getting jammed into somebody's goal, even if scoring is limited or sporadic.

By contrast, too much of soccer takes place in the middle of the field, passing the ball around with no immediate threat of anything significant happening. Every time I try sitting through an entire telecast, I wind up thinking "Wake me for the highlights" when the dude yells “Gooooo-o-oal” for 45 seconds. The best thing I saw all weekend, frankly, were those subtitled Spanish-language ads AT&T aired — in an unorthodox move — on ABC.

In theory, the World Cup is a wonderful showcase. Like the Olympics, it's always nice seeing countries compete on athletic fields instead of marching across borders or building weapons systems.

 

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Still, I'm a tired of people trying to make me feel guilty for not hopping on the bandwagon. On HBO's "Real Sports," host Bryant Gumbel closed the program with an unqualified pitch for soccer, saying, "I confess that I love everything about it, particularly those aspects that many Americans are whining about."

Bully for him.

And yes, ESPN and Univision ratings are up almost 70 percent compared with 2006 for telecasts featuring the U.S. team, according to Nielsen Media Research, though I suspect that has a lot to do with people getting sucked in by relentless media coverage, as well as steady growth in the Spanish-speaking population.

If you were raised with soccer, I totally get it. What I have a hard time buying, based strictly on experiencing the game via TV, is adults who profess to have suddenly fallen in love and developed new-found expertise about corner kicks, blown calls and headers. In short, the current U.S.-soccer TV romance still strikes me as a fling, not a full-fledged relationship just yet.

The World Cup doubtless gives the sport an opportunity to put its best foot forward and win additional converts. As for me, despite the racket caused by those blaring horns and raucous fans, it remains a welcome summer siesta before the games I actually care about return.

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