The 2010 FIFA World Cup kicks off Friday in South Africa.
Across the globe, across America, across Milwaukee -- in pockets from the East Side to Brady Street, Downtown to West Allis, in ‘Tosa, Brookfield and Waukesha, from the Third Ward to Bay View and south to Franklin -- attention will be diverted, minds will flutter, concentration will drift away.
All to catch one of the most brilliant spectacles the entire world can put on display. Why? Because it's fun. A whole lot of fun. A whole lot of high-fiving, life-affirming, back-slapping, hootin' ‘n' hollerin' fun.
This is the entire world coming together in a celebration of the simplest game. It's 11 against 11. Put the ball in the net more than the other side and you win. But, surely it gets more complicated. Surely, there's more than running up and down like the 8-year-olds you see on Saturday mornings at the park. You better believe it.
At it's highest level, soccer plays out like a giant game of Chinese checkers. Interloping triangles, evolving shapes, all to skip past the opposition and open the space that allows individual talent to take over with a sublime or clinical finish. When you look closely, you begin to see the true genius of the game comes from the architect, the one who plots the course, not necessarily the executor.
Every four years, the World Cup rears its mighty head. Each of 32 teams from regions scattered across the globe had to fight to make it. For the last two years, they've been plowing through qualifying rounds that ensure everyone gets a chance.
We're talking the Faroe Islands here, people. Do you know where the Faroe Islands are? They're between Iceland and Scotland. And they had just as much chance of qualifying as Germany or Brazil. New Zealand will be there. So will Slovenia, along with Ghana, Algeria and Chile.
So, yeah, does it mean a lot for a team to be arriving in South Africa right now? You'd better believe it. Does it mean a lot for every young man stepping off of the plane that they are among the lucky few selected to represent his country? From Brazil's Kaka, a winner in 2002, to America's Edson Buddle, who just played his first national team match this week and scored twice to drive the point home, selection for your team means everything. It's the biggest "Hi, Mom" moment you could possibly have.
That's all well and good. Loads of deep meaning, pageantry and all that, eh? Right. Let's get right down to the fun of it. 10 reasons it's worth paying attention. Ten reasons you'll be high-fiving, back-slapping and hootin' n' hollerin'.
Reason No. 1: You're American. But, your grandparents may not have been.
We're the world's great melting pot. I'm American and Canadian. My maternal grandmother was Irish and my maternal grandfather was Swedish. While neither team made the World Cup this time around, it sure is fun when they do. Being in Milwaukee, I'm going make the safe assumption that a lot of you gentle readers are German. I know there's a bunch of Italians out there. I know a Brazilian who counts family members from Germany and Ireland. More chances to win! Seriously, though, as the world's game, there's a national identity for everyone to cling to.
Reason No. 2: It's in South Africa. They have vuvuzelas
This is the first World Cup hosted in Africa. When I watched the American team take on Australia in a tune-up Saturday morning, the remote stadium looked like it was delicately nestled on a nature preserve. It was gorgeous. And Africa has produced its fair share of great players. Eusebio in the 1960s was from Mozambique. Twenty years ago, Liberian George Weah stormed onto the scene. Kanu is still playing for Nigeria. Today, Michael Essien (Ghana), Samuel Eto'o (Cameroon) and Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast) are at the very peak of their trade. And there's no mistaking the spirit of the fans. It's a celebration of the entire continent. Oh, and that sound you'll have burrowing into your dreams after every match ... it's the vuvuzela, or vuvu, for short. A horn that will wash over everything. Embrace the vuvu.
Reason No. 3: Welcome to Upset City
Just like the NCAA Tournament in March, nothing is set in stone -- except for success on the part of the ever-brilliant Brazilians, the efficient Germans and the compactly defensive Italians. In 2002, the United States announced its presence by running the heavily favored Portuguese team all over the pitch. In 1966, North Korea beat Italy and was leading Portugal, 3-0, before capitulating to the brilliance of Eusebio. Oh, and North Korea is making its first appearance since. In 2002, Senegal, appearing in its first World Cup, defeated the champions from France. Anyone can win. This year in particular, the field gives us any number of teams that can and likely will turn the order of things on its ear.
