Bill Lyon

is a retired Inquirer sports columnist

Soccer made simple:

If it moves, kick it.

If it doesn't move, then

kick it 'til it does.

The Beautiful Game, that's what the rest of the world calls it. It is the sport of choice for virtually the entire planet. With one notable, ahem, exception.

But we do seem to be gaining (55,407 at Lincoln Financial Field for a World Cup send-off victory by the U.S. team). We're still a couple of laps in arrears, and that's our loss, although understandable because we're weaned on football and consequently have a short attention span for anything served to us that isn't overloaded with violence and offense. So we struggle to find and appreciate the clever subtleties, the sly nuances of . . .

Futbol.

Men with thighs like locomotive pistons roam over vast acreage in sweat-splattered pursuit of a ball, and no fair using your hands but do go right ahead and feel free to use your helmet-less head, just jump up there and give it a good knock with your scalp, and good grief, that thing went 40 yards.

The best players are artful artisans, adroit tap-tap-tap dancers who can use nothing but their feet and make the ball sit up and speak. Their footwork is inventive and creative, like improvisational jazz riffs on the lawn, or Fred Astaire hoofing it on the ceiling.

And then there are the keepers. That's goalies to the rest of us. Their legs are rocket launchers that routinely cut the field in half. And as in ice hockey, it all ends with them, especially if it comes down to a shoot-out.

The World Cup attracts world-class thespians as well. The most adept of them, having had their legs cut out from under them by a sliding tackle, fall in a lifeless heap, surely mortally wounded and beyond saving. They writhe and thrash about in agony . . . but wait, what's this? When they are able to convince the official that their injury is legit and have coaxed a penalty to be assessed to their attacker they rise, Lazaruslike, and bound gleefully away as though having just visited Lourdes.

And other gamesmanship abounds. In the last World Cup, the Italian Marco Materazzi, a fierce defender and a notorious talker of trash, was able to so enrage Zinedine Zidane, France's best player, that in vengeful fury Zidane administered a thunderclap of a head butt. Having been piteously shadowed and taunted, Zidane finally lost all composure. His revenge was out in the open, for all to see, and so the price was dear - he was ejected.

Then there are the soccer fans, whose unsavory reputation precedes them. The worst of them are traveling packs of beered-up, border-crossing hooligans and sociopaths who can make the late, lamented 700 level at the Vet seem like Amnesty International. The best of them, however, are unrelentingly, admirably loyal, never sit, and regard even a moment of silence as a mortal sin. If you want to witness unwavering support in the bleachers, go to an Army-Navy game, or almost any soccer match.

The World Cup has no equal in stirring passions and inflaming patriotic fervor.

So then, once every four years the Earth takes a timeout and spends a summer month held in thrall by the World Cup. That time has come 'round again, beginning Friday and running to July 11, and it is worth an emotional investment. It is an event to overshadow any Super Bowl, any World Series, even, perhaps, any Olympics.

The host for this one is South Africa. (Former President Bill Clinton is leading the U.S. bid to host the 2018 World Cup, or 2022.)

The land of Cape Town and Johannesburg, a land savaged by an AIDS epidemic and plagued by poverty, crime, and raging racial tensions, has mortgaged its future on this World Cup and what it might mean to a land so ravaged.

It has spent a reported $1.3 billion on 10 soccer stadiums, half of them new. The populace, at every turn, is urged to be on their better-than-best behavior. But there are sobering, foreboding forecasts at every turn - reports of prostitutes flying in from all over the continent and a U.S. State Department travel alert regarding heightened terrorist activity.

As for the United States, it is still not a power in the global game, and the consensus reckoning is that this team is not the best in the World Cup field of 32, nor is it the worst. The Americans open play Saturday against England.

There is some worry about the defense, but no doubt at all about the last line of that defense, the keeper, Tim Howard, who at 6-feet-3 is built along the lines of a tight end and was a star basketball player in high school in New Jersey.

His is an inspirational story, the stuff from which to weave dreams - he has Tourette syndrome, which induces involuntary jerks and rapid blinking, but despite this he has made himself into a stalwart goalie, good enough to play overseas in the Premier League.

And now, good enough to play The Beautiful Game at its highest level.

E-mail Bill Lyon at lyon1964@comcast.net.