The secret soccer career of Yale's hat-trick hero 'the Diddler', White House candidate

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Could the macho man not be quite as macho as we all thought?

Desperate to snare the jocks' vote, his presidential campaign has made much of John Kerry's love of thrill sports such as windsurfing, motorbiking, and ice hockey.

In fact, the Democratic candidate's finest athletic moment was on the football field ­ playing not the sporting equivalent of war known as gridiron, but what Americans call soccer.

A year before England won the World Cup in 1966, Mr Kerry was writing Ivy League sporting history by scoring a hat trick as the Yale soccer team defeated arch-rivals Harvard.

It was the sporting highlight of his college years, the candidate acknowledged to Sports Illustrated magazine recently: "We beat them for the first time in years. That was just a great day."

The youthful Kerry, it appears, was a loping right-winger, inclined to hang onto the ball too long, rather than pass to a teammate in a better position.

The Scottish coach of the Yale team told him not to "diddle with the ball" ­ hence his college soccer-playing nickname, "the Diddler". The term is hardly flattering, but less damning than the "flip-flopper" tag Republicans that are trying to pin on him, after his alleged proneness to land on both sides of an issue.

For many American males, however, soccer is the girls' game, a wimp's substitute for gridiron football; and somehow decadent, redolent of old Europe (where of course Kerry once went to boarding school, and one or two of whose languages he is reputed to speak).

It feeds into the political dynamics of the 2004 campaign, where George Bush is selling himself as the all-American straight shooter, and his opponent is the candidate who says he will repair America's relations with the rest of the world, first and foremost its traditional allies in Europe.

For some Republicans, however, cordial relations with foreigners are akin to treachery.

"Good morning, or as John Kerry would say, 'bonjour'," is how Tom DeLay, the fiercely partisan Republican House leader, likes to open a speech."

Imagine Mr DeLay's reaction if Mr Kerry starts mending fences with President Jacques Chirac by discussing the virtues of Thierry Henry.