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5 things in no particular order

5 things, World Cup edition. Lots of links coming your way, so click away and then come back.

1) This one is for us.

The World Cup is now merely days away. I would venture to say even hubby can’t wait for the games to start, if only because he’s probably very tired of hearing me say how excited I am. He’s not interested, and though I made an effort to get into American “football” for his sake, I’m in no hurry to try to convince him to watch the real stuff. I’ve never been interested in convincing any American that soccer in general, and the World Cup in particular, really is great fun to watch. Non-believers — and there’s no other way to describe them — don’t want to be convinced. There have been countless attempts to put the magnificence of this event in terms they can understand. This one is pretty funny if you know American sports (though I would cast Argentina as Duke basketball and France as the Boston Red Sox).

The fact is some Americans take great pride in hating soccer. I don’t have patience or time for that. Those of us who love the sport love it more than enough for the rest of the country and are comforted by the fact that the rest of the world has our backs as far as this argument is concerned. The nice thing is that for this particular Cup, American sports media have bought in. In previous cycles the bulk of the coverage would be spent on trying to draw non-fans to the game, trying to explain the sport’s idiosyncrasies, and introducing top players like flash-in-the-pan Olympians instead of treating them like the world superstars they are. Even the play-callers were once chosen based not on their experience covering soccer, but on their experience covering American sports, in hopes that U.S. fans would recognize the voice, if not the action on the field.

Mercifully, that era is long behind us. Football isn’t merely coming to America. It’s here. All the Cup previews and analyses I’ve seen and read make it clear that the major sports media have figured this out. ESPN and ABC are carrying every game in this World Cup with coverage that respects the game and the fans. They aren’t devoting 300 staffers to Cup coverage for the non-believers. They are doing it for us.

2) This revolution will be blogged.

Speaking of reading and watching World Cup previews, here’s a quick rundown on good spots for news and a couple of must-read stories.

  • Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated is my favorite American Soccer writer. He knows the game, the players, the stakes and his audience (again, us). Also, he watched Season 4 of The Wire during his long flight to South Africa, which is just further proof he is good people. His blog is here: http://worldcup.si.com/
  • Speaking of Landon, this Sports Illustrated story on his journey to what all of us hope is the tournament of his career sums it all up quite nicely. He is truly the best footballer this country has ever produced.
  • And speaking of best footballers ever produced, Didier Drogba is that for Ivory Coast. Tragically, he broke his arm in the Elephants’ final tune up. He had surgery that his team hopes will allow him to play. I hope he does. He is a wonderful ambassador for his country and for all of Africa. More on that in this SI piece.

3) The beautiful game.

When I was in high school, while watching the World Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians in the lobby of my dorm, one of the house mothers watching with me remarked, “You know, player for player, the Braves have the cuter team.” It was true, and because I was a teenage girl, it mattered that my team was good and good looking.

Say what non-believers will about the sport of soccer, the female ones (and the gay men) can agree on this, at least: Soccer produces some serious eye-candy. David Beckham is perhaps the most famous, but also just the tip of the iceberg. And if that’s what we were scoring on, USA would take England to the barn. The kickette blog, a fun place to go for all things soccer gossip, ranks the five best looking players on the American side. A glorious melting pot indeed.

Vanity Fair, not inclined to get left out of any party, recently put Drogba and Portuguese pretty-boy extraordinaire Cristiano Ronaldo on its cover (with other world stars inside) wearing their colors and pretty much nothing else.

4) The Super Bowl of commercials.

One of the things I never liked or understood about American football was the fact that every game feels like it takes all day. There’s a commercial between practically every play, which is amusing only during the Super Bowl. Soccer, of course, is the polar opposite. There are no commercials. (Or, as non-believers would put it, no bathroom breaks.)

That doesn’t mean that advertisers don’t pull out all the stops. Take this “commercial” by Nike Football called “Write the Future.”

Nike is trying to position itself as a major soccer brand. This is nice way of putting yourself out there. But Adidas, once and forever king of the sport’s outfitters, can pull together a nice advert when it wants to as well. This one is from the 2006 Cup in Germany. Probably my favorite commercial about soccer because it illustrates how the game is played by kids all over the world.

For this cup, though, Adidas made it about South Africa. Not nearly as flashy as Nike’s take, but a beautiful tribute to the game and the host country. This is why they are still the best.

5) This time for Africa.

It’s the birthplace of humankind. That is why its struggles are so heartbreaking. The civil wars, the famine, the toll of AIDS, all of it can be fixed and must. And sport has an important role to play. Nobody knows this better than Nelson Mandela, the person who brought South Africa to this point in its history, still struggling but still fighting and ready to fly its colors and welcome the world.

In 1995, when the scars of apartheid had not yet healed, Mandela brought another World Cup to South Africa, the rugby World Cup. Rugby had always been the sport of the whites, but Mandela embraced the team, telling them, if you play for all of us, all of us will support you. They did as he asked and won. It’s such a powerful story even Hollywood got wind of it and made a movie. This short ESPN documentary, though, probably tells it better.

Sports can bring people together in a way little else can. Mandela, in the twilight of his monumental life, won’t see South Africa’s team raise this trophy, but the team that does-every team, in fact, and every game and every fan-will raise all of Africa with it.

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