Early birds get the football
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

A weekly survey of what's happening at the busy intersection of sports and pop culture:

Short column this week, folks -- gotta get some sleep before the England-Nigeria match Wednesday morning.

So, without further ado, here are five reasons it's a good thing we have to watch World Cup soccer games at ungodly hours of the night and morning:

1. It's cool
Brad Friedel
Hard-working, determined Brad Friedel is the type of guy U.S. fans can get behind.
Who cares when or whether soccer will ever become popular in the United States? In my experience, American soccer fans have always kind of liked the idea that they were rare birds rooting for something most other folks neglected or disdained. It's like supporting a small rock band no one else knows about yet. You like the music, but what you really like is the idea that you're the only one who knows how good it is.

Watching soccer in the daytime makes you feel hip, but watching it in the middle of the night makes you feel like a bona fide hero. You're sitting there bleary-eyed, pounding back coffee and donut gems, and you pity the poor American football-loving mugs tucked away in their beds, because they have no idea what true fandom is. (By the way, I live on the West Coast. The games are on at 11:25 p.m., 2:25 a.m. and 4:25 a.m. out here; so, as you might imagine, I'm feeling amazingly cool right now.)

2. It's hard
My friend El says you have to be a bit of a masochist to really enjoy soccer, because so much of the game is waiting and working for a payoff that might never come. It's labor for its own sake, labor for the sake of something beautiful, not something productive. There's anguish and frustration in soccer, and the rewards are usually subtle, sometimes private and almost always long-delayed.

Watching such a game shouldn't be easy, it shouldn't come in the normal flow of your day, no one should set things up so you can turn the set on just as you're finishing dinner and sagging down into your overstuffed couch. You should have to suffer a little to really get close to the game. Soccer in the wee small hours of the morning is appropriately uncomfortable, and it's one of the few ways United States fans are more connected to the game than most of their international counterparts right now.

3. You're part of something global
Brad Friedel
A Danish fan helps out a French fan with his drumming before their two countries clashed Tuesday.
Screw the tape-delayed internationalism of recent Olympic broadcasts, here's to watching the games in real-time, here's to seeing what happens at the same moment a fan in Japan or Korea does. Allen Ginsberg used to write Vietnam-era poems about how the world might be a more peaceful, humane place if folks in Kansas and Saigon could imagine they were standing side-by-side, experiencing things simultaneously. There's a lot of nationalistic rivalry and whatnot in World Cup, sure, but there's a strange, intoxicating sense of being connected to people and places all over the world, too.

4. That not-quite-awake, not-quite-asleep dream-state thing
There are moments when the eyes flicker, and I'm listening to Seamus Malin's voice, and he's starting to narrate my dreams a little, and there are other times when I'm staring at the screen, but I've lost my focus, and everything is shapes and colors and shades of light. I fight these moments, but I actually love them when they happen. It's the magic hour; I feel like I'm in a Terrence Malick movie or something, like sights and sounds are amplified to this perfect lyrical pitch, and the game is an exercise in bliss.

5. Daughter time
This one's personal. My little one is just 6 months old, and she doesn't sleep through the night; so she and I are watching a lot of World Cup together. She looks at the glow from the TV, looks up at me, then starts looking at her toes and chewing on her fingers. She's really just up, because she wants to practice rolling over and sitting up and stuff, but I tell her all about the game anyway. Eventually, she falls back asleep, and I stare at her sweet face and whisper a little play-by-play. It's great. It feels like she and I are part of a secret club. I wish the tournament would last for months.

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column, which will appear every Wednesday on Page 2. You can e-mail him at neel@sportsjones.com.



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