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Kickin' It

If you had a nickel for every man, woman and child watching the World Cup on television, you could buy Denmark--or maybe a decent lunch for two in Paris. Astonishing but true: Around the globe, 37 billion people are currently glued to their sets as assorted South Africans, Paraguayans, Dutchmen and Cameroonians kick a spotted white ball across the green fields of La Belle France.

Even heads of state are indulging their soccer passions. Last week the government of Tunisia gave everybody in that country the day off so they could watch the match against Colombia. When a dispute arose among the Italians (now, there's an innovation) concerning player changes, no less a presence than the Italian prime minister tried to intervene and get veteran Roberto Baggio named to the starting eleven. Not to be outdone, the president of Colombia appealed to that team's head coach to reinstate a star mid-fielder who'd been suspended for mouthing off. Actually, this was something more than an appeal. The president's message was more in the vein of "Do it or else." Colombia, let's not forget, is the country where local gamblers murdered a player returning from the 1994 Cup because he had inadvertently scored a goal for the opposition.

Consider the parallel: Bill Clinton phones George Steinbrenner and orders him to start David Cone in the seventh game of the World Series. Andy Pettitte pitches instead, and when he loses, Clinton sends F-16 fighters to strafe the South Bronx.

Oh, and let's not forget Iran. In preparation for their politically charged game against the United States--a holy war in miniature--the Iranian players were taken to pray at the tomb of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Hey, whatever works. Theirs was the 32nd and last team to squeeze into the tournament, and they were under the tutelage of their fourth coach in seven months, but Iran beat the Great Satans from America 2-1. Now every car horn in Tehran is out of order. What a relief. Can you imagine the fate of the Iranian team plane if these poor guys had lost?

Anyway, the World Cup is a big deal. In Holland. In Germany. In Burkina Faso. Certainly in Paris and Lyons and Nantes. Again this year, it's a big deal everywhere in the world but right here. Because among those 37 billion TV viewers, a total of 123 were born in the United States--in boot-happy St. Louis, to be exact--and only four of them got up at six o'clock in the morning a couple of Saturdays ago to watch Croatia play Japan.

Three TV networks--ABC, ESPN and ESPN2--are busy broadcasting all 64 World Cup games (230 hours of coverage over 32 days) to audiences here and in downlink land, but you can't help thinking that the whole effort is simply disappearing into the vapors. America may have hosted the 1994 World Cup, and that may have spawned the latest version of our own professional league (go, Rapids, go!). By the latest estimates, 18 million people in this country (most of them under sixteen) may be playing soccer these days. But the immutable fact remains: Most Americans still hate the game--or simply ignore it.

By now, everybody's heard the standard Yankee complaints about what the rest of the world calls futbol. It's boring. It's low- (or non-) scoring. The dozens of vain South American players who go by one name--Romario, Ronaldo, Bebeto, Leonardo, Edmundo and so forth--sound more like hairdressers than athletes.

The most intriguing American complaint, I think, is that soccer is too politically correct, prissy-ass and, yes, non-violent to satisfy the competitive hungers of the smashmouth-football-loving, rare-sirloin-and-mashed-potatoes-eating, hockey-devouring tough guys who make up the mass of the U.S. sports market. Every time an Italian mid-fielder has his elbow brushed by a defender, collapses on the grass like an opera queen, is carried off, then miraculously rises from the stretcher, steelworkers in Pittsburgh and housepainters in Oakland are justifiably contemptuous. No question: Half the players in international soccer deserve movie-acting contracts.

On the other hand, there's nothing overly aesthetic or non-combative about an English or Brazilian soccer riot. I once went to a mud-spattered, tantrum-ridden game in London and only later learned the final score, via the radio: Arsenal 3, Chelsea 1, 9 injured, 22 arrested. Only a fellow contemplating suicide would choose a career as a soccer referee in Buenos Aires, and if you know what's good for you (and your private parts), you won't wave a Naples banner within 200 meters of a Rome fan when you stop for a post-game gelato on the Via Veneto.

