- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2006

The World Cup began yesterday with tournament host Germany lodging a solid 4-2 win over Costa Rica. While that game, and most others, will get passed over by the majority of Americans, the World Cup is a momentous sporting event around the world. The event evokes strong nationalist sentiments that are often in concert with current — and historical — world politics. Countries passionately rally around their teams: consider the reaction in France to their first, and so far only, victory in 1998, or the reaction in Brazil to its victory in 1994, ending a quarter-century drought for the country that holds the most World Cup titles. Some victories, such as West Germany’s exciting 1954 win, have real political poignancy.

The eight World Cup groupings include teams from five continents. More than 3 million fans are expected to make the trip to Germany for the tournament; the fans that tuned in yesterday for the opening numbered more than 1 billion. The game has even occasionally — and aptly — been used as an allegory for topics ranging from global politics to globalization. It’s easy to understate the significance attached to the World Cup around the world — never does a weeks-long sporting event cause such a decrease in worker productivity in the United States the way the World Cup is expected to around the world.

The U.S. team faces a critical test in its opening match Monday against the Czech Republic, which will, like several opening-round games, be shown on cable. The American squad is in a very competitive group, with strong teams from Italy and the Czech Republic favored to move on. But underdog status is nothing new for American soccer, and it certainly didn’t stop the team from a surprising run to the quarterfinals in the 2002 World Cup. The other big game for the United States will be on June 17, when the team takes on Italy. From each group of four, only two teams move on after round-robin play, making a opening victory all but necessary for the U.S. team to advance.

The world’s most popular sport remains something of an unknown in the United States. Unlike their high-paid European counterparts, soccer players in the United States fall toward the bottom of payscale for major professional sports, with only one MLS player netting total compensation of more than $1 million this year. (Two years ago, Freddy Adu was the highest-paid MLS player with a salary that was half as much.)

Although the recent success of both the men’s and women’s teams has helped the sport, Major League Soccer still struggles to gain fans at home and respect abroad. Both will come, however. A strong showing from the American team in Germany will go a long way toward solidifying the sport’s fan base.

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