Of all countries, the United States should be the most eager to assimilate the multicultural madness of the World Cup, but the Yankee melting pot has greeted the event with extraordinary indifference. Except for tourist tack merchants, eager to get their slice of the dollars 4bn fans are expected to spend, Americans are wallowing in a haze of their own summer sports and denying any knowledge of the soccer invasion.

In the latest poll, 71 per cent said they did not know the cup was being played in their country, in spite of massive coverage on television, in the newspapers, magazines and sports journals.

The first big match - Italy vs Ireland on Saturday - is being played outside New York, where substantial chunks of the citizenry are of Irish and Italian descent. The bars are full of good stories - like the one about the Italian team, who have set up camp in New Jersey, travelling abroad for the first time without packing its own supplies of pasta. But this extraordinary show of confidence in American cooking - and surely one of the nicest thoughts anyone has had about New Jersey - hasn't moved Middle America.

Heart-rending scenes shown on British television of the poor Irish boys melting in the heat of Orlando, where the squad is based, accompanied by pleas from their manager, Jack Charlton, for them to be allowed a drink of water during the game, have raised not a flicker of interest over here. And instead of touting Ireland's success in gaining a place in the finals, the local columnist of the Irish Voice, Cormac McConnell, declared soccer, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, to be a foul game introduced into the Emerald Isle by swinish British guttersnipes, and he longed instead for a clean-cut competition of either Gaelic football or hurling.

What is the matter with sports-mad Americans? Over the next month, 52 games will be played in nine cities, watched by nearly 4 million spectators and another 3 to 4 billion around the world on television. Will they never take this game seriously? Sure, the nation has developed a strong streak of isolationism, but isn't it enough that Henry Kissinger is America's most famous soccer fan? The time is surely nigh for some soccer diplomacy.

Sixteen million Americans played soccer at school and in little leagues last year, a jump of 8 per cent over 1992. A similar increase is expected this year. But the soccer players are mostly recent immigrants from Latin America and youths at inner cities schools without the money or the playing facilities required for American sports.

Americans still believe that 'real' Americans - for which read Wasps (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) - don't play soccer. They believe it was conceived by villagers kicking the heads of goats around the commons of Eastern Europe and the Far East, and see it as a primitive and uninteresting sport compared with their own football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey.

The game itself may leave them cold, but Americans - used to well-ordered fans who never run amok, rarely wave banners and all with their own numbered seats - are obsessed with soccer hooliganism. After successfully encouraging the beer companies to be sponsors, the US organisers, fearing drunken fans, tried to ban beer, which is always available at American sporting events.

In the face of protests from the promoters, concession holders and fans, the beer will be flowing freely - but only at the final game at the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles. At other games it will be rationed, and cut off at the first sign of trouble.

Security will be tight. Britain's National Crime Intelligence Service, which has dossiers on football hooligans, is helping to monitor the games. At the New York Giants' stadium, where the Italy-Ireland game will be played, more than 500 employees will take care of parking, admission and security. Ticket touts will be hounded out.

Despite their wariness, many Americans admit they would like to love soccer because of what Kissinger calls 'its marvellous fluidity and changing patterns' - in contrast to the set pieces of American sports. And since the mid-Seventies, when Pele was brought in to help launch the first - and eventually abortive - soccer league, many spurious attempts have been made to explain why the game has not caught on.

Among them are that Americans cannot understand why soccer players don't use their arms, and how they can head the ball without breaking their necks or becoming punch-drunk. Newsweek recently obliged with an explanation: 'They brace the head and neck in anticipation of the impact.' Another reason given is that the number of goals scored is too low, depriving fans of the instant and constant gratification of baseball, football and basketball. Americans apparently lack the necessary attention span for 45 minutes of play each way without a break. In the typical three hours of a baseball game there are rarely more than 30 minutes of real action.

Extra excuses for rejecting soccer have been found for the World Cup. The American media has sneered at the 'unhygienic practice' of the players swapping jerseys after each match, and also 'all that tribal stuff about blowing horns'. They wonder why soccer teams can't have pom-poms and cheerleaders like everyone else.

Commentators striving for an insight into the national psyche have suggested that Americans' innate fear of nationalism is the real reason why they are uncomfortable with soccer. Italian immigrants, for example, probably remember how Mussolini used the 1934 World Cup in Italy for propaganda. Others note that Saudi Arabia's national team is run by Prince Faisal Bin Fahd, an impatient man who has been through three coaches since October. Such images of repression and orders barked in a foreign language are of the kind recent immigrants to America came here to forget.

Of course, America will put on a great show despite its reservations. On Saturday, the Irish pubs and the Italian bars of New York will be overflowing, bringing the game via television to those who failed to buy one of the 77,000 tickets. For the month-long event only a handful of the 3.65 million tickets are unsold and a ticket for the Italy- Ireland game was going for as much as dollars 750 (pounds 500), and one for the Rose Bowl for twice that sum.

The key question is: how many of the uncommitted will be persuaded to turn their televisions from baseball or golf to soccer? The latest poll suggests 61 per cent won't bother, and that may be enough to kill the idea of a major US soccer league.

But if it does not happen this year, then surely it will come soon, because soccer knows no national boundaries. Within two generations Los Angeles will be 70 per cent Hispanic, and in and around the city there are already more than 40 adult soccer leagues of about 70 teams each. If Italian immigrants and the Irish do not, then it will be the Latinos who eventually teach America the difference between a corner kick and throw-in. After all, everyone outside America knows that soccer is not 'an intellectual game, chess with feet', as the Los Angeles Times suggested. It is quintessentially American - part spectacle, part carnival and part athletics - and has the same dark underside as America's major sports: overpaid superstars, crotchety managers and bad refs.