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Disinterest in soccer not such an awful flaw

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BY ONE ESTIMATE, 37 billion people, many hundreds of them in the United States, will watch the World Cup soccer games in France.

Except in odd pockets and among kids, soccer has never caught on in the United States, despite the best efforts of the same earnest, sincere one-worlders who keep trying to foist the metric system on us.Even though the opening round match of the World Cup was between drunken fans and French riot police - which, typical for the sport, ended in a draw - Americans' disinterest in soccer is treated as a national character flaw.

Soccer, it is alleged, is too low scoring for Americans and appreciation of its artistry too demanding for our short attention spans. There are no TV breaks to satisfy our insatiable commercialism and an insufficient amount of complex gear to market to the fans.

Soccer is no lower scoring than hockey. As for our short attention spans, this is a nation that is mesmerized by televised golf, perhaps the only sport that takes longer to watch than it does to play. The problem with televised soccer is not lack of commercial timeouts but lack of an audience. Build an audience and the commercials will come.

Soccer fans make much of the game's simplicity. "Only shorts and a ball," they say. That's also true of basketball, which, moreover, is played with fewer people and no goalies.

International soccer might be the only sport where Dennis Rodman would be a wallflower, such is its tolerance for oafish conduct, drinking, carousing and womanizing - hey, it's a tense game and a player's got to relax. The Europeans consider us puritanical anyway; in sports, they're correct.

The 1986 World Cup final was won by a player who flagrantly cheated. He later claimed it was "the hand of God" that punched the ball into the goal but slo-mo replays showed it was the grubby fist of Diego Maradona.

In sports, and occasionally in foreign policy, the United States is accused of having a lofty disregard for the rest of the planet. Our definition of world, as in "World Series," is pretty much confined to ourselves and Canada.

We are only quadrennially interested in the Olympic sports, and, despite network TV's hysterical attempts to fan the flames of jingoism, we don't riot in the streets after a loss. Our sports riots are confined to the lesser land grant colleges, and even there for only one or two nights in the spring. Unlike British soccer fans, Americans would never riot before the game.

As much as American sports fans dislike free agency and arrogant players, we are not prepared - at least not yet - to go as far as some nations where failed players on the national soccer team are shot, jailed or banished.

The general fanaticism and incompetence that surrounds international soccer is because so many of the programs are government-controlled, usually by an entity known as the "Ministry of Sports and Culture," a patronage haven for hacks and payrollers. The mental candlepower of these ministries makes the major league baseball owners look like the MIT physics faculty.

Still, soccer's day may yet come in the United States. Our national team is ranked 11th, not bad. If it were college football, we would be an Auburn or UCLA. And "soccer mom" has entered the political lexicon to describe a particular type of voter. And soccer is the national organized sport for children.

Instead of worrying about black helicopters, a militia paranoid visiting the nation's capital, or any other city, on a weekend should be worrying about the hordes of uniformed kids who take over the suburbs on Saturdays. Not that there's anything sinister there, but what great cover for a general uprising. The kids could be getting their orders through the bar codes on their Fruit Rollups.

The World Cup's TV ratings could tell much about our nation's future direction.