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World Cup moments grant enlightenment to a former skeptic

RIO DE JANEIRO BRAZIL - JULY 13: Bastian Schweinsteiger Germany receives treatment after collisiduring 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Final

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JULY 13: Bastian Schweinsteiger of Germany receives treatment after a collision during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Final match between Germany and Argentina at Maracana on July 13, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 491717433

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Updated: August 16, 2014 6:29AM

Well, hello to you, too, soccer.

On the second day of the World Cup in Brazil, the Netherlands’ Robin van Persie laid out for a header, creating a floating, sideways exclamation point. The ball, perfectly hit at the exact right moment, sailed gently over the bewildered Spanish goaltender and into the net.

‘‘Who can do that?’’ I asked myself.

Just about nobody.

That ridiculously athletic goal accomplished what none of the beseeching from true-believing soccer fans through the years had been able to accomplish. It made the blind man see.

Before the World Cup began, I wrote a column saying that I was going to give soccer one more chance. It was a sincere, last-ditch attempt to understand what so many others understood but what seemed beyond my comprehension. Like math.

So we met in the middle, soccer and me, and I’m glad we did. We rendezvoused, figuratively, at a neutral site, Brazil, and came to appreciate each other.

The van Persie goal was the beginning but not the end. Smaller things started to catch my eye. The pinpoint passing in tight quarters. The consistent ability to keep the ball inbounds under pressure. Even my biggest criticism through the years, the low scoring, melted away as the tournament rolled on.

My wife and I sat in a bar in Rome and watched Uruguay knock Italy out of the tournament. You could have heard a noodle drop, such was the shock of the locals. But the way soccer brings out people’s emotions was never the issue with me. The game itself was.

My perception of soccer was of a sport as soft as a stuffed animal thrown at the feet of a figure skater. But if you watched Germany’s championship victory Sunday and saw a bloodied Bastian Schweinsteiger get up again and again — stay down, Rocky! — you know the game is not for the faint of heart. You also know you can’t stop saying the name “Bastian Schweinsteiger” out loud.

The flopping in the sport remains an embarrassment, but even my thinking on that has changed. Where once I sneered at the soap-opera dramatics, now I see that the players aren’t to blame for faking injuries. Blame the powers that be for rewarding the behavior. An athlete will take advantage of anything that gives him an edge. If that means re-enacting Mufasa’s death scene from “The Lion King’’ on the field, then he will. Flopping still greatly offends me and will continue to hurt the sport in the United States, but I have a better understanding of why it happens.

Now, let’s talk about the team that came into the tournament ranked 13th in the world and lost in the round of 16, the team that finished 1-2-1, the team that has been received as if it won the World Cup and eradicated several diseases in the process. That would be the American team.

Soccer wants equal treatment in this country, so we ought to give it that, soberly. If the U.S. team captured the hearts of the country, as more than a few writers wrote, then what the heck is wrong with us? We’ve been playing the sport for decades now, we have a population of 318 million people and we’re filthy rich by the world’s standards. No need to act like we’re cheering on the local T-ball team. We should be demanding a better product. As far as my untrained eye could tell, we were rooting for the Brooklyn Nets of the World Cup.

OK, back to my soccer cheeriness. These might be the best-conditioned athletes in the world. They run all day. There are no timeouts — especially for commercials! There is no rest, most certainly not for the weary. The coaches don’t seem to do much coaching, but that’s OK. They’re interesting dressers.

I don’t know if I’m a soccer fan yet, but I do know that I’m not a hater anymore. I’m proud that I got to this place on my own. I didn’t play the game. My kids didn’t play the game, so this isn’t an arranged marriage. Parents new to the sport almost have to like it. It’s that or spending the next seven or 10 years in hell, watching games in the cold.

Maybe the van Persie goal will end up being my Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment. All I know is that I wanted more after that. Mario Goetze’s Cup-winner for Germany gave it to me. So did Andre Schuerrle’s pass to set him up.

When does the Premier League schedule start?

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