The USA and Australia are probably the only countries left in the world where soccer is not one of the top-three most popular sports. As an Australian now living in the U.S., this has proven to be rather vexing over the years.
It wouldn't be a stretch to go all John Lennon and say that soccer is more popular than God. But soccer is not just the most popular sport in the world, it is also the best. Like, objectively. Here's why.
Some sports are so overwhelmingly complex that it can take years of patient analysis (or patient explanation from an expert) to get your head around it. I love NFL, baseball and cricket, but I'll also accept that they are a bit heavy on jargon, nuance and highly technical strategy that can deter the casual viewer.
Hey even the NFL referees themselves get a little confused sometimes (see attached video).
Soccer, on the other hand, is the kind of sport you can get your head around after about two minutes of watching. Once you've figured out the offside rule, that's about it.
A sport has fundamental problems if authorities have to alter some aspect of the rules before every new season. The NFL is a consistent culprit, recently eliminating its highly unpopular tuck rule while also frequently modifying rules governing physical contact (no doubt to avoid a lawsuit one day).
Watch the last five minutes of any basketball game and you know that the timeout thing has gotten out of hand. It takes what feels like hours to get through with both teams freezing the clock whenever they have their hands on the ball, or intentionally fouling their opponents when they don't.
In addition to managing the clock, timeouts are also too often used to halt the momentum of your opponents, instead of forcing teams to play out of their funk. They're also used to give professional athletes a rest that they really shouldn't need anyway. Oh, and they're also just an excuse for advertisers to interrupt games more frequently.
Give me the free-flowing relentlessness of soccer any day.
Two hundred and three nations attempted qualification for the 2014 World Cup. There are fewer countries in the United Nations. Soccer is played absolutely everywhere; it crosses every national divide.
Is there another team sport in which more than 20 nations are consistently competitive? More than 10? Probably not, which is why sports like the Rugby World Cup end up being a bit of a joke, as nations like Namibia scratch together a team of 15 people to get pounded 142-0 by Australia.
The Tour de France may be a marvel of physical endurance, but do any of us still trust it anymore? So too, it's hard to enjoy a superhuman performance in many sports in the Olympics without that nagging thought in the back of one's head: "I wonder if they're on something..."
There is no drug for skill and judgment under pressure, the twin tenets of any soccer champion. Maradona and Pele never had an asterisk next to their name; instead we can just sit back and enjoy their talent without having to worry whether they were getting an unfair chemical advantage (because Maradona only did drugs for fun).
I still remember walking out of the Ghana vs. USA round of 16 games at the 2010 World Cup and chanting with some of the local fans "Bye, bye, USA!" It struck me that only in soccer could a geopolitical and economic powerhouse like the USA be overcome by an African nation with almost 300 million fewer people and some 80 spots below it on the GDP list.
Soccer has it in spades.
There is the obvious beauty of a well-timed bicycle kick, the diving header, the 30-yard screamer. But for the purists, Spain's "tiki-taka" has been a reminder that dynamic teamwork can be as beautiful as individual acrobatics. It truly is "the beautiful game."
While each game starts with two teams on either side of a line, from that point on it is a free-flowing session of unpredictability. Apart from set pieces, there's very little preordained structure.
Even the formation of each team is open to interpretation from coaches, instead of having to fit a set template. While NFL coaches have to be mindful of not fielding an "illegal formation," their counterparts in soccer are free to choose a 4-4-2, a 3-5-2, or even a 9-0-1 if they're playing Brazil.
The best player in the world right now is a weedy Argentinean standing at 5'7". Apart from goalkeeping (where you'll at least need to stand 6' to make it to the top), all men are created equal when it comes to soccer. There are some sports where you'll never make it to the top without predisposed genetic advantages regarding size; soccer is not one of them.
Try mounting a career in any winter sport without forking out a hefty wad of cash just for equipment.
In soccer, all you need is a ball (or any round object will do). Not only does this give poorer nations more of a chance, some would argue it gives them an advantage, with many a career forged from the rough-and-tumble play of city slums.
In every country, a league. And within those leagues, sometimes several divisions (the Estonian third division, as you can see from the video, is still taken very seriously by some). And thousands of amateur competitions.
Soccer is played at every skill level, age and gender (yep, both of them). In every country on Earth. That is scale.
Professional soccer players are in fantastic shape, thanks to a game which lasts for 90 minutes (and sometimes two hours) without any timeouts. But it's also the range of fitness they have to display: cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, strength, flexibility, speed. While fitness priorities can change from position to position, realistically you need to have them all.
It's hard not to marvel at the athleticism of an athlete who needs to be able to run for two hours, wrestle an opponent at a corner and master the bicycle kick week in, week out.
This is a double-edged sword, of course. For every colorful celebration of fandom or national pride, there is often an ugly corollary which manifests through crowd violence.
But passion produces excitement and color, first and foremost. Soccer fans care more than fans of any other sport, which produces wonderfully intense live experiences. In pretty much any other sport, the fans can be intense, but no one's going home too devastated if their team loses.
Some contact sports exact a ridiculous physical toll on their participants, both by the roughness of the play and the culture of playing through injury.
While some yahoos may argue those sports are therefore superior, it's a shame that we can only enjoy some athletes at their peak for such a short time before injury dulls their abilities.
Meanwhile, some soccer stars don't reach their peak until their 30s and can continue playing at the top level well beyond that. And at the amateur level, you can continue playing the game you love well into your twilight years.
Superficial, I know, but there's little denying that David Beckham and Alex Morgan wouldn't have made many magazine covers if they were professional boxers, taking shots to their tremendous cheekbones on a regular basis.
Moreover, soccer players develop more attractive physiques than most other sports because of the need for well-rounded fitness, while the likes of Prince Fielder are able to stack on the pounds because they don't need to be trim to do what they do.