The World Cup is Here, but One Distressed Fan Is Not WORLD CUP 1994

June 19, 1994|By MICHAEL HILL

JOHANNESBURG — Johannesburg. -- It was a Saturday morning 28 years ago. The other members of my family were scurrying about getting ready for an overnight trip. The younger son was not doing his share because I was transfixed in front of the television, which was showing, for the first time in the United States, a World Cup final on the same day it was played.

Three years before, I had been introduced to soccer at school, and it immediately became a favorite sport. But I had never seen it played on this level, with such skill, such grace, such power. And such drama.

It turned out I was watching one of the classic World Cup finals -- England's overtime struggle with Germany at London's Wembley Stadium. Germany tied it up in the final seconds, but the British scored twice -- the first goal still controversial -- in the 30 minutes of extra time.

I was hooked, not just on soccer, but on the World Cup, an amazing sports extravaganza rivaled only by the Olympics in my book. In the years since, I have missed only one World Cup final, though they were not put back on broadcast television until 1982.

In 1970, after a Pele-led Brazilian squad outclassed Italy 4-1, I walked out of the closed-circuit telecast bleary-eyed into the bright sunshine of an Atlanta day. Next to the auditorium, delirious Brazilian fans had formed an impromptu conga line and danced in celebration.

Four years later -- and I reveal this reluctantly to my editors at The Sun -- I slipped out of the Annapolis Bureau in the afternoons and dashed over to Washington, where sleek diplomatic limos came to a seedy section of town to double-park outside the arena, bringing dark-suited men smoking strong tobacco to watch preliminary matches. In the final, a packed house saw a solid German team beat Johann Cruyff's exciting Dutch squad.

In 1982, it was the brilliance of Paolo Rossi and Italy; in '86 the magical Diego Maradona leading Argentina; in '90, the mistake-free Germans beating the cynical Argentines.

And so, a little over a year ago when I was offered the opportunity to take over The Sun's Johannesburg Bureau, I had to decide -- do I go watch South Africa transform itself into a democratic country, a history-making event that journalists usually only dream about witnessing? