Tuesday, July 11, 2006 | I want to say the best thing about the 2006 World Cup is it’s over. But that’s not quite right.

The best thing about the World Cup is not caring that it’s over.

If you can blithely ignore the World Cup, then a sigh of relief that the final game was played Sunday wasn’t necessary to cope with the exasperation. To not care about the World Cup as an American sports fan is easy.

There is no passion for the sport here and there never will be. Well, as Sean Connery taught us, never is a long time. Let’s just say not in next generation, two or three. For a sport to thrive in this country, it must have passionate fans fed by television dollars. Any sport that doesn’t have those ingredients is relegated to minor-league time slots.

The 1994 men’s World Cup in the United States was supposed to jump start the sport here. It didn’t happen. Major League Soccer is still minor league. John Drennen, the Rancho Bernard High alumnus, hit a home run off Roger Clemens in a minor-league baseball tune-up for Clemens that made more headlines than an MLS game.

The 1999 women’s World Cup, won by the U.S. women, the darlings of the American sports world that summer, was supposed to be another jump start. A women’s pro league, the WUSA, was formed. It died after a three years, even with the 2003 World Cup on the horizon.

Soccer has its charms, I’m sure, but I don’t see them without any scoring. Who invents a sport with a ball that doesn’t let you use your hands? It must have been an American football running back with stone hands frustrated by passes he dropped out of the backfield

If you love soccer, you’re probably countering, “What about all the people who gather at British pubs to watch soccer together or the South Koreans who watched their country’s game en masse at the Staples Center in Los Angeles?”

Well, on any fall Saturday I can show you a sports bar in San Diego filled with Big Ten fans – relocated Midwesterners like myself – passionately watching their favorite teams. They love the sport for their team, and that doesn’t mean their love for the sport will prompt them to head down to Qualcomm Stadium for San Diego State’s game that night.

However, the real football fans, the ones with an eye for the sport no matter where they grew up, will go watch the Aztecs. They want to see what this Kevin O’Connell kid looks like at quarterback or Antwan Applewhite at defensive end.

I’ve always said the San Diego sports fan is among the smartest in the country. So many of us are from somewhere else, we’ve come to enjoy sports for the beauty of the game rather than living and dying with the Padres, Chargers or Aztecs.

I learned about passion distorting sports years ago from my Uncle Leonard. He had been an engineer and vice-president of a company in Pittsburgh that was energized by President Jimmy Carter funding research in the late 1970s for alternative fuel sources (gee, now there’s an idea).

But when Ronald Reagan was elected, funding was cut for research and the country turned back to fossil fuels. My uncle’s job went the way of alternative fuel research.

He had grown up a life-long Steelers and Pirates fan, worrying about his teams even while scouting ahead of the troops in the World War II battlefields of Europe, but Reaganomics forced him to relocate to Boston and start following the Red Sox and Patriots. After a season of listening to passionate Red Sox and Patriots fans whine when their teams failed, he had a new perspective.

“I’m glad I don’t watch sports that way anymore,” he said, probably fearful of looking back at what must have sounded like in the worst days of the Pirates and Steelers.

Next time you’re traveling in a major city, tune into a sports talk radio show. You’ll shake your head, laugh or both. Too many sick fans call in, while the smart ones are content to listen.

Don’t ever expect the passion Americans have for football, basketball and baseball to develop for soccer in this country. And without that kind of passion, the sport won’t make money for TV. It’s a Catch-22.

Our best athletes aren’t drawn to soccer first as they are in the rest of the world. And that’s why we send minor-league athletes to play against big-league soccer players in the World Cup.

Imagine a soccer team of LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates, Dwayne Wade and Kobe Bryant-caliber athletes going up against a collection of undersized college kids. That’s basically the match-up we saw when 5-foot-8 American star Landon Donovan and his teammates tried to compete in the World Cup. Do you think a 5-foot-8 European, South American or Latin athlete could compete in the NFL or the NBA?

We won’t win those matches and that’s why soccer will remain a minor-league sport here. Passion for American soccer will remain hazardous to your blood pressure – just like those whining New England sports fans taught my Uncle Leonard.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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