New sports world order

International soccer is enormously exciting right now.

Jon Marthaler

Next month, the United States sends a gigantic delegation to the Summer Olympics in Greece. Attending will be the usual collection of athletes, famous only once every four years unless they’re involved in a drug scandal (sprinters and swimmers); athletes that have an outside chance at fame if they win (weightlifters and wrestlers) and athletes who will remain anonymous even if they run naked through the Parthenon clutching five gold medals (fencers).

There will also be athletes already famous – major professional athletes competing for their country. For example, rest assured about 15 NBA stars will don the red, white and blue in Athens. The U.S. Olympic Committee carefully selected the best available team, but many players responded enthusiastically by turning them down, due to a host of injury- and wedding-related excuses.

The United States is still the odds-on favorite. Despite the overseas explosion of basketball, the United States should win every tournament as long as they remember to play defense and occasionally pass the ball.

Should they win, I won’t particularly care. I can’t find a reason to care, other than they’re the home team. We are favored to win, expected to win and the only reason to hope for a win is the alternative involves losing.

It wasn’t always like this. The Olympics are popular because countries compete directly against each other. For years the Olympics practically lived off the Cold War. The United States and USSR competed at everything, the unspoken assumption being if Americans could only beat the Russians at hockey, gymnastics or wrestling, it would prove our superiority over the “evil empire.”

Nowadays the United States is the only superpower and it’s becoming progressively more difficult to tell ourselves our country has something to prove . Our Olympic mind-set is much simpler, exemplified by my attitude toward the U.S. basketball team: Please, just don’t embarrass us.

Americans love the underdog, especially when it’s us. All that’s left in international sports to amuse me is to see Americans beat other countries in a sports in which the United States is not supposed to win.

Chief among these sports is men’s soccer. The rest of the world has dominated the United States in soccer, and would darn well like to keep it that way. The sport is an Olympic event, but in the grand scheme of world soccer, the Olympics are a fairly insignificant competition – full international teams don’t even compete. It’s just as well – the United States failed to qualify for Athens. The major tournament in soccer is, was and forever will be the World Cup.

Despite the rest of the world’s resistance, U.S. men’s soccer is starting to take off. The national team made the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, and were recently ranked seventh in the world by the Federation Internationale de Football Association – our country’s highest-ever ranking. The times, they are a-changing, and it might not be long before the United States is a serious player.

Qualifying for the 2006 World Cup started last month. The United States made it to Stage 2 by beating Grenada 6-2 over two games. Stage 2 begins in August, against three teams – Jamaica, Panama and El Salvador – who would like nothing better than to send the United States packing.

It’s like another Cold War on the international sports stage, and the United States is the underdog. For me, that means one thing: Unlike the Olympics, international soccer is enormously exciting right now.

John Marthaler welcomes comments at [email protected]