World Cup is a lot of noise . . .

June 14, 1994|By Phil Jackman

Just a couple more days until the biggie, the World Cup, takes permanent possession of the psyches of 2 billion of the world's inhabitants and . . . what do you mean you never heard of the thing?

OK, if that's the case, I'm here to fill you in on a few things you might find interesting as you ponder the question, what's all the noise about?

First off, the 24-nation tournament will rage from June 17 through July 17 with ESPN and ESPN2 on hand to cover 41 games and ABC doing 11. Univision will do all 52 games in Spanish. There will be rest days July 11-12 so you can slip away and take notice of the All-Star Game (that's baseball).

The final, the game for third place and one of the semifinal matches will be staged at the Rose Bowl, the ultimate confrontation going network. As surely as God made pretty black and white soccer balls, the big house in Pasadena should have no trouble dispensing 102,000 tickets for each of the eight games it will host.

As a matter of fact, just about all of the nine game sites are reporting only scattered tickets remaining with the Cotton Bowl in Dallas being the lone exception. The average daily temperature in July in Big D is 98.7 degrees (F) and, as a volunteer there pointed out, "Around here we're trying to emphasize that there's something other than the Cowboys." Yeah, Jose Canseco.

Germany is the defending Cup champion, having defeated Argentina in a dreadfully boring final four years ago, but it has been suggested by one Scottish player that it might be cheating. "When you play them, there are too many Germans on the field." U.S. midfielder Tab Ramos agrees, saying, "At times, it seemed like they had nine midfielders, nine forwards and nine defenders."

Brazil, always a mainstay in the tournament and the nation that retired the Jules Rimet Cup with victories in 1958, 1962 and 1970, exited the previous tournament after the quarterfinals. Courageously, the players returned to their homeland, something they won't do if they go down the tubes early again.

Cameroon, the rage of the 1990 event in Italy, is north of Zaire, south of Chad, southwest of Nigeria and northeast of Gabon for you folks a little weak in geography.

Despite its tradition and love of the game, Mexico carries a lousy 6-29 record into the tournament. But in World Cup qualifying it has outscored opponents 39-8 in a dozen games, which should make it a favorite among goal-hungry Americans.

When soccer nut James Michener was working on his book "Poland," he got to know several of the Polish players and every game he went to they seemed to win. He was named honorary mascot and the only game he missed during the 1974 tourney, the team lost.

Let's see, France disqualified itself from the tourney and was stripped of its European Cup triumph in a bribery scandal and England isn't in either. Shocking.

There are 12 million youth, schoolboys, collegians and adults playing in amateur soccer programs in the United States, which outstrips the populations of nine Cup participants: Belgium, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Greece, Ireland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. Hey, we're into this sport.

In a pair of two-week stints covering the tennis at the All England Croquet & Tennis Club (Wimbledon), not once in extensive travel throughout London did I ever see a basketball hoop. Meanwhile, every schoolyard had a goal painted on a wall for the kids to shoot at during recess.

In 1958, Pele, at age 17, scored two goals in Brazil's final victory clinching the Cup. Yet 20 years later, the coach of Argentina's team dropped Diego Maradona from the team at the same age because he was too young. Wow!

Why can't soccer continue to flourish as a participatory (and mainly amateur) sport in this country? Why is professionalism regarded as the loftiest of goals? It has been estimated that the U.S. Soccer Federation will profit to the tune of $25 million from the tournament and a huge chunk of that is earmarked for Major League Soccer, a pro league that debuts in 12 cities next spring.

In the final analysis, does the United States want to become so passionate about its World Cup adventures that it begins to resemble Brazil, where failure has an effect on the mental health of the country?

Raise your right hand and repeat after me: I will not apologize for this country's general refusal to raise the game of soccer to mystical heights just to satisfy those people who look upon our favorites of football, baseball, basketball, hockey and, to a lesser degree, boxing, golf, track and field, the racket and skating sports, gymnastics, etc. as mostly a waste of time.

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