Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Beautiful Game

The Beautiful Game is synonymous with soccer, a sport blending both artistry and athleticism.  And, no other sporting event captures the world stage quite like the quadrennial World Cup.

What Americans commonly refer to as soccer is known throughout the rest of the sporting world as football, not to be confused with our NFL-style football.  The World Cup of football serves as an ultimate geography lesson, teaching us about the culture and language of the 32 participating nations as well as about team nicknames, national flags and national anthems. Yet, why stop there?  Let's extend it to culinary treats and add a bit of international musical flavor to the mix ... well, you've got endless possibilities.  Who knew international sport could be so much fun while also being educational?

The month-long, 2010 FIFA World Cup tournament, hosted by the Republic of South Africa ~ the first time the Cup has been played on the African continent ~ started last Friday in Johannesburg to great fanfare and buzz from the incessant drone of those pesky vuvuzelas.

After the first few days of group play, there's been plenty of excitement on the South African pitches, from Durbin to Port Elizabeth to Cape Town.  Among the highlights:

* Host Republic of South Africa's moral victory, a 1-1 draw with Mexico, in the opening match of the World Cup before 84,490 at Soccer City Stadium.  Bafana Bafana ("The Boys" as South Africa's team is known in its homeland) scored the tournament's first goal, a superb left-footed shot by Siphiwe Tshabalala.  He and four of his teammates celebrated with an impromptu theatrical chorus line dance.

* England's huge goalie gaffe, as Robert Green ("Hands of Clod" as he was vilified by the London tabloids) let an easy one dribble past him that enabled the U.S. squad to gain a 1-1 draw with the Brits.

* Germany's pin-point passing, which penetrated Australia's defense for four stunningly beautiful goals in their 4-0 victory over the Socceroos.

* The delightful enthusiasm shown by the Brazilians in their 2-1 victory over North Korea, and their impeccable passing skills, which set up the wonderfully choreographed goals by Maicon and Elano.

The World Cup tournament continues through July 11, with 32 countries competing in eight groups of four teams each.  Italy ("The Azzurri" for Sky Blues) is the defending World Cup champion.  Group play runs through June 25 before the knockout rounds commence ~ and the real fun begins.  ESPN (with assistance from ESPN2 and ABC) is broadcasting all of the World Cup matches live (in all U.S. time zones) ~ thankfully, there's no waiting around hours after a match has finished for an Olympics-style, tape-delayed prime time package like NBC regularly dishes out with the Olympics.

Match times are uniform each day during group play, which makes scheduling your day or programming your DVR simple ~ 7:30 a.m. ET/4:30 a.m. PT; 10 a.m. ET/7 a.m. PT, and 2:30 p.m. ET/11:30 a.m. PT ~ and matches are free of commercial interruptions during play, so you needn't worry about missing any goals.  Living in the Pacific Time zone, I've enjoyed tuning in for some of the first-week matches while eating breakfast and reading the newspaper, others during a midday lunch break.

Of particular interest, and not to be missed, is the pre-match ceremonies just minutes before kickoff, which include the starting lineups from both teams walking out onto the stadium pitch, hand-in-hand with local school kids dressed in soccer uniforms, then singing along to their respective national anthems ~ many of the players actually seem to know the lyrics to their anthems and always sing with proper enthusiasm.  Prior to playing Brazil, one North Korean player was shown visibly moved to tears during the playing of the "Aegukka".  After exchanging keepsakes and handshakes, the referee hands the Jabulani (the name of the soccer ball manufactured by Adidas and inscribed with the names of the two teams for each match) to the team kicking off, and before you know it, play is underway and the soap opera on grass begins.

The production values of the World Cup matches have been high-definition tremendous ~ including crisp, uncluttered graphics; running time clock; multiple replay angles, which capture the thrill and agony of each goal and near miss ~ and, to its credit, ESPN has put together an expert crew of play-by-play commentators and analysts, most with ties to English or European soccer, to dissect strategy and explain a lot of nuances of the sport ~ and, just as importantly, inflect the right amount of emotion and enthusiasm to maintain our interest and make us want to care about each match.

If you're unable to tune in to watch the matches, you can keep up with the World Cup with video highlights via ESPN's website at espn.com, as well as reading all about it online in the New York Times.  For a British take on things, try reading the Guardian online.

Whether you're rooting interest is with the Oranje of the Netherlands, La Furia Roja of Spain, the Three Lions of England, or Team USA, it's going to be an exciting month of play on the South African pitches, and with Wimbledon and the Tour de France overlapping, it's international sport at its pinnacle.

Now, if we can just get those colorful-but-crazy fans to put away their noisy vuvuzelas ~ those plastic trumpets that make a loud, buzzing sound ~ and, instead, get them to engage in some traditional English football-style singing and chanting, maybe a few choruses of "Ole', Ole', Ole'!"  Then, the Beautiful Game would truly be beautiful.

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