Soccer's goal: American enthusiasm WORLD CUP 1994

June 12, 1994|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writer

This is what one national sports drink company thinks about World Cup '94: It airs a commercial with a racially mixed group of players participating in a pickup game, but most of the ad focuses on that world-renowned soccer player Deion Sanders.

Talk about an identity crisis.

World Cup '94 is here, America.

"The world's most popular sport," its organizers say.

Bigger than professional baseball and football, the games Sanders plays.

More popular than the Super Bowl -- 1 1/2 million spectators will watch this 24-team, 52-game, nine-city extravaganza, which -Z begins Friday and runs through July 17.

Draws more interest than the Olympics -- 1 billion people are expected to watch the championship game on television.

Could have an estimated impact of $224 million.

America yawns.

"I didn't know it was coming, and don't care if it's here," said Harold Perry, 18, from Baltimore. "It's sounds like a promotion at McDonald's, like a Happy Meal or something. I'm not much of a soccer fan, and neither are a lot of my friends.

Soccer may be big in the world, but it's boring. There's no action. You can't identify with any of the superstars. Plus, real football is played by big guys in shoulder pads, not little guys in short pants."

A number of Americans apparently agree.

A recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll showed that only 31 percent of Americans realize the World Cup is being played in the United States for the first time, 61 percent weren't interested in watching a game on television and 50 percent were not interested in the sport.

That's a position soccer enthusiasts want to change, but there's a more important question surrounding World Cup '94:

Will it come in with a bang and leave with a whimper, or will it generate enough interest to make soccer another major spectator sport in America? World Cup organizers not only have predicted a successful tournament, but are predicting success for Major League Soccer, a 12-team professional league that is scheduled to begin play in April.

"In due course, Major League Soccer will take its place right next to the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL, and become the fifth major professional team sport in the country," said World Cup chairman Alan Rothenberg.

"If they can put hockey in Florida and sell it, then we should be able to sell soccer in the U.S.," said Tab Ramos, a midfielder with the U.S. World Cup team. "This is our last chance to make soccer work. We have to develop a passion for the sport here."

Americans play soccer. But the rest of the world lives it.

Bulgaria's Parliament once delayed taking a no-confidence vote on Prime Minister Lyuben Berov so members could watch their team play against France.

Since the Saudi Arabian team arrived in the United States two weeks ago, coach Jorge Solari has gotten daily phone calls from the two sons of King Fahd. The Saudis have gone through four coaches since November.

Also during the past weeks, Brazilians living in the San Francisco Bay area have been showing up at Villa Felice Lodge in Los Gatos to take pictures of the 31-room, nine-suite hotel that the Brazilian team will call home through the World Cup quarterfinals.

"To every Brazilian who comes to San Francisco or San Jose for the next 30 years, this will become a shrine, because it will be a place where their beloved, revered team stayed," said Laurie Calloway, a Los Gatos resident and World Cup official.

That's passion.

American soccer fans thought they were on a similar journey in the mid-1970s, when the North American Soccer League had 24 teams, a national television contract and Pele.

But on Aug. 17, 1977, Pele bid his farewell to American soccer. There would be only two more recognizable American stars, Kyle Rote Jr. and Rick Davis. Seven years later, the league died.

"The league grew too fast, relied too heavily on foreign players and eventually caved in under its own weight," Mr. Rothenberg said. "We hope to benefit from the lesson of that bad history and do it right this time."

Taking the offensive

The outlook for pro soccer in the United States isn't good. Six major professional soccer leagues have come and gone since 1960. MoreAmericans are inclined to play it (16 million) than watch it.

"There's no doubt that the World Cup will be a success, that Americans will get into the color and pageantry of the World Cup," said Kenny Cooper, general manager of the Baltimore Spirit of the National Professional Soccer League.

"But this is a high-tech country, a society that wants instant gratification. I know the purist won't agree, but the game has to be catered more to the audience here. The game has to become faster and quicker."

Americans want more offense.

But as the bonuses for advancing through the early rounds of the World Cup have increased, the improvisation has decreased. Coaches are playing not to lose.

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