If you're a die-hard soccer fan, you're going to cringe reading this column and may possibly hate me by the end it. Next week I'll be heading to South Africa to attend my first-ever World Cup, and I'm probably the least deserving ticket holder in the history of this great international tournament.
You see, like many American sports fans, I know absolutely nothing about soccer. I don't understand the card system. I have no idea why the game clock goes up and not down. I don't get the fuss among the fans over corner kicks. I can't tell you how many players are on a team and how many men are on the field at any one time. And the only players I can name are Pele, David Beckham, Diego Maradona, Zinedine Zidane, Renaldo, Ronaldhino, Freddy Adu, Kaka, Landon Donovan, Mia Hamm and some short dynamo named "Messi" - and I'd be hard pressed to pick them out of a police lineup. (Only recently have I learned that just three of those names are playing in the 2010 World Cup.)
Like a number of my fellow countrymen here in the United States, soccer hasn't been able to compete for my sports-watching hours among a crowded group that includes pro basketball, pro football, pro baseball, college football, college basketball, and major golf and tennis tournaments. Heck, hockey isn't even making the cut these days even though we're in the throes of an exciting Stanley Cup playoffs and finals.
But while soccer may not be my first - or second, third, fourth and so on - choice of sports to watch, it doesn't mean I don't appreciate the magnitude of the World Cup and its meaning to (literally) billions of soccer fans worldwide. I also recognize that attending a World Cup is a privilege reserved for only a few, and to do so in a country like South Africa - with all its complexities, challenges, hopes and fears about its future - makes this year's incarnation of the world's biggest sporting event even more special. A country that has been dealing with its own unification issues for decades will be setting the stage for a sport that has long unified those of diverse ethnic, religious and political backgrounds. Only soccer can put North Korea and the United States into the same sentence without talks of sanctions.
And thus, for the first time in over 30 years, I'm going to give soccer a chance. Since I'm not leaving until Tuesday (which means I don't arrive in South Africa until Thursday), I'm going to watch as many matches, read as many articles and talk to as many soccer fans as possible in advance of my journey. After all, I don't want to come across as the biggest idiot ever to attend a World Cup...especially if I end up in a bar among a bunch of drunk soccer hooligans soon after my arrival.
Ignorance will no longer be bliss when it comes to soccer and me. I want to finally understand the card system, the game clock, the intricacies of corner kicks, and so on. I want to know who the powerhouse teams are, and why. I want to know the history of World Cups and how pro soccer works from the Champions League to the English Premier League (if for no other reason than my favorite team - the Nuggets - are owned by the guy who also owns Arsenal).
Fox Sports Chairman David Hill has long said that "sports are tribal." And never has this statement been truer than when applied to the World Cup, arguably a more grandiose sporting event than the Summer Olympics and involving the most passionate, most "tribal" sports fans in the world. And while I may need to bone up on my soccer knowledge expeditiously, I nevertheless anxiously look forward to seeing this once-every-four-years spectacle in person among the great fans of this global sport.
At the very least, when all is said and done I should be able to name more than three current World Cup participants.