Good luck getting anything done in much of the world for the next 30 days. The 2010 FIFA World Cup opens today in South Africa, and for the next month, the pride of 32 nations across the globe will play out on the soccer field. Americans usually scratch their heads every four years at the drama and the frenzy. But this will be a tournament of many firsts — for the United States as much as the rest of the world.
Soccer is an acquired taste in the United States. Players can throw in the ball from out of bounds but cannot use their hands on the field of play. No wonder the referee makes so many mistakes. At least the clock keeps running. But few moves in sports are more graceful than an arcing pass or a scissor kick that finds the back of the net from the top of the box. Soccer is known as the "beautiful game," and the men who play it at the World Cup are the best.
But the World Cup is also a political event — particularly this year, the first time the tournament has been played on African soil. The games will be played in 10 stadiums in nine South African cities. The cup is an opportunity for the modern continent to introduce itself to the larger world. The games could bring Africa billions of dollars in investment and newfound political legitimacy. They already have showcased the continent's physical beauty and the resiliency of Africa's people.
This cup also could mark a historic moment here at home. The U.S. team is a competitor, and its opener Saturday against England, a perennial power, has electrified the global audience. ESPN and its partner, ABC, will broadcast all 64 games, with a lineup of analysts who actually know something about the sport. Experts predict U.S. viewership will surpass the 120 million who watched in 2006.
Soccer may be largely a foreign game, but its growing popularity here reflects a changing American culture. That is especially true in Florida. Miami was the No. 1 Spanish broadcast market in the nation for the 2006 World Cup; analysts expect the same large audiences this time. In Tampa, the Rowdies professional soccer franchise returned to town, and the bay area made the first cut to host the 2018 or 2022 World Cup. In other words, these crazy fans with their trumpets and hats are just like us.