06/17/2004 12:00AM

Bet on soccer? That's un-American!


The rest of the world pretty much thinks that we Americans don't care about anyone but ourselves. When it comes to sports, that's pretty much the truth.

We love our football. We unapologetically use that name to describe our favorite spectator sport, even though the rest of the world uses it for what we call soccer. We also embrace our national pastime, baseball, as well as basketball and even hockey, which we call one of our four major sports, though Canada is more rabid about it despite the Stanley Cup being claimed by a U.S.-based team for each of the past 11 years. But, hey, possession is nine-tenths of the law, so we claim it now.

It's the same with golf. Somehow we adopted it, even though its birthplace was in the British Isles, and we now host three of the four "majors," and don't ever pay attention to any other overseas Opens (German, French, Irish, Spanish, etc.) except for the British.

For the better part of the last 30 years - ever since Pele started playing for the New York Cosmos in 1974 - we have been hearing that soccer is the "next big thing" in sports. But it never happened. Since Pele, my soccer memories are limited to the Chicago Sting winning the NASL title in 1981 (only because it was the first hometown title I got to celebrate since the previous Windy City championship team was the 1963 Bears), the U.S. women's team winning the World Cup in 1999 (and probably only registered in my mind because of Brandi Chastain tearing off her jersey in celebration of the winning goal), and now 14-year-old prodigy Freddy Adu playing for the D.C. United team. That's three memories - and only two actual players, which I guess we can double if adding Mia Hamm and the guy with the goofy hair on the men's Olympic team - in 30 years.

This all comes to mind because I'm told that Euro 2004, the biggest soccer tournament since the World Cup, is taking place in Portugal and that it's a big, big deal across the pond, even if it's pretty much ignored here in the United States. The last games of pool play will be held Sunday through Wednesday, with the top two teams in each of the four pools advancing to the quarterfinals, which start next Thursday. (Note: how is this for a twist - the championship game is scheduled for the Fourth of July.)

But even with our relative indifference, this isn't to say that you can't find Euro 2004 on the betting boards in Las Vegas, which is one barometer as to the popularity of a sport. So far, betting has been limited to who will win the tournament, but Chuck Esposito, director of race and sports book operations for the Caesars Entertainment properties, said he'll start putting up individual game matchups as we get further into the tournament.

However, it's not local bettors who are showing an interest.

"At Caesars, we have seen an increase in soccer wagering," Esposito said, "and it goes hand-in-hand with us being an international property."

Another international event begins on Monday and attracts a lot more U.S. media attention than soccer: Wimbledon. A lot of people who don't give tennis a second thought throughout the rest of the year will get interested in the action from the All England Club over the fortnight.

"We handle more action on Wimbledon than any other tennis tournament," Esposito said. "It's like the Daytona 500 is for Nascar, or the Masters is for golf. Wimbledon is the Super Bowl of tennis."

Of course, local interest in Wimbledon is expected to be lower this year because Vegas native Andre Agassi pulled out of the tournament with an injured hip. Roger Federer is the 5-4 favorite in the men's bracket, according to odds from Las Vegas Sports Consultants, followed by Andy Roddick at 3-1, Lleyton Hewitt and Tim Henman at 6-1, and David Nalbandian at 12-1.

The women's bracket is also diminished by the injuries to No. 1- ranked Justine Henin-Hardenne, who is suffering from a viral illness, and No. 2-ranked Kim Clijsters, who is recovering from wrist surgery. Serena Williams, who would have been favored even though she's not ranked No. 1, is the 4-5 favorite, with her sister Venus at 3-1, Jennifer Capriati at 8-1, Amelie Mauresmo at 10-1, and Lindsay Davenport at 12-1.

Anyone wishing to bet on a player to win the tournament is advised to get bets in by Sunday night since the tournament starts at noon Monday in England, which is the middle of the night here in Vegas.

Esposito said the Caesars books will start putting up individual matchups in the quarterfinals, unless there are some marquee matches beforehand (though with several of the top players out, that's not too likely this year).

If you're looking for even more examples of sports that Americans ignore on a daily basis then follow for a short period, look no further than the Olympics. The next Summer Games, in Athens, will be coming up in eight weeks and we'll get a refresher course on the difference between a "double-twisting Yurchenko" and a "triple Lindy." The former is a gymnastics vault routine, while the latter is a dive as performed by Rodney Dangerfield in the 1986 comedy "Back to School."

Unlike the international soccer and tennis events - sports that will also be contested by Olympic teams - wagering on the Olympics is no longer allowed in Nevada. That was nixed in February 2001 when the state was contesting Congress's Amateur Sports Integrity Act, aimed at ending betting on college sports, and Nevada offered a proverbial olive branch by offering to outlaw wagering on high school sports and the Olympics (which are much less "amateur" than they used to be, but that's a column for another day).

There has been no uproar in the exclusion of Olympic betting, mainly because before the ban, the original Dream Team basketball games were about the only Olympic event that ever drew significant handle anyway.

It's no coincidence that it was one of "our" sports.