Our continued indifference to the sport worshiped around the world can be easily explained in two parts. First, as a nation of loony but determined inventors, we prefer things we thought of ourselves. The most popular sports in America are those we conceived and developed on our own: football, baseball, basketball. If we can claim at least part of the credit for something, as with tennis or the radio, we are willing to be passively interested. But we did not invent soccer, and so we are suspicious of it.
The second and greatest, by far, obstacle to the popularity of the World Cup, and of professional soccer in general, is the element of flopping. Americans may generally be arrogant, but there is one stance I … stand behind, and that is the intense loathing of penalty-fakers. There are few examples of American sports where flopping is part of the game, much less accepted as such. Things are too complicated and dangerous in football to do much faking. Baseball? It's not possible, really—you can't fake getting hit by a baseball, and it's impossible to fake catching one. The only one of the big three sports that has a flop factor is basketball, where players can and do occasionally exaggerate a foul against them, but get this: The biggest flopper in the NBA is not an American at all. He's Argentinian! (Manu Ginobili, a phony to end all phonies, but otherwise a very good player.)
But flopping in soccer is a problem. Flopping is essentially a combination of acting, lying, begging, and cheating, and these four behaviors make for an unappealing mix. The sheer theatricality of flopping is distasteful, as is the slow-motion way the chicanery unfolds. First there will be some incidental contact, and then there will be a long moment—enough to allow you to go and wash the car and return—after the contact and before the flopper decides to flop. When you've returned from washing the car and around the time you're making yourself a mini-bagel grilled cheese, the flopper will be leaping forward, his mouth Munch-wide and oval, bracing himself for contact with the earth beneath him. But this is just the beginning. Go and do the grocery shopping and perhaps open a new money-market account at the bank, and when you return, our flopper will still be on the ground, holding his shin, his head thrown back in mock-agony. It's disgusting, all of it, particularly because, just as all of this fakery takes a good deal of time and melodrama to put over, the next step is so fast that special cameras are needed to capture it. Once the referees have decided either to issue a penalty or not to our Fakey McChumpland, he will jump up, suddenly and spectacularly uninjured—excelsior!—and will kick the ball over to his teammate and move on.
American sports are, for better or worse, built upon transparency, or the appearance of transparency, and on the grind-it-out work ethic. This is why the most popular soccer player in American history is Sylvester Stallone. In fact, the two greatest moments in American soccer both involved Sylvester Stallone. The first came with Victory,the classic film about Allied soccer-playing POWs, and the all-star game they play against the Nazis. In that film, Stallone plays an American soldier who must, for some reason—no one can be expected to remember these things—replace the goalie on the POW team. Of course, Stallone knows nothing about soccer, so he must learn to play goalie (somewhere, Moron McCheeby grins triumphantly). Stallone does this admirably, the Allies win (I think), and as the crowd surrounds them, they are hidden under coats and fans and sneak away to freedom.
The second most significant moment came when the World Cup came to the United States, in 1994. It is reported that Stallone attended one of the games and seemed to enjoy it.
It's inevitable, given the way the U.S. teams are improving every year, that eventually we will make it to the semifinals of the World Cup, and it's likely, one would think, that the United States will win it all in the near future. This is a country of limitless wealth and 300 million people, after all, and when we dedicate the proper resources to a project, we get the job done (see Vietnam, Lebanon, Iraq). But until we do win the Cup—and we have no chance this particular time around, being tossed into the Group of Death, which will consume us quickly and utterly—soccer will receive only the grudging acknowledgement of the general populace. Then again, do we really want—or can we even conceive of—an America where soccer enjoys wide popularity or even respect? If you were soccer, the sport of kings, would you want the adulation of a people who elected Bush and Cheney, not once but twice? You would not. You would rather return to your roots, Communist or otherwise, and fight fascism with your feet.