After one particularly painful World Cup loss, Italian team members snuck home wearing disguises, fearing physical abuse from angry fans.

This year, beefed-up French security forces have already detained hundreds of wine- and beer-soaked nationalists bent on taking their own personal Coupe du Monde into the streets. The French jails--where the grub is above average, we're told--are this week stuffed with neo-Nazi German skinheads, English hooligans who can't get over the decline of the British Empire, ill-tempered Tunisians and Argentine fatalists who would rather face the guillotine than lose again to Chile.

My second-favorite team, the gifted but goofy bunch from Spain, got knocked out of contention the other day, but their coach, a visionary named Javier Clemente, still holds fast to team rules. To wit: Everybody is encouraged to smoke and drink. "What's more important," he asks, "your mind or your foot?"

My very favorite team, the "Indomitable Lions" of tiny Cameroon, have been eliminated from Cup play, but not before a dustup of their own: The country's soccer chieftain, Vincent Onana, is under investigation for the alleged sale in Europe of 3,000 World Cup tickets meant for Cameroonian fans. This follows an earlier scandal (typically French, some say) in which the host nation hoarded more than 60 percent of all the tickets for itself.

Want to see Italy play Brazil again? It could cost you $10,000 per ducat on the street corner--wine, tax and tip not included.

Meanwhile, most American sports fans are holding their cheers and jeers for next week's baseball All-Star Game at Coors Field or the kickoff of the Broncos-Patriots tilt in September.

That's not because they think soccer is dull. It's because our team still stinks.

Addicted to Number One-ism, we hoarse-throated Yankees would turn out in droves for the International Tiddlywinks Championships if we thought our club had a shot. But the U.S. National Soccer Team's miserable, two-losses-and-out performance in France gives everybody here another chance to say how much we dislike the world's most popular game. Ranked number eleven in the world by FIFA--that's the World Cup sanctioning body, not a French poodle--the multi-ethnic, multi-national-origin U.S. team got beat 2-0 by Germany, 2-1 by the dead ayatollah's boys and completed the ignominy with a 1-0 loss to Yugoslavia.

"The world thinks American soccer is second-rate," a pre-Cup TV spot starring U.S. star Eddie Pope began. "The world thinks we don't belong here. The world thinks our team is weak."

As of last week, Eddie might have added: "The world is absolutely right." Instead, though, U.S. players took a world-class cue from the Argentinians, Italians and Brazilians and blamed their coach for everything--bad morale, bad strategy, bad substitutions, even the fact that the team had to rough it in a spectacular chateau out in Beaujolais country.

For his part, the prickly coach, Steve Sampson, was indistinguishable from Homer Simpson. "I feel very confident and very proud of what I've done," he said after orchestrating the Iran loss. Clearly he will be fired. "If the federation doesn't want me," he went on, "I'm sure some other organization will want me."

Great. But will America want soccer? Youth programs are already said to be inadequate here. Critics charge that Major League Soccer (the Rapids' league) is not good enough to prepare U.S. players for World Cup competition. And the U.S. team's early exit in France is likely to take even more steam out of a sport that has failed to become the next big thing in America in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties.

Looking forward to that big Cup match between Germany and Norway, should it materialize? Didn't think so.

Still, the melodrama is not quite done on this side of the Atlantic. Next summer--heaven help us--America will play host to the Women's World Cup of soccer, and that is expected to give birth to the first female professional league on these shores. Terrific. Go at it like tigresses. But let's have no illusions, okay? The United States probably won't arrive as an authentic futbol power until our weary, battle-stained boys straggle home from a loss in the Cup quarterfinals to, say, underpowered Turkmenistan and are greeted at the airport not by bewildered faucet salesmen from Keokuk but by a ferocious lynch mob, which proceeds to string up the head coach from a light fixture in the concourse bar and tears the team captain to shreds before he can get to the baggage claim.

It might take a while, but what a glorious day that will be.


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