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The Whole World Is Watching

What's the score on soccer in the U.S.?

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It's been really hard for Americans to understand soccer. There isn't much trash talk, and there's no half-time show or commercial breaks. There is no punching or body slamming. There isn't a lot of gear or gadgets. No vehicles are involved. Sometimes, no goals are scored in a 90-minute game, even though players -- grown men, mind you -- roll around on the ground whimpering to get a free kick.

Still, this week Burlington-area soccer fans have been turning out in impressive numbers to watch the World Cup's first games. Walt Levering, owner of the Windjammer Restaurant & Upper Deck Pub in South Burlington and a soccer supporter, confirms that around 20 fans arrived at the sports-oriented pub around noon on Friday to watch the first match -- Germany vs. Costa Rica. There were also big afternoon crowds at Rí Rá on Church Street, Euro Gourmet on lower Main Street, and even Finnigan's Pub, where American football usually reigns. Does this mean soccer is finally coming of age in the U.S.?

Maybe.

Even though ESPN2 will be showing every single World Cup game this year, and though more Americans are playing and watching soccer, we still don't watch it that much. It's estimated that just 3.9 million of us tuned into the last World Cup final, compared to the 95 million who camped out in front of television sets during the last Super Bowl. However, now that we have a national team playing in the Cup, soccer has at least piqued our curiosity. (Perhaps not for long: The U.S. lost to the Czech Republic Monday; the next game, with Italy, is Saturday.)

Elsewhere around the globe, an important soccer game has the power to paralyze entire nations: Offices are closed, city centers are deserted, beaches are empty. In unison everyone turns to their TVs, riveted on the game, delirious with World Cup fever, and only when a goal occurs do cries erupt from every house in every neighborhood.

Clearly, this is more than just a game. If you're intrigued by the World Cup but still a little mystified by soccer culture, here's what a few local soccer players and fans have to say about it.

1. Soccer is about style.

The outcome is not always the most important thing. For results-oriented Americans, this is hard to get used to, but the idea is simple: It's not just what you do, but how you do it.

Matthew Spence, 42, an Englishman enjoying the World Cup at Rí Rá this week with some buddies, echoes the sentiment. "It's not just about winning; you want to see great football [that is, soccer]," Spence says. "You want to see a player bamboozle someone, make him look silly."

Dan Shepardson, 52, is a soccer coach with nine high school championships to his credit -- four at Northfield and five at Champlain Valley Union. He says of the Brazilians, who call their national sport "the beautiful game": "To them it's not enough to score goals; they've got to score beautiful goals. They like to embarrass the defender. They could just knock it in the net, but they'd rather do a 360, flip it up in the air, and do a bicycle kick. It fits their verve."

The game's ebb and flow, rarely interrupted by a goal, may seem monotonous to many Americans. But to aficionados, it's full of meaningful gestures and graceful movements. It's a fluid dance, displaying improvisation, creativity and, yes, style.

2. Soccer is about thinking.

Trevor "T.J." Mead, 24, comes from a Vermont family that's been into soccer for three generations. After playing for Shepardson at CVU until 2004, he did time with the semi-pro Vermont Voltage, and then went on to become captain of the University of Vermont team. Mead waxes eloquent when he talks about soccer, explaining the beautiful game this way: "The Brazilians have 11 guys thinking as one." It must be the samba music their fans play in the stands.

Mead also suggests that France's Zinedine Zidane, retiring this year, is the best player in the world, even though he doesn't lead in goals. "A good soccer player should think about what the guy he's passing to is going to do with the ball. But Zidane thinks so far in advance, he literally thinks four passes ahead," says Mead. "He's thinking on a higher plane. He takes a mental picture of the field and then knows how it's going to develop."

Watching the Poland vs. Ecuador game Friday afternoon at his sports bar, Levering says, "Soccer is beautiful to watch because every player is a quarterback."

Brooke Fairbanks, 25, is also taking in the game. She reiterates the "11 players, one mind" idea while recalling her best times playing for the UVM women's soccer team. She loved it when "everything clicked," Fairbanks says, and the players could anticipate what their teammates were going to do.

3. Soccer is about identity.

"With soccer, you are born into a team; you don't choose it," Levering says, explaining another way in which soccer is different from American sports. And it's true: Your soccer team is your town, your city or your country.

In Burlington's Old North End, Omer Alicic is building a community with the soccer club he founded, called FC (Football Club) Burlington. He coaches 40 players from diverse backgrounds -- Sudan, Congo, Bosnia, Vietnam -- though all are U.S. residents now. Alicic knows how tough it can be to grow up in a new country; he moved here from Bosnia in 1999, when he was 17. He began playing in his town's soccer club at age 7, and describes it as basically an extended family that ate, slept and traveled together.

Now Alicic is passionate about his work with FC Burlington and believes his club is making a difference in his players' lives. After organizing endless rides, lunches and team dinners, he says his reward came one day when his team was jogging past a group of adults on the sidewalk. As FC Burlington ran by, one of the bystanders said, "That's our team."

Ernesto Capello, 31, was seen this week wearing his national team's jersey and scarf. Now an assistant professor of Latin American history at UVM, he is originally from Quito, Ecuador. Capello explains why that country's 2-0 victory over Poland is such a big deal. Ecuadorians are proud of their little country's success -- the team's motto is "¡Si, se puede!" (Yes, it's possible!) According to Capello, the motto aptly describes Ecuador's people: optimistic and tenacious.

4. Soccer is for girls, too.

The sport is interesting with regard to gender. Thanks to America's sweethearts, Mia Hamm, Kristine Ally and their teammates, the U.S. has already won the World Cup -- twice, in 1991 and 1999 -- and a 2004 Olympic gold medal in soccer, too. The Queens, as they're known, inspired generations of American girls, and also set an example for girls in countries where soccer is strictly for men. In an email interview, Ally writes that she is particularly proud of this. She also points out that women rarely "take a dive," as many of the male players do. That's the roll-and-whine theatrics used to draw a call, even if there's no penalty.

David Eddy, 44, played soccer at UVM and now coaches a girls' team for the Far Post Soccer Club of Williston. His daughter wants to be the next Mia Hamm. Eddy has fond memories of watching the 1982 World Cup with his father on their farm when he was at UVM.

Though he loves the game, Eddy is realistic about soccer in the U.S. becoming a spectator sport equal to, say, baseball. American sports culture is just too different from that of soccer, he surmises. So "the World's Game" might never become ours. But maybe soccer can at least teach Americans how the rest of the world thinks. And that wouldn't be such a bad thing.

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