In the US, it's an inevitable occurrence. Especially when the big tournaments are on mainstream television and highlights make it to ESPN's SportsCenter.
The normally quiet reserve of soccer fandom in the States starts to rise to more than a whisper. And someone, maybe a guy at the bar or a cube-mate at the office, usually with an unnecessarily condescending tone will say, "soccer is only popular because of X". With "X" being whatever unthoughtful nay saying generalization they can conjure at the time.
There are a lot of theories, certainly beyond the scope of this single post. But for someone who is really trying to answer the question, "why is football so popular," a good starting point might be the following comment I read on fark. "I don't get why soccer is so freakin' popular, all you do is kick a ball around a field. wow."
To that comment I say, now your finally starting to understand it!!
One of the many reasons behind football's global popularity is in its apparent simplicity. You think, "hey, this ball is round, all I need to do is kick it right?" Sounds easy enough. My human instincts, what with these prehensile thumbs, is to reach down and pick it up. But not this game. In fact, save one lone position, neither you, nor 9 of your other teammates can use your hands. Yet you have to work together to put the ball past the one guy who can use his hands, on a playing surface that's roughly 55000 square feet!
Here's the thing - have you ever tried controlling a round object on a flat surface without using your hands? Try sending the ball to a teammate. Try catching the ball out of the air. Try sending a perfectly flighted ball, over the defense, 70 yards to a 2'x2' spot on the field. Now try doing that during a World Cup match, with 500 million people watching, like Frank de Boer did for Dennis Bergkamp in World Cup 98. See where I'm going here?
Dennis Bergkamp's WonderGoal. Netherlands v. Argentina World Cup 1998.
Still simple right. In concept certainly. So just when you think you've mastered the ability to control the ball without the use of these incredibly adapted hands, add 11 opposing players whose job it is to take the ball away from you, or at the very least, interrupt any momentum you may be building.
So here you'll notice we have the game of football starting to develop. We'll give you 10 players to coordinate with and we'll give you 90 minutes to score - no timeouts by the way - and that's it.
There is no "direction" on the field other than the location of your goal and your opponent's goal, so be prepared to run between 5 and 7 miles in all directions in your attempts to get open for the ball, defend, make runs at goal, and so on.
By the way, with the sole exception of your goalkeeper (and even that is arguable) every player on the field is simultaneously on offense and defense - meaning you have to always be thinking, reading the game, understanding your leverage, testing, committing, tackling, etc.
Now imagine every nation on the planet Earth plays this game and understands these basic concepts. Billions of people. From the smallest, podunk dictatorships to the largest democracies and everything in between, irrespective of Gross Domestic Product or national history, on every continent save Antarctica.
So basically, aside from basic Maslowian functions, such as having sex, eating bread and drinking water, football is the only higher order connection humanity has! Farther reaching than any religion, literature, music, cuisine - football is the language that humans speak!
So yeah, you kick a ball around a field. And it's really quite amazing.