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News Flash: Soccer’s Huge

“World Cup Soccer: More Than a Game,” insisted the headline last Sunday over a Philadelphia Inquirer story that began, “It is, quite simply, the biggest event in the world.” If you think the World Cup isn’t, try to name an event that’s bigger. Feel free to wander through time–and biblical times aren’t off-limits.

“More than a game, soccer is a religion,” cried the headline on the front page of the Sunday Chicago Tribune. Tom Hundley, reporting from London, began, “Christianity, with more than 2 billion believers, ranks second among the major religions of the world. Soccer is first.”

There you have it. As the World Cup gets under way in Germany, American journalists are talking to their readers as if they were unbaptized children. We have Hundley going on about war-torn Angola “carrying the pride of an entire continent,” the “joyful samba” that’s the Brazilian style of play, and even the “sons of immigrants and the sons of suburban soccer moms” who form the up-and-coming American squad. We have Steven Stark and Harry Stark explaining in the Inquirer that one can see in the Italian team “some of the attributes that gave birth to the Renaissance” and in the English team “what helped give rise to the industrial revolution and the wasted cities it left behind.”

If soccer’s not the church you worship at, all this is ecstatic gibberish. Or hilarious overwriting. But let’s be kind. Let’s call it an attempt to cover soccer the way Tocqueville would have covered the World Series for a paper back in France. It’s a love of the game talking, and also maybe a fear of readers who think soccer unadorned is sort of silly and sort of a bore. The Tribune’s been wrestling with that idea at least since 1994, when syndicated columnist Tony Snow, now President Bush’s press secretary, called soccer “titanically dull” and Tribune columnist Jon Margolis, peering more deeply, said yes, “and so are they all, all of the games we love.” Which we love despite the frequent tedium because we forge such powerful emotional bonds with certain teams and players.

Those bonds are felt here in Chicago. If the Cubs and White Sox opened a series next Friday night with pennants on the line and at the same time Mexico’s national soccer team met Poland’s in a “friendly,” or exhibition game, at Soldier Field, the friendly would draw the bigger crowd. (A friendly between Mexico and Uruguay in 2003 outdrew the seventh game of the championship series at Wrigley Field.) Chicago gets soccer. It gets international competition. It gets the World Cup. Ethnic papers are going to overflow with savvy commentary. Yet some newspapers–the Tribune being a prime example–go on writing as if their readers had no clue. As if the sport were, say, cricket and the event the Ashes, a biennial competition that’s a very big deal in England and Australia and incomprehensible to everyone else.

As the 2002 World Cup drew near, the Tribune reviewed books on soccer in Holland and Brazil–countries, we were told, where “it is a religion and a national obsession.” We were informed that until soccer and Dutch kids burst out of old ruts in the 60s “Dutch soccer was as gray and dreary as a fall day in Amsterdam,” and that to understand the Brazilian game one must take into account Brazil’s colonial history.

The headline over this piece? “More than a game: As 2 new books make clear, soccer is serious stuff for most of the world.”

The “odd thing,” the Tribune editorial page reflected during that year’s competition, is that “so many Americans ignore an athletic event that so much of the world considers a matter of life and death….This country has never made the connection between the 6-year-olds out on a muddy field on Saturday mornings and the game’s elite players.”

I think the connection’s been made. I think Americans have a good enough grasp of soccer that a paper can get away with covering the World Cup as a sports event. When England met Argentina in recent cups they didn’t renew the war in the Falklands. When Angola plays Portugal Sunday the game won’t recapitulate the history of colonial Africa.

In the U.S. it’s been decided that baseball reveals the nation’s pastoral history, football its industrial history, and basketball its racial history. But each is a game, only a game. Soccer surely has something to tell us about our history as a nation of immigrants, but it too is a game.

In 1994 the World Cup was played before big crowds in American cities, which almost broke Phil Hersh’s heart. The Tribune’s beat writer for international sports, he’d written a long, brooding essay as the 1990 cup opened in Italy wondering whether the U.S. would ever adopt the sport. An Italian sociologist was quoted observing that soccer was “too English, too European” for Americans, a people who “want to stay far from memories of what they left in the old continent.”

Now it was 1994, and Americans were still unworthy. Hersh wished his beloved cup were being decided anywhere but the U.S., a country “ignorant of and indifferent to” the cup’s heritage. He intended to shut his eyes and pretend. “When the reverie ends, alas, I am going to be at Soldier Field in Chicago,” he mourned. “Then the sad truth will be immutable: the World Cup of soccer, the world’s most popular sports spectacle, actually is going to happen in the United States.”

Hersh refused to believe that Americans constituted a legitimate soccer public. It looks like the Tribune still doesn’t believe it.

News Bites

Last weekend’s Printers Row Book Fair inspired cultural critic Julia Keller to write a Tribune piece reflecting that “literary events” go on all year long in Chicago. The trouble is, “there’s no general directory, online or off,” that helps us find them. “One of the better spots,” she went on, is the back of the Tribune’s Sunday books section, even though “it in-cludes only paid ads.”

Last week’s Reader devoted two full pages of its Readings & Lectures listings to the Tribune-sponsored book fair and another page to unrelated literary events. All these listings were posted online. Being comprehensive, Readings & Lectures doesn’t shortchange literary events sponsored by competing newspapers with oblivious cultural critics.

My May 26 column misrepresented Sun-Times editor in chief John Barron by overabbreviating what he told me about his plans to replace retiring classical-music writer Wynne Delacoma. In addition to the “handful of freelancers” who’ll cover the beat Delacoma’s giving up this month, Barron intends to assign staff writers to it.

Chicago’s first gay weekly newspaper, Gay Chicago, began in the early 70s as a telephone information line set up by Ralph Paul Gernhardt, a broadcaster and college teacher. In 1976 he took the next step and shifted to print. (Today the first step would be a Web site, and there might never be a second step.) An important local media pioneer, Gernhardt died last weekend. Gay Chicago survives him.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Wilkins/AFP/Getty Images.