Looking on from the outside yet again, the United States should take solace in knowing that it has gained a secret weapon in its long, slow campaign to reach the World Cup final. The element in question will work subliminally to lure young, aspiring football and basketball and baseball players into the Beautiful Game.
It's not booming TV ratings or fatter contracts in the MLS. Those will follow rather than lead the way. Instead, the culture-bending game-changer is Dancing with the Stars.
Thanks to Emmitt Smith, Jerry Rice, Warren Sapp, Jason Taylor and all the other members of the traditional jock world who have suited up for a Foxtrot, the American definition of manhood has expanded. It gained some breathing room.
|Dancing superstars and Pro Football Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith made it cool to be smooth. (Getty Images)|
But soccer requires something extra -- unapologetic vanity, preening on the order of Alex Rodriguez staring at himself in a mirror for a magazine shoot. Remember how disgusted baseball fans felt when they saw that layout? An iconic futbol player could have pulled it off.
In the States, we have the recent-vintage term "metrosexual" to describe such displays. The rest of the world thinks we're misspelling Maradona.
Old-timers in track and field might chime in here and say that American disdain for endurance training holds us back more than anything else. Kids don't walk to school these days, they like to say. They don't have to get up to change the TV channel. They can't run marathons with Kenyans, and they can't cover the pitch with Ghanaians.
Other usual suspects include apathy about fundamental skills and limited interest in international competition. Anyone who has watched the two World Baseball Classics noted the superior attention to detail among the Japanese, Cuban and South Korean teams. In this unique global showdown involving its national pastime, the U.S. has yet to finish higher than fourth.
Both times, the Americans created the impression that they (a) didn't relish the finer points of the game and (b) approached the tournament as a secondary consideration. But they also -- and there's no other way to put this -- didn't look as pretty on the diamond as the Japanese champs. They looked bigger and stronger but not half as stylish.
The Winter Olympics in Vancouver brought a watershed moment for this country. Not only did Evan Lysacek win the first figure skating gold medal by an American man in 22 years, he beat a Russian who then accused him of being too artistic.
It was like watching an American win a pastry-baking contest, then hear the French runner-up whine: "But my tart was microwaveable. His took an hour to prepare."
Through ballet and figure-skating, Russians have always expressed masculinity and artistry as if they were inseparable. But Evgeni Plushenko was no proper heir to Baryshnikov. He was, to put it kindly, a hack. He and his quad mirrored too many American baseball stars over the past decade -- big bat, marginal glove, mediocre arm, no speed, no eye at the plate. A one-tool player.
Lysacek delivered everything but the home run. Then he left Vancouver and went where no male figure skater had gone before: He competed in Dancing with the Stars. He followed the football players there.
Lysacek's win in Vancouver actually represented a comeback for the American men. They used to own the singles skating event. But in the late '80s, U.S. male skaters fell into a rut. At about the same time, most NBA players decided that setting screens was for wimps. They wanted to take their guy, not outmaneuver him, forgetting that the most creative people in the world (Magic, Doc, Bird, Michael, Michelangelo) learn how to follow the rules precisely, before they start taking liberties with them. Most of them were Plushenkos in sneakers, minus the quad.
Was there a connection, a strain of insecurity that infected all athletes and kept them repressed? Or was everybody just trying to be like Mike, yielding a bunch of Stepford Jordans, devoid of genuine flair?
Rice defied some of that convention. Even as he delivered devastating blocks, he played with a lyricism that none of his peers could match. He kept his jerseys perfectly fitted, changing them at halftime if they got too dirty, and reinvented his hairstyle almost every year. At a time when more and more receivers gained attitude, Rice had style. He didn't do contrived celebrations in the end zone. He choreographed the rest of his game instead.
Then he led the way to Dancing with the Stars, throwing a block for his NFL colleagues. Emmitt Smith followed a year later. They're both going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame next month. Rice says that more people recognize him from his runner-up finish on DWTS than from his days as a 49er.
He also said recently that he would have made a poor soccer player. "I would use my hands out in the field, I don't think I could stop myself," Rice said. "I probably could have been a goalie, and that's it, because of my hands and stuff like that."
Then he added, with just the right amount of vanity: "I don't think anything would get by me."
Gwen Knapp is a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle.