John Kass

In an exclusive interview, Raffaele Raia -- the noted Italian soccer aficionado from Oliveto Citra, near Salerno -- said America is missing only one thing to fully grasp World Cup soccer.

"Until Americans live and die with it, as we Italians do, you won't truly understand," Raia said. "That means the World Cup not as an event, or as a party, but as life and death itself, a national agony with great pain."

The U.S. team needs only a tie or a win in the big World Cup game Thursday against Germany to proceed to the vaunted knockout round.

American TV ratings are huge. And so are the crowds at public viewing events, with young people flocking to the beautiful game, worrying the old established sports.

And perhaps best of all, unlike the Uruguayans, not one U.S. player has ever been accused of serial cannibalism.

Also, the German coach and America's coach, the former German coach Jurgen Klinsmann, don't much like each other.

So there shouldn't be a repeat of soccer's greatest shame: the so-called non-aggression pact of Gijon, also called "The disgrace of Gijon," when, in the 1982 World Cup in Spain, West Germany and Austria conspired to help each other get into the next round.

Soccer is the beautiful game. But is also the cruelest. Americans aren't devious. Americans don't dive or grab their ankles trying to con the referee. And this worries me.

"America has come very far indeed," said Raia, in his impeccable English tinged with a cultured Italian accent. "But there is one thing missing in the American experience of soccer. Just one thing."

What is it?

"Pain," Raia said. "Pain to the bone."

"Every kick, pain," he said. "Every ball, pain. Not physical pain, emotional pain, pain and pain, that's soccer, and madness and happiness in between.

"Pain in the bones of the nation," he sighed, then picked up his razor-sharp scissors and gestured with them.

"This is soccer," he said. "Joy, yes, but mostly pain."

Then he said: "Do you want me to cut it like last time?"

You're the barber.

Raia has been my barber for years at George's Hair Design. About the only barbering he won't do is singe a man's ear hairs in the style of the barbers of Istanbul.

And he knows soccer. When I telephoned him Tuesday during the critical Italy-Uruguay game, he was cheerful, without a trace of irony or pain.

"Don't tell me who won," he said. "I'm recording it."