World Cup fuels love-hate relationship with soccer

col-tbuzz (2)It’s safe to say I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with soccer. It always flairs up during the World Cup, which, like elections, only come every four years – thankfully.

As a wise-guy sports columnist for 20 years, I made fun of soccer as a way of generating debate with my readers. Soccer was a great lightning rod subject because of the passion among the pros and the cons. Soccer is going to take over the world, said the pros. Soccer is kickball without bases, countered the cons. I sided with the cons.

Then along came this 7-pound, 8-ounce bundle of life-changing love that my wife and I named Riley. Call it karma, justice or the soccer gods, but she showed a high proficiency with her feet at an early age and, of course, became a soccer player. I’ve spent a good deal of the past five years at the soccer field, cheering like a soccer hooligan and bringing orange slices. My punishment is hearing from all the coaches and parents about how I “used” to hate soccer.

That’s true, but it’s not like I’ve been converted to the soccer religion, which reaches a fevered pitch during the World Cup. Let’s face it; if you’re kid was a star tiddlywinks star, you’d become a fruit-slicing tiddlywinks hooligan. I will say that I have gained an appreciation for the game, but I stand by many of the criticisms I had for the sport – many of which also rear their heads this time of year.

For starters, FIFA is one of the most corrupt organizations on the planet, ranking somewhere between the mob and Congress in terms of ethics. Too many examples to list here, but there are reports of match-fixing, bribery and voter-buying – and those all came on Friday. The fact that FIFA will soak up all the proceeds from this one-month futbol fest and leave Brazil to clean up the mess shows a level of greed that would even make the NFL’s concussion lawyers feel guilty. A borderline third-world country builds soccer stadiums and infrastructure it can’t afford to host a billion-dollar enterprise amid reports of bribery charges in awarding the World Cup to Qatar.

But those are just humanitarian concerns; let’s get to the only part that really matters – the games. First there’s a ridiculous blind draw that puts the US in “the group of death” with Germany, Portugal and Ghana. Imagine if the Big Dance paired the brackets like that, with all the top-seeded teams in one regional. If FIFA has a system for selecting the teams, why not have one for pairing the brackets and making it a balanced tournament?

But let’s get to the field. Thursday’s opener between host Brazil and Croatia showed what I still hate about soccer – floppers. Every four years it becomes a hot issue and every four years it happens again. The hard-fought match, the first of the month-long tourney, was decided by a Brazilian player acting like he’d been shot by a taser gun in the box. Penalty kick, goal, ballgame. Yes, Brazil went on to tack on an insurance goal late but if you watched the match you know it was over the second the yellow card came out.

I can understand the tradition and history and blah, blah, blah, but this is the 21st century. Everyone around the world is watching instant replays and seeing the flop … except for the officials. It happens every World Cup – goals that weren’t really goals, fouls that weren’t really fouls, and eventually wins that weren’t really wins. It’s called instant replay – use it.

We can look forward to another month of controversial calls, some of them that make you question the validity of the officiating. And once pool play is over, you can count on seeing the stupidest tiebreaker in all of sports – the shootout. What if the NBA broke ties with a free-throw shooting contest, or MLB bypassed extra innings for a home-run derby. You can’t change the rules of the game at the end; let them play it out in sudden death. Someone will get tired and someone will score. Ballgame.

So the list of things I hate about soccer are still around; it’s just a lot shorter than it used to be.

With that said, rest assured that I will be rooting for the US on Monday night and throughout the “Legion of Doom.” Like most Americans, I pull for the red, white and blue in whatever sport we do. And if we can’t beat them in soccer, maybe we can get them in tiddlywinks. I’ll bring the orange slices.

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