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July 30, 2014

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True pageantry of soccer can’t be contained to the small screen

The soccer tsunami that started swelling in the ’70s has finally crested and is ready to wash over the United States.

The world’s most popular game, the beautiful game, the game of Neymar and Messi and Ronaldo — oh, Ronaldo — will soon engulf our lives and engross our spirits. We will achieve fluency in the alphabet-soup acronyms of FIFA, UEFA and CONFACAF; we will belt out “You’ll Never Walk Alone” whenever and wherever Liverpool takes the pitch; and we will win bar bets knowing that Gerd Muller scored more goals in the World Cup than Pele (he did) and start bar fights arguing that Diego Maradona monkey-punched the ball into the goal in ’86 (he did).

That is, of course, if the past few weeks are any indication.

It’s just that they probably aren’t.

True, US viewership for the World Cup has been off the charts: 19 million for our team’s opening win over Ghana and 21.6 million for its closing loss to Belgium. And yes, sports books in Las Vegas, as reliable a barometer of public interest as anything, report handle this year is on pace to more than double what it was in 2010. And most definitely, there’s an excitement and enthusiasm about this year’s event that even surpasses 1994, when we hosted it.

Gee, that’s swell and all, but everyone needs to relax, take a deep breath (along with an officially scheduled water break) and get some perspective. As every sports bettor knows, there’s only thing more dangerous than an overreaction, and that’s an overreaction to an overreaction.

Which is exactly what we’re experiencing.

Never shop for groceries when you’re hungry, never profess undying love when you’re, well you know, and never make ebullient predictions when you are in the throes of patriotic euphoria. It can only end in remorse … or worse. Just ask that old shoe-banger, Nikita “We Will Bury You” Khrushchev.

According to a Harris poll conducted in January, soccer is probably the eighth most popular sport in the United States. Why probably? Because the poll only ranked the top seven and soccer didn’t make the cut. Even if the contact high we’ve all enjoyed this summer stays with us for a while, soccer will remain hard pressed to chase down college basketball (No. 7) and pro hockey (No. 6), never mind Major League Baseball (No. 2) and NFL football (No. 1 for 30 straight years).

Sorry to say, but soccer is going to be a second-class sports citizen in this country for a long time. And you know why? Not because there are too few goal-scorers or too many belly-floppers. Not because it’s too intellectual or not intellectual enough. And, with apologies to Ann Coulter, not because embracing it is tantamount to a surrender of American virtues and sensibilities.

It’s because of this: Soccer stinks on TV.

All sports, of course, are better in person, but if you want to make in America, you need to make it in America’s living rooms. Football and basketball are terrific on television, as is baseball, if for no other reason you can channel-surf around all the seed-spitting and jock-scratching.

But not so soccer. I’ve attended one game in my life, at Arsenal’s home stadium in North London, and it was an extraordinary, almost religious experience. Forget the singing, the chanting, and the sarcastic insults of opponents (“Who?” the crowd would yell in unison each and every time a visitor’s name was announced).

No, when it came to being there in person, the true advantage was the vantage. You see everything as a spectator, the enormity of the field, the constant scurrying and jockeying of the players, the buildups and assaults from various angles and formations. You appreciate and applaud the skill and precision of an impeccably timed give-and-go, even when such a threat ends up neutralized a few seconds and a few yards later.

TV degrades all that. For all the good it provides—multiple camera angles, slow motion replays, crowd and coach reactions—it’s not the same as sitting in the stands. When the play is live you get only a partial view of the action, as the camera chases the ball around like a spotlight, giving you little to no comprehension of what’s happening behind it or ahead of it. You can’t sense the height of those long diagonal passes or the ferocity—THUMP!—of a shot struck with the meaty part of the foot. It’s even hard to tell on the tube sometimes if one of those bend-it-like Beckham screamers is headed for the top corner of the net or the 10th row of the stands.

Television giveth and television taketh away.

Soccer is like the Eiffel Tower or the pyramids — the real ones, not the mini-me versions on Las Vegas Boulevard. They have to be seen up close and in person to appreciate. Pictures and videos can’t do them the justice they deserve.

The beauty of poetry, to paraphrase Robert Frost, is what gets lost in translation. The beauty of soccer, it would appear, is what gets lost in transmission. And until something happens to change that, the game in this country will forever remain the road less traveled. Well, except for four weeks every four years.

See you in Russia.

Roger Snow is a senior vice president with Bally Technologies

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