Like most Americans, I grew up playing football, basketball and baseball in season. And I attended high school, college and professional games. That's all I knew. That's all any of us knew.
Now I am told that more youngsters grow up playing soccer than football in this country. Would you believe it?
Soccer. The older generation, my generation, thinks it is a boring sport. No excitement. No home runs, no slam dunks, no long touchdown passes.
Well, that's what I used to think about hockey. Until I got slam dunked by the Stanley Cup, about 10 years before the Blackhawks turned Chicagoans into hockey fans.
I've written it before on this blog and I'll write it again: the Stanley Cup is more exciting than the World Series, Super Bowl, Final Four and the NBA finals. Even more exciting than the Kentucky Derby, Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 and the World Cup.
But, like hockey, I've become a soccer fan in my later years. I got turned on by watching the English Premier League, the European Champions League and the World Cup.
This brand of soccer isn't boring. Unlike major league baseball games that last four hours or more or NBA or NFL games that test a viewer's patience while snoozing through one timeout after another in the closing minutes, the clock never stops running in soccer, even for injuries or substitutions or fouls.
It is a different style of play with the world's best players pitted against each other in front of crowds that number over 70,000 in Europe's grandest arenas. Manchester United, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Chelsea and Arsenal are the Yankees, Celtics, Lakers, Colts and Patriots of professional soccer.
For Americans who grew up on a diet of football, basketball and baseball, soccer is an acquired taste, as hockey as been for so many Chicagoans who were turned off by the Bill Wirtz era and were persuaded to leap back on Rocky Wirtz' bandwagon.
The game of hockey didn't change, only in Chicago. Montreal was still winning Stanley Cups (more world championships than any professional team except the New York Yankees). Wayne Gretzky was the Michael Jordan of the sport. The Stanley Cup didn't lose any of its pizzazz.
The controversial 2-2 draw with Slovenia notwithstanding, the United States is gradually becoming more competitive in world soccer, just as the U.S. has become a significant factor in international hockey, in the same class with Canada, just as the Europeans have raised the caliber of their game and become competitive with the U.S. in men's basketball.
It will take more time, of course, but soccer is receiving more exposure in this country, thanks to ESPN's coverage of the English Premier League. The Champions League playoff, pitting the best teams in Europe, features the best players in the world, including headliners from Brazil and Argentina. All of them are on display in the World Cup.
If you are a true sports fan, you have to appreciate the best athletes in the world, whether the sport is basketball or soccer or hockey or downhill skiing or Formula 1 auto racing.