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Original Issue

Listen Up, Sports Fans!

There is much to learn from the laws of soccer about sports—as well as life

Years ago I casually told my friend Robert Fulghum, "All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten." Well, I hope Bob didn't take me seriously, for the truth is, all I really, really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be, I learned while watching World Cup soccer, the sport that most closely resembles real life.

Like society, soccer doesn't merely have rules, it has laws: "The Laws of the Game." Consequently, players aren't just whistled for flagrant violations, they are booked, like criminals. In soccer, as in life, play is continuous—the clock doesn't stop—and nobody except the referee knows for certain when the final whistle will sound. Which is as it should be. God does not give two-minute warnings.

It stands to reason, then, that the world can draw lessons from the World Cup. I, for one, have been comforted this summer to discover that all of us—Americans, Colombians and Italians alike—have bad-hair days. I have learned that feigning intense physical discomfort is a universal human instinct—and not confined to me taking sick days. And I am reminded that deliberate misuse of one's hands is a bookable offense, whether you're Packie Bonner or Bobby Packwood, the U.S. senator who may soon be sent off. Now if only the American sports world would heed the example of World Cup soccer, which casts a lamp of enlightenment on so many areas. To wit:

Ejections. If a player is ejected in soccer, he cannot be replaced on the pitch. Are you listening, David Stern? Dennis Rodman of the San Antonio Spurs was thumbed from five NBA games last season. Salads are not tossed this often. If you really want to curb violence, make the Spurs play four-on-five the next time Rodman half-nelsons a guard.

Announcers. Andres Cantor and his impassioned cries of "Goooooooaaaaaaal! Goooooooaaaaaaal!" notwithstanding, the best soccer announcers tend to be British and exhibit at least a nodding acquaintance with the English language. In contrast, dimwit American sportscasters like to use plate as a verb, as in "Canseco's single plated Will Clark." Even third-grade English students can tell you: In baseball, plate should only be used as a noun. As in, "Don Zimmer has a plate in his head."

Courtesy. You've heard of throw-ins, but starting midfielder Stefan Effenberg of Germany was thrown out of the U.S. two weeks ago, sent back to Deutschland by team officials for gesturing obscenely to the crowd in Dallas. And yet baseball players gesture obscenely to the crowd with every minor "readjustment" at the plate. I say toss 'em, then book 'em, then send 'em to Germany.

Hands. If citizens of the world were not allowed to use their hands, 1) hockey fights would be reduced to grown men gumming each other silly, and 2) a lot of Italians would be unable to speak. Dick Vitale is of Italian descent. Think about it.

Continuous play. Undoubtedly the most beautiful aspect of what Pelè calls "the beautiful game," continuous play means no commercials. It forces a television network to say, "We have no idea how we'll pay our bills, but let's worry about that later." And that is the American way. No wonder MasterCard is a primary Cup sponsor.

All of these are small points, and soccer is capable of teaching so much more. In the year since I became an international soccer zealot, the game has done nothing less than make sense of my life. When Bono sings, "In the name of United.../In the name of Georgic Best..." over the opening credits of In the Name of the Father, I can now nod knowingly at the lyric. (It refers to Manchester United and its great Irish striker!) When Daniel Day-Lewis broods in his prison cell in that film, I smugly admire the Benfica pennant on a wall behind him. (The Portuguese powerhouse!) I own a compact disc by the English singer Morrissey called Your Arsenal, which I now recognize as a reference to my Arsenal, the English Premier League team I have adopted as my own. A rudimentary knowledge of soccer has grouted gaps in the movies that I see, in the records that I play, in the books that I read. And so, soccer has enriched my daily existence.

Soccer has taught me patience, for the game is often like watching grass grow indoors. In Vienna this spring, I stayed up half the night to watch Arsenal draw "nil-nil" at Turin in a sensationally stupefying European Cup Winners' Cup quarterfinal, a match of epic boredom shown tape-delayed on TV. The final whistle was followed by a long interval of stunned silence from the broadcast booth. "Well," the English announcer finally said, "if that was entertainment, then I'm Michael Jackson."

Since then, I have watched dozens of matches on the nether-channels of cable, including one late-night tilt between Flamengo and Botafogo. Where is Flamengo? I haven't a clue. Joey Botafogo? It makes no difference. Soccer has taught me unconditional love.