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U.S. finally catches World Cup fever

By Steve Rushin, Special to CNN
  • Steve Rushin is thrilled that more people are caring about soccer
  • He says more and more Americans are succumbing to Cup fever
  • The game will be difficult to eradicate, Rushin writes

Editor's note: Steve Rushin, a former Sports Illustrated writer, is the author of a new novel, "The Pint Man," published by Doubleday. Visit his website at or follow him on Twitter.

Hartford, Connecticut (CNN) -- I knew every last American had been touched by the World Cup when my father-in-law told me how much he enjoyed "the first few innings" of the Brazil-Ivory Coast match.

Needless to say, he's just discovering soccer. He still thinks a red card is what communists keep in their wallets. And yet, like so many of his countrymen, he's suddenly been laid low by World Cup fever, whose symptoms include a dull headache and a stiff neck, the result -- in my case -- of practicing headers in the driveway. ("Practicing them for what?" my wife inquired. But you never know when that call-up will come for the U-50 national team.)

At long last, soccer ignorami in this country are becoming part of the international community. For most of this past week, I (an American citizen) felt schadenfreude (a German word for "joy in the misery of others") at the spectacular implosion of Les Bleus (the French national team, which mutinied against its own coach while crapping out of the tournament). That's three countries in a single emotion, the kind of geopolitical awakening most of us only get in America when walking into an International House of Pancakes.

And so I can't stop singing that song from Nike's ubiquitous World Cup commercial, in which Italian lounge singer Bobby Solo serenades Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro with a chorus -- "Che Cannavaro, Che Capitano" -- that is as insidiously unshakeable as the World Cup itself.

I interviewed Cannavaro in Milan a dozen years ago and have followed and occasionally covered international soccer for two decades. In America, I sometimes act like one of those bores who saw the Beatles in Hamburg before they made it big: that guy who feels smugly superior to the mass of fans who later fill the bandwagon.

Video: Donovan: I'm happy about victory

This kind of smugness has its advantages. A fellow school parent asked me yesterday: "What's the name of that guy who coaches Argentina?" When I said, "Diego Maradona," she replied: "How do you know all this stuff?"

Maradona is only the greatest soccer player of all time and one of Earth's most famous inhabitants, but I kept those secrets to myself, letting her think I'm a soccer sophisticate and repository of the game's most obscure trivia.

I'm just happy that more people care, that the next time my father-in-law hears the name Donovan, he'll think of the American whose 91st-minute goal sent the U.S. to the knockout stages of the 2010 World Cup, not the Englishman whose song "Mellow Yellow" went to No. 2 in the charts in 1966. Someday, when my father-in-law thinks of 1966 as the year that England last won the World Cup, the tournament will have finally realized its manifest destiny. It will truly have conquered the world.

It's almost there now. More and more Americans are succumbing. You may have noticed your fellow cubicle jockeys sounding like one of those English soccer announcers currently on loan to ESPN: decrying "cynical" tackles, praising "beautifully weighted" passes and pronouncing themselves, at the water cooler, too "knackered" to work.

iReport: Do you have World Cup mania?

Last Sunday, I saw a brand-new Manchester United license plate frame on a car in our church parking lot. The next day, an 8-year-old saw my toddler in an English soccer jersey at the park and yelled, correctly: "He's got an Arsenal shirt on!" These are hopeful signs. In much of America, in the month it is named for, the June bug abruptly appears, reaches maturity in July and then quickly dies off. Typically, the World Cup does the same.

But this time, I think soccer, as grass-dwelling pests go, will be harder to eradicate. I know the game will be eating my lawn for years to come.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steve Rushin.