The Cup's a kick, but will we get it?

December 27, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

The World Cup is coming to America. You knew that, right?

Right?

I had thought that everyone did, but now I'm not so sure.

When the Cup draw was held last weekend in Las Vegas, the worldwide viewing audience was an estimated 500 million, or something like five Super Bowl audiences rolled into one. But only some 313,000 American households tuned in, according to ESPN. That's peanuts. That's nothing. That's TV death.

A hair-weave infomerical would have drawn a bigger audience.

Celebrity bowling would have smashed the thing to pieces!

And that impressive display of apathy came shortly after the release of a poll revealing that only 13 percent of the country was aware the Cup was coming.

Thirteen percent.

Shoot, 22 percent of the country thinks pro wrestling is real, according to a poll taken in 1992.

In other words, World Cup '94 has a major, major problem.

The rest of the world might salivate with excitement come kickoff, but it appears that the home folks would rather watch for markdowns on QVC.

Cup officials and soccer freaks will point out in defense that tickets are hot items, almost impossible to get. True enough. But that only means there are enough corporations, European expatriates and curiosity seekers to sell out a World Cup. It doesn't mean the mainstream cares.

Too bad. I had a blast covering the last Cup four years ago. The games, though low-scoring, were often riveting, like geometry come to life. And the backdrop was fabulous, a sensory revelation, with fans singing and waving flags from the first second to the last.

I will never forget the noise of the home crowd building and building to a shattering crescendo as Italy's blue-shirted team approached the goal, passing and cutting with the deftness and precision of the Chicago Bulls.

Nor will I forget the sight of 30,000 Brazilian fans partying all night, playing samba music and dancing up and down the streets of Turin -- peacefully, without inconveniencing anyone.

The fact that the assignment forced me to spend five weeks in Italy on an expense account possibly contributed to my enjoyment of the event. But it would have qualified as a sporting fantasia anywhere.

The '94 Cup should have much of the passion that makes it such a special event. Despite the apparently rampant nonchalance in the streets here, there are more than enough people who care. Mexico and Brazil will bring tons of fans. The Italians have an aura; their game with the Irish, in Giants Stadium, should create a hysterical scene. The underdog United States will attract followers.

No, there's little doubt that the event will succeed on a multitude of levels -- sellouts, stadium excitement, corporate sponsors, media coverage.

But will people care?

Sorry, but I just can't help feeling skeptical. The success of spectator sports is all about feeling connected, and the average American fan has no connection to soccer's history.

The U.S. team's defeat of England in the 1950 Cup is considered one of the great moments in soccer history, an all-time national embarrassment in England, but as a U.S. landmark it ranks somewhere below the Fan Man parachuting into the ring during Bowe-Holyfield.

The average U.S. fan's knowledge of soccer probably is limited to the riots and hooliganism that has increasingly marked the sport. As if things are peaceful in Chicago after the Bulls win.

As much as moms and kids have built a sizable soccer constituency in this country, it has never translated into a ticket-buying public. Large-scale, outdoor soccer has failed as a professional enterprise.

(Amateur sociologists have offered countless explanations ranging from our need for more excitement to our obsession with our hands, or something like that. Don't ask me. I just work here.)

With that institutional disinterest, and our sporting calendar already saturated with leagues, games and teams, it's hard to envision the talk shows in a frenzy over Romania-Switzerland on a Wednesday afternoon in Pontiac, Mich. (What's the line anyway, Romania minus a half?) Or any game, for that matter.

I hope that's wrong. I hope people get into it. The World Cup is a genuine phenomenon that won't come back for decades. Organizers are hoping it'll serve as a fuse to light a new national league.

I hope things work out for them. I like the game, and its culture.

But I wonder.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.