I Hear America Snoring

June 16, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — It's here! World Cup soccer! In the United States! The sport that enthralls the globe will soon be appearing on our very own home television sets. Quick, somebody, bring me a No-Doz.

It's hard to say why even the prospect of watching international soccer slows my pulse and makes my eyelids heavy, but it does, and I know a lot of other people who experience the same symptoms. Yet soccer isn't intrinsically boring. It's fast, easy to understand, demands and displays a variety of athletic skills, and doesn't require much equipment.

So why is America snoring? Even though some of our most bombastic sports journalists are risking hyperventilation in their efforts to excite us over the World Cup, it still seems pretty obvious that as a spectacle, soccer hasn't yet come close to igniting the American imagination. It remains a much better game to play than to watch, and it's interesting to speculate why this is so.

In general, while public opinion in the United States may be indifferent to the World Cup, it isn't at all hostile to soccer. Lots of us play soccer, or used to play, or watch our children play. Although we've been a little slow getting started, soccer participation in this country sets new records every year. There are leagues for all ages, indoor and outdoor, for both sexes. Naturally, the caliber of play at the national level has improved a lot as a result, and American teams are no longer a joke in international competition.

This helps fan media interest, as does the widespread perception that American soccer is demographically upscale. There's a touch of snobbery here, but it's mostly economics. Sports coverage is ultimately about money; that's why there's so much attention on television to activities such as golf or sailboat racing, two especially soporific spectator sports that get a lot of air time simply because those who watch them are thought to be affluent.

Yet while it's probably true that soccer in the United States is still slightly yuppified and suburban in its focus, it may get over that in time. The sport in its home countries has the same honest blue-collar appeal that football, baseball and basketball do here. Interest in soccer unites people around the world, although it occasionally leads them to kill one another too.

One difficulty soccer faces in the United States is that while good soccer is a low-scoring game, Americans seem to prefer sports which put a lot of points on the board. Soccer games ending in scores of 1-0 or 2-1 are common. So are ties, which nowadays are resolved with a shootout.

The shootout, a highly unsatisfactory process that pits one player from each team against the other team's goalkeeper, is a fairly recent add-on that irks some soccer traditionalists. While it can be exciting, it has nothing much to do with the game that went before; it's as though a National Football League tie could be broken by a footrace between two selected backs or a weight-lifting competition between two linemen.

The shootout defect, it ought to be noted, isn't the fault of soccer's structure. It was grafted on, to the ultimate detriment of the game, by commercial interests which thought they were making improvements. Baseball was similarly damaged by the designated-hitter disaster.

In most sports, there's nothing wrong with a tie. It can be a fitting end to a close match between two well-matched teams. It can also be a near-equivalent of victory if one team was an underdog. (''Harvard Beats Yale 29-29'' read a headline after a famous Ivy League football game in which an underdog rallied to achieve a totally unexpected tie.) But the tycoons of sport see no poetry in a tie.

Another, more practical problem with soccer is that its continuous play doesn't mesh comfortably with the habits of the American couch potato. Timeouts are few or non-existent; in contrast to both football and baseball, which unfold at a stately pace no matter what the score, there's no safe moment to go for a beer, or to plug in a commercial about one. Further rule changes may be in order here.

Years ago I played soccer, with enthusiasm if without much distinction, in both high school and college. It was very much a minor sport in those days; there were so few spectators at our games that if anyone showed up in addition to the usual collection of parents and girl friends, we tended to notice immediately and wonder who they were.

My closest brush to soccer on what might be called the international plane came when, as a college freshman, I played in a scrimmage against a team which included the Aga Khan. Nothing very exciting happened during the game, but that evening when my roommates asked what I'd been doing that day I was able to tell them that I'd been playing Kick the Khan.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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