Every four years, as the global ritual of the World Cup begins, we go through our own national ritual: debating the place of soccer in our culture. More than any other sport, soccer polarizes this country. Many love it, and hope the World Cup will finally persuade others to as well. Others criticize it for being boring, too theatrical, unfair, even un-American.
This year's games have already garnered larger audiences than previous men's World Cups, with audiences treated to all that makes soccer both exhilarating and frustrating.
Watching the U.S. team come back against Slovenia with verve and rage was beautiful. Watching them score a goal disallowed by the referee was devastating. But, as Paul Kennedy noted recently, that referee may have accomplished one amazing thing, making "Americans care passionately about soccer." We joined the global confraternity: complaining about referees is one of the most venerable aspects of soccer fandom.
Every sport is a language. We learn - usually unconsciously - to watch it, to understand and experience its logic and drama.
What makes soccer special? The clock never stops, which makes for an intense and almost hypnotic - and, to advertisers chagrin, largely commercial-free - watching experience.
In the heat of the game, soccer players get little help from their coach on the sidelines and have to organize and respond themselves on the pitch. And, of course, in the low-scoring game of soccer, a referee's call, or a tiny mistake, can change everything.
Though it garners less attention and money than other sports, millions in the United States are already passionate about, and conversant in, the language of soccer. In fact, it may well be the most widely PLAYED sport in the country.
And the United States is the center of global women's soccer. The Women's World Cup win of 1999 garnered a larger audience than any men's soccer game ever has in this country, and today the best women's players in the world come here to play. The culture of soccer is here, and it's only going to grow.
So what's holding soccer back? In much of the world, soccer fandom is passionately political, and passed on from generation to generation. The first Algerian national team, for instance, was created in the midst of an anti-colonial revolution against France. In 1982, Algeria defeated Germany only to be locked out of the next stage of the tournament by collusion between Germany and Austria. Algerian players and fans carry a host of shared memories, grievances and hopes into each new tournament.
That remains less true in the United States, where many people had to learn this year about the 1950 win against England. Our team bears a different burden: the better they do in the World Cup, some argue, the more here people will like soccer.
There's some truth to that: I'd bet that the past week has gained some new adherents. But that's just one part of the expansion of the game in the United States. That expansion will come slowly, but steadily, as more and more people accumulate the experiences, knowledge and passion that makes for a robust fan culture.
Soccer certainly doesn't need the United States; it is doing fine, animating passions and bringing pleasure to billions worldwide. But the United States has a lot to gain from soccer. In a recent film called "Pelada," two U.S. soccer players travel the world playing pick-up games in Bolivian prisons and on Japanese roof-tops, with women in Iran and in the Andes, and with Jews and Arabs in Israel. What they discover is that in a world full of incomprehension, soccer is the closest thing to a universal language our world has.
Laurent Dubois is the Marcello Lotti Professor of Romance Studies and History at Duke University and the author of the newly published book "Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France." Readers may write him at Duke University, 213 Language Center, B 90257, Durham, N.C. 27708.