Why to follow the World Cup — even if you don’t like soccer

I just caught a meme on Facebook showing someone staring blankly at a white wall.  It bore a caption reading:

“Still more interesting than watching soccer.”

I say people who post that sort of thing just don’t get it.  Here are five reasons the World Cup is worth watching even if soccer isn’t really your thing.

1 ) It’s the most popular sport in the world.

According to soccer’s international governing body, FIFA, approximately 715.1 million people tuned in to see the final game of the 2006 World Cup.

The 2010 World Cup was broadcast into every territory of the world, and an estimated 3.2 billion people — or 46.4 percent of the world’s population at the time — tuned in to watch at least a minute of the final game that year.

Not only that, just about every country in the world competes for a spot at the World Cup.  Only the Summer Olympics boast that level of international participation, but that’s for many different sports, not just one.

2)  The American team is a fascinating underdog.

Believe it or not, the United States doesn’t dominate in all things global (umm, college graduation rates, anyone?).

Going into this World Cup, the American team was not exactly a favorite to advance past the first round. They were placed in what was dubbed the “Group of Death,” — pitted against top teams like Germany and Portugal, as well as Ghana, a small African country that had knocked the U.S. team out of the last two World Cups.

Yet they advanced to the Round of 16 after beating Ghana 2-1 in inspiring fashion and drawing Portugal on Sunday 2-2. A final loss to Germany means Team USA will face Belgium to keep their hopes alive for advancing.

3)  The little guys are notching upsets against the favorites.

Beyond the American team, we’ve seen other underdogs achieving success.  Take tiny Costa Rica, for example, who were written off entirely when placed in a group with three powerhouse teams that had won World Cups in the past.

Yet they’ve won their group, and face Greece next with plenty of room to advance.

At the same time, a lot of favorites have bombed.  Spain, 2010’s champion, got beat up badly and won’t even advance past the first round despite being a top contender.

England is out, as are soccer-mad Italy and Portugal.

So if you like a good underdog story, this is what you ought to be watching.

4)  Soccer is one of the most physically demanding sports.

In nearly every other sport save for long-distance running and tennis, players aren’t required to be constantly on the move like they are in soccer.  Not only that, each team is allowed only two substitutions per 90-plus-minute game — and that includes injuries that take players out of the game against their will.  Once you’re out, you don’t go back in.  That means you have to exhibit incredible endurance, sometimes to the point of exhaustion.  No 60-second bursts of play like in football, or long periods of sitting in a dugout.  These men have to be true endurance athletes just to compete.

5) It only comes around once every four years.

Unlike the Super Bowl or the World Series, you can’t catch the World Cup next year if you ignore it now (okay, technically you can catch the women’s World Cup in Canada, which shouldn’t be overlooked).

You’ll have to wait until it heads to Russia in 2018 to see this top-level competition again.  While I might wish for it every two years, absence, as they say, makes the heart grow fonder.


Matthew Stensland-Bos explores consciousness, love, healing, and grounded spirituality in Know This Love, a weekly SFBay opinion column. You can find him on his website, www.wordswithmatthew.com