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The World's Ballgame

NEXT month, scores of international sports stars will perform in the United States. Some are so famous, like Maradona and Eusebio, that they're known by a single name. The US will field a team in this 24-nation event - but find that many fans in the stands will be rooting for its opponents. Around the world, billions of viewers will be scrutinizing each header, corner kick, and clever pass on their television sets.

And the majority of Americans will ignore the whole thing.

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From June 17 to July 17 the US will host the World Cup, a quadrennial soccer event (known as football to everyone outside the US). Nine cities will be the venues for 52 games. It is an honor equivalent to welcoming an Olympics or world's fair.

Yet Americans have resisted the world's brand of football with the same idiosyncratic obstinacy with which they spurn the world's metric system: Just because everyone else loves it, why should we?

Twenty years ago, professional soccer almost took hold in the US. Some fine international players were imported, and teams drew reasonably good crowds. Bringing in the legendary Pele to play for a team in America's largest city, New York, was the crowning touch. But shortly after the Brazilian star's retirement, the league began to unravel and finally folded.

The popularity of youth soccer here has suggested to some that Americans were only a few years away from embracing the world's sport. Recent statistics from the Soccer Industry Council of America show that for youths under age 12, soccer ranks No. 2 in participation, right behind basketball and easily ahead of baseball and American football.

But, as some commentators point out, participation in a sport does not automatically translate into fans. (Example: Swimming is a popular recreational activity, but not a popular spectator sport.)

Here's a hope that American viewers will channel surf their way into a Cup game or two. Soccer combines grace, stamina, teamwork, and a lot more courage and fortitude than Americans give it credit for. A 1-0 match can tingle with the same excitement as Roger Clemens trying to protect a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth with Paul O'Neill at the plate.

The US didn't qualify for the World Cup for 40 years and took its lumps four years ago in its first entry. That's all in the past. Citizens of the world's superpower should want to understand and enjoy the world's sport.

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Let's go out to the global ballgame: Pass that half-liter of soda and a 30-centimeter hot dog, please.

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