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Our Cup runneth over

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So are you soccer-mad yet? Or just pissed-off? 

World Cup 2006, the international sporting spectacle that enthralls everyone on earth but us Yanks, sprints toward its quadrennial conclusion at 1 p.m. Sunday with the championship match on ABC (WXYZ-TV Channel 7 in Detroit). And for the first time, American television has been force-feeding us with coverage in hopes we’ll care about which nation wins the thing.

ABC and its cable cousins, ESPN and ESPN2, have broadcast every one of the tournament’s 65 matches live from Germany (in HD, of course) since June 9. Not even when they were growing grass inside the Silverdome when the United States hosted the festival in 1994 has Copa Mundial received this much tube-time on our shores. For a viewing public that accords soccer far less affection than celebrity poker, that’s a lot of balls.

In one sense, it’s about time. No way could ESPN continue to proclaim itself “the worldwide leader in sports” and ignore the sporting orgy followed by 1 billion fans around the globe every four years. With our melting pot bubbly as ever and Hispanics, many of whom were weaned on fútbol, the fastest-growing sement of our population, this stem-to-stern coverage seems a natural evolution. Plus, the time difference in Germany has proved beneficial for ESPN: Many matches have aired here in late morning, usually a dead zone for an all-sports network. Any live event with international implications has to be preferable to SportsCenter reruns or darts competitions.

On the other foot, soccer matches eat big gobs of airtime, and, try as they might, ABC and ESPN have not adequately prepared us for such lengthy viewing commitments. Make no mistake: The game’s nonstop nature prohibits commercial breaks. You can’t sell it, you can’t show it.

Though it’s cool to see flame-haired Detroit native Alexi Lalas again (the former U.S. national team member is a studio analyst), the ABC-ESPN combine has managed to infuriate true U.S. soccer fans by anointing Dave O’Brien, a baseball broadcaster with little soccer background, as its lead World Cup play-by-play announcer. If they were going to just yank a sportscaster out of the hat, they at least could have pulled a good one.

Regardless, it may take generations, if ever, for this country to embrace soccer. Yes, millions of little kids play it, but they don’t watch it. Jim Rome, my favorite national sportsradio host, crystallized the problem so clearly that I was shocked I hadn’t realized it myself.

Americans don’t like soccer because … we suck at it.

Our finest U.S. players journeyed to the World Cup and had their sweatsocks handed to them by the Republic of Ghana. Ghana! An African nation most of us can’t find on a map can talk smack about making mighty America its bitch on the pitch. Even the poorest nations are light years ahead of us, since all you need to play is passion and a round object. Until we can catch up, we’ll stick to sports we invented, thank you.

I have actually enjoyed the World Cup matches I’ve watched. While soccer is typically decried as boring (final score: 1-0 or 0-0), it really is “the beautiful game.” It’s inspiring to see athletes and fans expressing such enthusiastic nationalism without gunfire or fistfights. If you haven’t tasted the Cup, try a little of the final on Sunday. You were afraid of sushi the first time too.

And speaking of sports: Of course, I have cable; it’s a job requirement. But a lot of people don’t, so let us give thanks to Channel 20 (now WMYD-TV) for picking up a limited slate of live, free, over-the-air Detroit Tigers telecasts during our most unexpectedly glorious baseball season in 22 years.

Like most die-hard Tigers slappies, I found it inconceivable that any major-market sports franchise would enter a season — not once, but twice — without a local broadcast TV deal in place. Isn’t that like, you know, a revenue stream? A natural marketing tool for ticket sales? “It was a sweat” getting the agreement done, acknowledges WMYD general manager Sarah Norat-Phillips, “and it’ll be a sweat again next year.” If you didn’t know better, you’d think Tigers brass was unfazed that their pigheadedness in securing a free-TV contract outraged legions of their loyal fans. Say it ain’t so, Mike!

Only nine games remain in TV20’s 17-game regular season package; the next is at 7 p.m., Thursday, July 13, against Kansas City. (For the schedule, visit tv20detroit.com.) The station longed to show more — a significant number of Tigers games won’t be shown on any TV outlet — but that was the best deal it could broker since cable’s Fox Sports Net (which produces the telecasts for WMYD) already held the broadcast cards.

“It’s great that the Tigers are playing so well,” Norat-Phillips says, “but the ratings would have been strong anyway.” They could always be stronger. Go get ’em, Tigers!

Jim Mcfarlin writes about the boob tube for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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