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A Film Critic on the World Cup: You Call that Football?

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Michael Loccisano / Getty Images

USA soccer fans watch the televised 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa match between USA and Ghana at Jack Demsey's bar on June 26, 2010 in New York City.

As the 2010 World Cup trots to its Sunday climax, fans of the sport we call soccer and the rest of the globe calls football were reveling in the excitement the event has stoked in North America. TV ratings, through Wednesday's semifinal matches, are up 36% over the 2006 games. Two weeks ago, the Saturday afternoon U.S.-Ghana game pulled 14.9 million viewers, the third highest U.S. audience for any men's Cup match ever, and the largest for a game not shown in prime time.

This seeming surge has buoyed soccer's most ardent admirers among the sportswriting and chattering classes. They get steamed when fans of football, baseball and basketball mock soccer's severe scoring shortage, its amateur officiating, the whiny theatricality of prima-donna players feigning injury at the slightest contact. They believe that, this time, the World Cup has put an end to decades of American ignorance of the beautiful game. Surely now we will join the rest of the world and support soccer as a major professional sport.

Naaah. In mass fandom, Americans' interest in soccer is a quadrennial anomaly, like the Olympics, the Presidential election and Leap Year superstore sales. We pay attention briefly, and then for four years we don't. Consider NBC's ratings for this February's Winter Olympics. They were 14% higher than in 2006, but that won't increase the long-term profile of bobsled or curling — or, among professional team sports, ice hockey, which spiked during the Olympics, then sagged to the usual levels soon after the NHL resumed play. In the past month, sports fans acceded to the 24-hour hype machine at ESPN (which, along with Univision, paid $435 million for TV rights) and watched a few games. Maybe they got involved, and resolved to follow the sport. This too shall pass, when the final games ends; and World Cup fever will again abate into soccer ague.

Even in our brief hot spells, not many of us watch soccer, at least compared to the rest of the world. We think of American footbal's annual Super Bowl as the highest-rated TV show. But the most widely watched show in TV history was the 2006 World Cup final between Italy and France, which lured anywhere from 400 million to 700 million. Even on the low end, that would mean that the game was seen by one in every 15 humans on the planet — and plenty of them have no access to a television set. The best the U.S. could do, for the U.S.-Ghana match, was one in 20 Americans. And, on Thursday, more of us watched another sporting event where nothing happened: ESPN's broadcast of the LeBron James "decision." As for the all-time top U.S. audience for any soccer game, that rating was earned by a women's match: the 1999 U.S.-China final. In the 11 years since, women's soccer hasn't exactly challenged the popularity of the NFL.

In the great soccer debate, I'm on both sides. As a fan of "American" sports, I confess that I don't get soccer. The spectacle of alpha males running around, falling down, pretending to be hurt and, all in all, achieving very little — um, when I was in school, that was called recess. Sure, it's great exercise for the athletes, and it doesn't require so much scrutiny from the fans that they can't concentrate on getting drunk and planning their post-game riots. But there's something bizarrely atavistic about a sport species that refuses to acknowledge that homo sapiens have hands. Using only feet to advance a ball puts soccer in a primitive level of development, like football before the forward pass.

And yet, as a movie critic, I'm sympathetic to the special pleading of sportswriters, beneath whose rhapsodies about the game's subtlety and athleticism can be heard muttered grievances: "The whole world loves this game! Can't you be interested in a sport that America didn't invent? Don't you people know anything!?" I play that card myself when I'm reviewing a favorite French, German or Chinese film and trying to persuade readers that it's worth seeing even if it wasn't made in English, in Hollywood.

And here we see the problem facing soccer as an American attraction: it's the foreign films of sport.

American sports, like most American movies, are all about movement (the 80-yard run punt return, the full-court pass), collision (hard tackles, personal fouls) and scoring (touchdown! slam dunk!). Even baseball, which has a more leisurely pace — as the comedian Roger Rittenhouse says, "If baseball were any slower, it would be farming" — features spikes-up slides, acrobatic catches and home runs. Baseball, football and basketball all fulfill the dramatic requirement of a good movie, as defined long ago by the guys at Mystery Science Theater 3000: "Stuff happens."

If, in sports, "stuff" is scoring, then not much happens in soccer. It's not a Jerry Bruckheimer action-adventure movie but a European art-house film, with its emphasis on attitudinizing, sullen tempers and long takes of people scurrying to get nowhere. As a Hollywood movie rushes to its conclusion, it features shootouts or at least a big romantic kiss. In soccer, as in so many foreign films, at the end of 90 minutes it could be nothing-nothing.

Once in a great while, a foreign-language film breaks out of its tiny ghetto and captures the imagination of the broader U.S. public. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, back in 2000, was one such phenomenon. The film earned nearly $130 million, and cued a slew of high-minded Asian martial arts movies, most of which tanked at the domestic box office. Crouching Tiger's success was not a harbinger of America's willingness to see foreign movies; it was a fluke. The mass audience quickly returned to its insular love of all things American, and only those things. Same with soccer: it gets a happy blip every four years, without forming a buying habit in the minds of most Americans

But foreigners do love their own films, even when they come to the States; Bollywood musicals play at more than 100 U.S. theaters, where the Indian-American community spends millions of dollars on the kinds of movies they were raised on. So who in the U.S. can be counted on to love soccer? Foreigners.

I mean that our foreign-born residents are helping to swell the World Cup's TV ratings. The city with the highest viewership, through the semifinals, has been San Diego, 30% of whose population is Hispanic. For this year's early matches, the top city was Miami, where 60% of the people tuning in watched the games on the Spanish-language Univision channel. (New York City, with nearly 2 million Spanish speakers, was second.) The Argentina-Mexico match was seen by 5.5 million on ESPN's parent network, ABC. With that same game, Univision U.S. scored its all-time highest ratings: 9.4 million viewers.

Perhaps tens of millions of Americans, whatever their first language or country of origin, will watch the Spain-Netherlands final. Then most of the Anglos and latecomers will hibernate until 2014, while fans who were raised in soccer cultures will keep following the game as closely as traditional American sports fans track their favorite teams. If soccer is really to grow in popularity here, it will spring from our evolution into a more multicultural society, where influences from all over the world take root here and become, over time, "American."

Soccer could at some point reach that goal, and be as acceptable to the wide public as Chinese food, Sony electronics and Heidi Klum. But, in anticipation of our openmindedness, the rest of the world really should make the first gesture, and stop calling it football. That's the American game, see?