A World Cup Lover, Hater Face Off

Michele Norris talks to Andres Martinez of the New America Foundation, who can't get enough of the World Cup; and Jon Friedman, Media Web columnist for Market Watch, who hates soccer.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

When it comes to the World Cup, people often fall into two distinct categories. There are the people whose lives revolve around the World Cup, they wake up to it, watch it whenever possible, check the action all day long on their cell phones and they can't seem to participate in any kind of civil discourse without sliding into a conversation about Ronaldo, Jose, Yaya(ph), Roo(ph) or Drogba. We'll call them the Cupaccinos.

Then there are the people whose take on the World Cup is essentially soccer, schnocker. They could care less about the sport, and they can't understand what all this fuss is all about. We'll call them the Cupaccinots.

Well, to settle this once and for all, we're joined by two people with strong opinions on this issue. Jon Friedman is a media Web columnist for the website Market Watch. He wrote a column called "Why I Hate the World Cup" - his opinion is pretty obvious. In the other corner, we have Andres Martinez with the New America Foundation. Welcome to both of you.

BLOCK: Hello.

BLOCK: Hello.

NORRIS: Now, I'm going to give you both about 30 seconds to make your opening argument, and Mr. Martinez, you're here in the studio. I'm going to begin with you. Why is this a moment that's worth embracing?

BLOCK: Well, the World Cup only happens once every four years. It brings together 32 countries that have - you know, have made it to the World Cup out of the 200 or so that tried. It's the world's most popular sport. It's the one time when sport and nationalism collide in a way that Americans don't quite understand because we haven't had the soccer craze for long. But it's - we're getting into it, and it's been very exciting to watch.

NORRIS: Jon Friedman, you have 30 seconds. Your opening argument.

BLOCK: I can appreciate all those points except for one. I'll make mine myself now. It's dull. I'm sorry, watching people play soccer is dull because not much happens except people running around, kicking the ball around. I know there's a strategy, and there's execution, and there's a point to this, but I don't see it.

NORRIS: Oh, wow, well, that was a truncated 15 seconds. You did that pretty well. Time then for rebuttal. Mr. Martinez?

BLOCK: Well, you know, dullness is in the eye of the beholder. To say that it's a dull sport is to accuse a majority of America's youth of wasting their time. It's now the most popular sport at the youth level in the United States.

And it's also to say that the rest of the world is wasting its time. I mean, the whole world has stopped to watch this one event. They stop to watch the European Champions League, you know, every year, as well.

You know, culturally, if you didn't grow up watching it, I find baseball very boring. So it's kind of in the eye of the beholder. But the World Cup makes Americans very uneasy because every four years, we discover that we've been playing solitaire in the school grounds. And we compensate by calling the champions of our sports the world champions.

So we have a World Series for baseball. Nobody wants to play our game. I mean, this goes back to sort of classic American unilateralism and exceptionalism. We don't play, you know, by others' rules, and we don't want to play the games that others play. That's starting to change. And it's interesting that soccer is the one form of global pop culture that isn't dominated by the U.S.

NORRIS: Now Jon Friedman, does he have a point? There are all kinds of seven-, eight- and nine-year-olds around this country who grew up playing soccer, more so than baseball right now. Is it time for Americans to open their arms wide to soccer?

BLOCK: I wish I could. I'd love to enjoy soccer like he does and say it's the greatest sport of all time but in terms of watching something as a visual on television, I find it lacking compared to say, the ice hockey finals recently or the basketball finals going on now. Those to me are much more exciting spectacles.

BLOCK: You know, the day is going to come when the U.S. is going to be in the top tier. It's just simply...

BLOCK: How many years away do you think we are right now? How many years away do you think the U.S. is?

BLOCK: A dozen years. I mean, I think it's just a sheer number of - we're like the China of soccer. We have, you know, the vast numbers of, you know, people. And one of things that's going to be very tragic to the rest of the world is that the U.S. is going to be, you know, a semi-finalist in of these World Cups soon in a country where we don't really care that much about it.

NORRIS: Spoken like a man from a think-tank.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: I'm going to ask both of you to do something, whether you like the World Cup or not. I want you to pick a team. Who's going to win?

BLOCK: Spain. I think Spain has the best chance.

BLOCK: Oh, darn, I was going to say Spain.

NORRIS: Oh, agreement.

BLOCK: But I'd hate to agree with Jon on anything.

BLOCK: Well, it won't be America. We can agree on that, too. But from what I've heard and seen - although Germany is playing very well so far. I've noticed that, too. Germany is kind of a dark horse here.

NORRIS: We're going to say goodbye, but Jon, I did notice something. For someone who hates the World Cup, you apparently have been watching.

BLOCK: I know.

BLOCK: Well, I'm trying to fit in.

BLOCK: Maybe I'll have to watch one of the Lakers games.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: There you go. Andres, Jon, thank you very much.

BLOCK: Thank you.

BLOCK: Thank you.

NORRIS: Andres Martinez is with the New America Foundation, and Jon Friedman is a senior columnist with Market Watch in New York.

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