In January of 2009, Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese soccer god who hopes to lead his team to a World Cup title this summer, smashed his factory-fresh 300,000 Ferrari 599 GTB into the wall of a tunnel in Manchester, England—and just left it there. Why sweat one lost toy when you've got two Porsches, a BMW, and a Rolls-Royce Phantom in the garage at home? Ronaldo hitched a ride to work in a teammate's Bentley Conti.
Like David Beckham before him, Ronaldo has become an icon for men—straight and gay—around the globe. In recent months, the 25-year-old star's Michelangelo-worthy abs have replaced the 35-year-old Becks' golden balls on Armani's 50-foot-high billboards. His is the chiseled chest, tapering into his skintight undies, that graces the cover of the June issue of Vanity Fair. Unlike Beckham's prefab metrosexuality, though, Ronaldo's louche swagger is something U.S. fans can relate to. And he's just one of the big reasons more Americans will be caught up in the World Cup this year than ever before.
These days being a soccer aficionado is akin to appreciating the subtle differences between Islay whiskys or knowing the most sought-after villas in Positano. Far from the carefully curated, overly scripted jocks of America's professional sports leagues, soccer players are cosmopolitan, globally charismatic athletes. They embody the walk-the-walk philosophy we so admired long ago in guys like Joe Namath: fast cars, piles of cash, and nubile women. A lifestyle that is as aspired to in Brooklyn as it is in Barcelona.
Once a working-class game played by working-class heroes, soccer is now the place where the big dogs play. With titans like Rupert Murdoch spending billions for the rights to televise matches, the sport has so much money in its coffers, it makes the NFL look like a poor relation. Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer snapped up England's storied Manchester United. Tom Hicks and George Gillett, baseball and Nascar barons, respectively, landed Liverpool. Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner acquired Aston Villa. Even hip-hop moguls Diddy and Jay-Z have reportedly considered investing in English soccer clubs.
The paychecks have reached such absurd heights that England defender Ashley Cole, the soon-to-be ex-husband of the pop star Cheryl Cole, revealed in his autobiography that during negotiations for a new contract he had to pull over while driving, "trembling with anger" when he heard over the phone that his club, Arsenal, was prepared to offer him a paltry salary of only 83,000 a week. Not to worry: The Russian billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich eagerly offered him a boatload of rubles to play for Chelsea.
It's no surprise that women love the sport too. The ladies have long regarded soccer players as the world's sexiest athletes. Unlike the shrouded specimens in baseball and football, the bodies on the pitch are actually visible. Sure, basketball players have nice legs, but they start somewhere around a woman's neck. Soccer players, for the most part, are lithe and compact, and their physiques—with the exception perhaps of Ronaldo's scarily chiseled torso—are naturally attainable. To look like a soccer god, you don't have to visit some skeevy doctor in Tijuana. In fact, you don't even have to be pinup material. Consider the case of bald-headed, big-beaked goalkeeper Fabien Barthez, who in 1998 managed to get his arms around both a World Cup trophy and supermodel Linda Evangelista.
For years Americans have derided soccer matches for ending in 0-0 ties, but there are many ways to score. At a 2007 party celebrating Brazil's 5-0 win over Ecuador, star striker Robinho reportedly asked the security staff of a Rio nightclub to fetch him 40 condoms because he and his teammates were feeling lucky. In February of this year, John Terry, the brave-hearted, married captain of England's national team, was stripped of his armband for having an affair with a French lingerie model—the very same French lingerie model who had given birth to a son whose father was Terry's teammate Wayne Bridge. Not even Tiger Woods would try a move like that.
The feral soccer culture in England has grown so accustomed to this kind of extracurricular action that it has created the acronym WAGS—as in "wives and girlfriends"—to follow the play-by-play. When Victoria Beckham and her peers descended on the 2006 World Cup in Germany in their Prada heels, skintight jeans, and fake tans, they shopped and partied with a ferocity unmatched on the field by their underachieving men. "We became a bit of a circus," admitted defender Rio Ferdinand. "Football almost became a secondary element to the main event."
Not so long ago, Americans ranked the sport of soccer somewhere between field hockey and the LPGA—though not nearly as manly. No sooner had FIFA awarded the United States the honor of holding the 1994 World Cup than Buffalo Bills quarterback turned politician Jack Kemp took to the floor of Congress to remind Americans "that football is democratic capitalism, whereas soccer is a European socialist [sport]."
Now, 30 years after Pelé descended godlike from the soccer heavens to spread the gospel of the game on American soil, ESPN is moving operations to South Africa to broadcast every match live in HD—some even in 3D. This is not to say that soccer holds as hallowed a place in the American sports psyche as football, baseball, basketball, or even Nascar. But there's no doubt that the sport has taken the zeitgeist and, like Beckham, bent it toward its ultimate goal: being chic in the eyes of Americans.
So go ahead and embrace the World Cup. You may still run the risk of being perceived as one of Jack Kemp's "European socialists," but you'll be a cool one. You know, like Barack Obama, a longtime West Ham fan and the father of two soccer-playing girls. He has a pretty good team in this year's tournament—they wear red, white, and blue.
David Hirshey and Roger Bennett are the authors of The ESPN World Cup Companion, available wherever books are sold.