When World Cup fever strikes, it takes hold deeply. It is a month of such incredible joy and tragedy, triumph and disaster--it simply can't be measured against anything but the Olympics.
However, as much as I love it, the World Cup also brings with it some baggage. Here are the five very best and very worst things about the World Cup. Starting with the bad news first.
The neophyte fans. Soccer in America has exploded. And I welcome the explosion. But the knowledge base hasn't quite kept up with the growth. So there are a lot--and I mean a LOT--of fans with just enough information to make them dangerous.
I try not to roll my eyes. I try not to point out reality from beyond the last report on ESPN. I try not to suggest that perhaps Gus Johnson isn't the soccer expert they insist he is. But it is not easy. And it is not fun.
The flopping. Believe it or not, soccer fans hate the fake flopping. But, I just saw Dwayne Wade fake being hit in the face in an NBA finals game. And I've seen LeBron do it. And Derek Jeter. And I could go on.
Truth is that athletes go for whatever advantage they can get. Soccer has clamped down on it, but since there are Italians and Argentines in the tournament, don't expect to see it stop any time soon.
The villainy. Every World Cup has the bad guys. The evil ones that don't get caught. Or that bring the game into disrepute with cynical fouls or other unsavory behavior.
There's sure to be some at this World Cup, just like all the others. I already know they'll frustrate me beyond belief--and I hate them for it. In advance.
The force-feeding of local culture. Ever want to be bombarded beyond reason with Brazilian culture? Get ready. I'm sure we'll be pounded to death with it like we were in South Africa.
A little local flavor? I'm all for it. Understanding the local diet? Um...isn't there a highlight or a match I could enjoy? Do I HAVE to watch Julie Foudy doing ANYTHING, much less learning how people in Rio de Janiero chew things?
The Group Of Death. On the day of the draw, gloom and doom resonated throughout the US fan base. Ghana, Portugal, and Germany. Arguably the toughest group of the draw. Almost universally, it was predicted that the US wouldn't make it out of the group stage.
Let's face it. The draw sucks. Things do not look easy.
Oh, but don't worry. There are plenty of things to love about the World Cup, too.
The upsets. The World Cup, like the NCAA basketball tournament, is living proof that on one day any team can beat another. No one knows what shockers the next World Cup holds, but we know one thing.
A slew of mindbending, unthinkable results await us all.
The final group stage matches. The mathematics. The timing of all the group matches finishing at the same time. The last second goals sending teams into the knockout round--a la Landon Donovan in 2010--is an on-the-run thrill ride as results from the various matches flow in.
Teams needing to advance throw themselves into an all out attack. Teams needing to draw just bunker in and absorb the attack. Legs tire at the end of a three match group stage. The unpredictable becomes commonplace.
Then, the whole thing just gets amped up during the knockout rounds.
The breakout stars. At some point during the World Cup, some coach is going to turn to some player and hope for some inspiration. Maybe he's seen something in practice. Maybe the kid is just hitting form. Or, maybe the player is a veteran who rises to the occasion.
Whoever they are, their moment on the world stage, no matter how fleeting, can make them national heroes and global idols in mere days.
The defining moments. Tardelli running and grabbing his badge. Pele jumping into his teammates' arms. Geoff Hurst scoring against Germany. Maradona cutting England to ribbons.
The World Cup was made for big moments. And it offers up a solid month of them.
Yes, The Group Of Death. If the US wants to be a real live, true blue, genuine soccer nation, it's time to put our big boy pants on and act like it.
Nobody ever said the World Cup was supposed to be easy or fair. Getting a bad draw is part of the process. Will it be easy to get out of the group stage? No. Is it impossible? Far from it.
Ghana is the World Cup. Win, and things get possible. Lose, and you have a mountain to climb. They are good and fast and big, but they are getting a little older with their key players. A tossup.
Portugal is showing signs of weakness, and Ronaldo isn't 100%. They're also getting longer in the tooth. A draw would be an outstanding result.
Germany would be the last match, and if they've qualified already they've always rested key players. Which could be an opening for the US.
Pollyanna? Maybe. But within the realm of possibility. I don't know about you, but I'm going to enjoy the Group Of Death till it kills me.
If you're one of those fans who only watches soccer during the World Cup, welcome back. If you're just learning the sport, be patient. It's not baseball or football. And if you're one of those with the fever already coursing through your veins, get ready.
It's going to be one hot summer in Brazil.