World Cup stirs the soccer soul

Sports commentary

World Cup mania has got me in a tizzy. I’ve been staying up late, getting up early and doing everything I can to adjust to Korea time. I’m having trouble containing my fútbol fanaticism.

It’s similar to Pennant Fever or March Madness, only on a much larger scale — a world-wide scale, no less. The largest, most talked about sporting event in the world started last week, and people from Sweden to Senegal, Italy to Ireland, Poland to Portugal are bubbling over with excitement.

But, despite the event’s colossal importance to the rest of the world, few Americans embrace the World Cup like the rest of the world. The good majority of U.S. sports fans could care less about the 18th edition of soccer’s most heralded crown.

In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that some of our compatriots haven’t even heard of the World Cup. Plenty of Gorge residents would be more inclined to think of the world-class skiing and snowboarding circuit before they thought of soccer.

But knowing what I know about the sport’s popularity here in the valley, I am certain that I’m not alone in my excitement. I would bet that the other 400 players in the Columbia Gorge Soccer League are right there with me, waiting on pins and needles with every touch of the ball.

There’s also a large contingent of fanatics from the high schools, middle schools and the Dynamos Soccer Club who are staying up way past their bedtimes to catch a glimpse of the next Maradona or Pelé.

Just like in Brazil or Italy, there are kids all over the valley trying their best to emulate Ronaldo or Christian Vieri in their backyards — I know because I was one of ‘em. In my soccer heyday, it was Marco Van Basten, Gary Lineker and Jurgen Klinsman. And who could forget Salvatore Schillaci? That name still elicits goosebumps for any World Cup fanatic.

This is the time of year that soccer fans lose control. It doesn’t matter who’s playing, you just can’t get enough of watching the game played at its highest level. And it’s even more awe-inspiring when you can see a game in person.

I had the pleasure of witnessing a World Cup match in Palo Alto, Calif., when it arrived on U.S. shores for the first time in the summer of 1994. Fifth row, center. Quarterfinals. Double-overtime shootout. Probably the best birthday gift I could have ever imagined. (Thanks again, Dad.)

Sweden topped Romania in one of the most riveting matches of that World Cup — perhaps any World Cup — and I was there. The spectacle was without equal.

Swedish and Romanian fans losing all sense of social grace, swept away in unbridled enthusiasm. If your country can be included among the top eight teams in the world, you’re entitled to four years of bragging rights.

The United States may someday understand what all this craziness is about, but until our team advances past the second round, the World Cup will be back-page news. Sidebar stuff.

That’s okay, as long as ESPN renews its broadcasting contract for Germany 2006. Along with the other soccer fiends in the valley and beyond, I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t see all the action on TV. Guess I’d just have to buy a ticket to Germany.

Life savings or no life savings, the World Cup is something that cannot be compromised.

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