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Seth Vertelney: Be nice to the soccer newbies this month

There will be plenty of soccer novices taking an interest in the sport this month. Welcome them with open arms.

Every four years, they come out.

The World Cup used to be the talk of every country but ours, but that’s no longer the case. From the time Brazil kicks off against Croatia on Thursday until the trophy is lifted one month later, much of the United States will have soccer fever.

The affliction won’t just affect those of us wondering what formation Jurgen Klinsmann will play against Ghana, but those wondering who Jurgen Klinsmann is, what a formation means and why Ghana even has a soccer team.

Please be nice to them.

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It may be somewhat convenient to scoff at those taking a newfound interest in the World Cup over the next month, knowing that by the time NFL training camps open, soccer will be a distant memory for most of them.

But here’s the thing: If those of us who religiously follow soccer give them some context around the World Cup, engage them, answer their questions patiently and generally make them not feel like ignoramuses, they may yet be converted — or at the very least feel welcomed.
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Let’s face it: This soccer thing isn’t the most accessible for your average American sports fan.

NFL teams aren’t in four competitions at the same time, nor do they have to worry about players periodically leaving to play for their national teams. It’s easy to follow American sports: one team, one competition, one trophy.

For some, even the idea of an international competition — so simple to us — may cause confusion. I’ve heard of Manchester United, so why aren’t they playing in the World Cup?

It’s probably easy to recoil at such an inquiry, but I urge all of you: Just answer, be patient and elucidate. Speak slowly. Keep eye contact. Nod. Smile.

Very good.

Explain the rules as best you can. Describe the difference between club and international soccer, how teams qualify for the World Cup, and the format of the tournament itself.

You may even get the most dreaded question of them all. In fact, you probably will.

How come soccer isn’t more popular in America?

Take a deep breath. Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s going to be OK.

Now, please understand they’re only asking because it’s the first thing that comes to mind when they watch soccer. Why has it been four years since the last time I did this?

Their inquiry is pretty obvious and perfectly natural when you think about it. I won’t tell you how to answer, because there are a million ways to do so. Just give it your best shot.

Because there’s another stereotype about us soccer aficionados out there, one that makes us cringe even more than that dreaded question: we’re snobs.

Perhaps it’s just the inherent other-ness of our sport, one that seems to be popular everywhere but here. Soccer is high fashion, a ritzy Parisian promenade, a sport for intellectuals and, of course, socialists.

Whether it’s deserved or not, we must acknowledge our reputation, and then do whatever we can to dispel it.

Because here’s the thing: Those who really aren’t interested won’t be watching. You won’t encounter them while you watch the games, because they’ll be at the zoo, or at the theater, or pretty much anywhere but in front of a television.

Most anybody watching the World Cup will have at least a cursory interest in what’s happening. We were all in their position once, until that one game, one tournament or one moment converted us into soccer fans for life.

For many, it was Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria in 2010. That’s the beauty of a World Cup — the whole nation is watching. If something special happens, we’ll all know about it, soccer fan or not. There’s no better way to grow the game.

This is our chance. Let’s not blow it.

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