Reason No. 4: Deliverance: Superstars, Rising stars, fading stars and one-last-shot stars
This stage demands performance if you're to be remembered. Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo is known around the world for his insane bag of tricks, buckets of goals and assortment of league titles. He's also known for hair gel, orange tans, diving and oozing an overall smarminess. He's great, there's no doubt, but is he set to be placed among the greatest?
Argentina's Lionel Messi just completed one of the greatest seasons ever. He's as close to must-see TV as the game has to offer. He's young, explosive and seems to play on his own planet. Thierry Henry has been one of the true talents of the last decade. He won the World Cup with France in 1998 as a 20-year-old. He set England alight for years. And after one of the most blatant handballs in history, just months ago, I'm pretty sure he'll never be allowed in Ireland again. Now, he's coming off the bench at 32 and eying a move to America's MLS for a final payday. The United States' Landon Donovan is good. Really, really good. This is his third World Cup and he's 28. He's hovered around the edges but is he now ready to lead? Is he ready to propel the United States to new heights? There are many, many more.
Spain has been one of the dominant teams of the last four years. They have always failed to truly take the step toward marking themselves as great at the highest level, but they won the European Championship in 2008 with style that dropped jaws. To a man, there aren't many players on their team you'd swap out for anyone else in the world. They are the ones to watch in 2010. The Showtime Los Angeles Lakers. The St. Louis Rams Greatest Show on Turf. Harvey's Wallbangers. You know that architect I mentioned earlier? They've got two of them, Xavi and Iniesta.
Reason No. 6: Twitter
This is the first World Cup fixed directly within the sights of Twitter. Journalists, bloggers, fans, observers, even players will have instant reaction around the world. There'll be an avalanche of news, on-site photos, reaction, satire, wit, snark, poignancy, despair and joy. Build a separate list for yourself and pay attention.
Reason No. 7: Office pools
Think outside the box. It's a month-long tournament with 32 teams. They split into groups of four, play each other once and the top two teams move into a single elimination round of 16. Sound familiar? The beauty? It's probably a much more level playing field than the NCAA brackets you lose $5 to every March. Go online, grab a bracket and pick away. It'll add some significance to that Japan vs. Cameroon match on Monday.
Reason No. 8: Pub life
Life in a football pub is just different. Maybe it's the time zone problem. Whatever the pub, and there are plenty in Milwaukee, you'll find a different breed of people. I remember sitting in The Highbury Pub in sunny Bay View a few years back when a group of seven Albanians came in to watch their national team play. Albanians. You're going to find there are people from every corner of the globe living in Milwaukee. You'll see the pride on their faces during their national anthem, you'll hear them yell in their native language and you'll likely see some pretty wonky outfits. Not much beats cramming into a packed house that feels about as cosmopolitan as Rick's in Casablanca.
Reason No. 9: The USA has a shot
This team is nothing to joke about anymore. The Americans are very strong going forward. They have surprising depth. They have some of the best goalkeepers in the world. There is a massive -- and growing -- population in Milwaukee that just eats them up. Sam's Army, the American Outlaws, whatever they call themselves, supporters of the American team are as planted in gonzo whacked-out super-happy-fun-time as any group of supporters in the world. They're crazy fun to be around and they have good reason to be as rowdy as they are. This team is ready and confident enough to make some noise. Whatever you have to do, get on board this train early. By the time it's rolling, you'll want on.
Reason No. 10: You know you want to ...
Be honest with yourself -- four years ago, when the last World Cup in Germany ended, did you say, "Wow, I wish I paid a little more attention to that?" In 2002, when the tournament was in Korea/Japan and the hours were impossible to keep track of, did you say, "Whew, I wish the hours were easier to keep track of?"
We're standing in front a month-long celebration of awesome. You're going to see achievement. You're going to see human error, passion getting the best of a cool head, goats being created in the same instant as heroes. You're going to see a 91-year old Nelson Mandela smiling down as his nation hosts the biggest tournament in the world. You're going to see one-time teammates, now playing with pride for their separate national teams, exchange jerseys at the end of a heated match. You're going to meet new people in the pubs and parties across Milwaukee. You're going to dance the samba, sing the Star Spangled Banner and lose your voice.
You're going to see someone ... any one of 32 young men lift the World Cup as confetti rains down on him and a group of grown man jump and dance around him just like the 8-year-olds who do nothing but run up and down the pitch every Saturday morning.