Soccer is the game nearly 83 Americans love.
When the World Cup kicks off next week in nine far-flung U.S. cities, it might have trouble outpointing badminton, ice-fishing and furnace repair in the Nielsen ratings. Aside from a guy named Pele, who retired years ago, your average Yanqui imperialist cannot name a single futbol player on the planet. Bouncing a strange spotted thing off your forehead remains an oddity to a lot of meat-and-potato folks in Keokuk. So does a zero-zero final score. And players named Gunter.
As a result, many people inside the world's most popular sport think that throwing its big quadrennial party on American soil is a calculated risk. They're probably right. This could be like playing the World Series in Sarajevo. Or staging the Renaissance on Mars. But hey. At least we outflanked Morocco to get the thing.
"I don't know if it will be soccer's fifteen minutes of fame in this country," says Michael Lewis, editor of Soccer magazine, "but it certainly will be a month-long celebration of the sport."
Okay, but who will be celebrating? And where?
A couple of weeks ago, writer and sports commentator Frank Deford suggested, quite reasonably, that the best way to enjoy the full effect of World Cup excitement would be to watch it on television--in Rio de Janeiro, Rome or Dublin. Because that's where the real couch potatoes and the real fanatics will be misspending all their waking moments between June 17 and July 17, hoarse and bleary-eyed from absorbing 53 games in 31 days. And if you think soccer fans don't really take the game as seriously as those outrageous international press reports say, consider a couple of things:
Back in 1966, when the favored Italian team got upset in the World Cup by piss-ant North Korea, the shamed losers tried to sneak home under cover of darkness. Instead, hundreds of angry Italian fans pelted them with rotten fruit at the airport.
Sixteen years later, after the Italians upset Brazil to win the 1982 Cup, three people in Rio de Janeiro committed suicide. Five others collapsed and died. And when Austria knocked off neighboring West Germany in 1978, one distraught West Berliner leaped out of a high window. "I don't want to live anymore," he shouted.
For better or worse, the final game of this first-ever U.S.-based World Cup will be played July 17 at the Rose Bowl, better known for another brand of football contested at another time of year. This time, the refs better remain on their toes. Whereas we yell the occasional obsceni
ty at the baseball umpire who misses a call at second base or throw snowballs at the zebras amid a tight Raiders-Broncos tilt, soccer crowds in South America have been known to beat referees to death with their bare hands. Then pee on them.
Actually, World Cup officials have been minimizing the threat of stadium violence. Whereas hordes of enflamed dockworkers and drunken mental patients pack themselves every week into the local soccer stadiums of London or Buenos Aires, itching for a fight, it's unlikely that more than a few hundred of them will be making the trip this week to Detroit or Washington or Chicago. Hotel prices in the World Cup cities are off the map, and game tickets--3.5 million of them doled out like precious grams of plutonium--are hugely expensive. Scalpers at the Rose Bowl finale, it's estimated, will get up to $5,000 for single seats.
That won't keep party-loving Brazilians in various states of undress from dancing the samba all through the World Cup games. It won't keep the Germans from thoughts of sabotage. But it might keep the riffraff out.
A somewhat more cheerful crowd will likely be glued to the boob tube this month in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, in West Africa. This is the home of the aptly named "Indomitable Lions," who at the last World Cup, in Italy, jumped up and bit heavily favored Argentina 1-0. The Boys from Buenos Aires were led by the only other player most Americans have ever heard of, Diego Maradona, who wound up in drug rehab a year later. When the Indomitables prevailed in the first round, it became one of the greatest upsets in the history of the game.
Of such moments are soccer legends made. But not here. The day upstart Italy won the Cup in 1982, I remember joining a group of ecstatic Roman and Venetian friends as they packed into a couple of convertibles and took loudly to the streets of Capitol Hill. Shouting, waving the Italian tricolor, swilling bottles of grappa and honking their horns with abandon, they made a minor spectacle of themselves.
"Who got married?" a couple of bewildered onlookers asked. "Who the hell are those crazy foreigners?" some others demanded. "Why don't they go back where they came from?"
Here in the U.S.A., you never need to go very far to measure soccer's local obscurity. Just ask the Colorado Foxes. In 1992 Denver's professional team won its first American Professional Soccer League championship, a great accomplishment in certain circles.
Then, last season, the Foxes repeated. Won it all again.
Ever heard of them? Don't worry. Not many people have. In four games at Mile High Stadium this year, all against top international clubs, the two-time defending champs have averaged just 4,400 fans. That's like the Broncos winning consecutive Super Bowls, then watching their families and a couple of close friends trickle in for the next season opener.
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Because we globe-dominatin', large-livin' Americans think as we do, soccer people believe the U.S. team must survive the World Cup's first round in order for the game to make even a dent in the local consciousness. That won't be easy. The luck of the World Cup draw has landed the Yanks in the tournament's well-balanced Group A, where it must face Switzerland, Colombia and Romania in the opening matches. The Swiss haven't qualified for the World Cup in a generation, so their versatile club is hungry. The Romanians got in at the expense of powerful Wales and a strong Czechoslovakian team, and they loom a dark horse for the Cup finals. Meanwhile, Colombia got much-needed experience at Italia '90, then finished first in the formidable South American qualifying group by beating Paraguay, Argentina and Peru.
There's another problem, too. It might be a little tough for Joe Six-Pack from Hoboken to identify with anyone on the misnamed "United States Team" in the first place. To begin with, the American coach is someone called Bora Milutnovic, which is only slightly less difficult to say than Lothar Osiander--who was the coach of the U.S. Olympic team. Not only that, many of the "American" players themselves have only the remotest connection to home, flag and apple pie. The U.S. roster is likely to include stars Roy Wegerle, who usually plays in England, Tab Ramos (Spain), Thomas Dooley (Germany) and Ernie Stewart (Netherlands). None was born in the United States, although Dooley and Stewart have American fathers (enough to give them citizenship), and Wegerle has an American wife.
These problems aside, the World Cup might popularize the world's most popular game right here if the quasi-Yanks can score some goals on home turf...and if a bit of World Cup success can spawn professional-league expansion. As it is, the eight-team APSL, of which the Foxes are the reigning champs, also fields clubs in Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Los Angeles, Montreal, Seattle, Toronto and Vancouver. In the worst-case scenario, the game will remain a minor interest in this country, save in hotbeds like St. Louis and among twelve-year-olds. When the smoke clears and the cheers die at the Rose Bowl, soccer could be the game nearly 89 Americans love.
If they stock up on rotten fruit, no one will notice.