Soccer may be king in a majority of countries around the globe, but it's still a pauper in the U.S. sports realm. That may shift, however, as teams compete in the 2006 World Cup in Germany this month.
ESPN and ABC will televise the matches in hopes that the global passion for soccer will catch fire among American viewers.
Despite the success of the women's and men's U.S. national teams, the growth of Major League Soccer and the popularity of youth soccer programs, the sport has failed to attract large numbers of American spectators.
Many of us have been raised on a diet of high-scoring games like basketball and football, which are washed down with a flood of commercial interruptions. Soccer's typical low-scoring 45-minute halves and no timeouts are alien to that fan mindset, and to advertisers.
There are soccer superstars like Brazil's Ronaldinho and England's David Beckham, but few are household names in the United States.
Soccer does have its fans in the United States -- particularly among young people who have been raised on the game, as well as in many immigrant communities that often religiously follow teams from their native countries.
I experienced World Cup mania firsthand when I traveled to Mexico a couple of months ago. While the U.S. media was obsessing over baseball and steroids, the sports media in Mexico was focused almost exclusively on pre-World Cup soccer news and features.
The event takes place every four years, and some analysts are predicting that the 2006 installment will be the biggest ever, with an estimated worldwide television audience of more than 5 billion people. The final game could draw as many as 300 million viewers. (By comparison, 95 million tuned in to this year's Super Bowl.) And the Internet, cable television and other technological advances could bring fans closer to the action than ever before.
But controversy looms.
The so-called beautiful sport has recently been made ugly by revelations of attacks on some of the sport's star players of color by racist fans at some European venues.
Black players like Marc Zoro of the Ivory Coast, Samuel Eto'o of European league team Barcelona and Thierry Henry of France have had to deal with everything from monkey chants to being spit on and having bananas thrown at them by neo-Nazi and other bigoted fans.
Even the coach of the Spanish team was caught on tape making racist remarks about French star Henry.
Henry and others have become so fed up that they mobilized a highly visible campaign to raise awareness about racism in soccer.
The 2006 World Cup will attempt to address the issue by displaying anti-racism banners, broadcasting pre-match statements read by team captains and organizing two days of anti-discrimination events.
It would be a shame if racism marred the truly intra-planetary competition of the World Cup.
This is one event where we should all be able to get beyond differences and prejudices and simply enjoy the beautiful sport.
Andrea Lewis is a San Francisco-based journalist and co-host of "The Morning Show" on KPFA Radio in Berkeley, Calif. She can be reached at email@example.com.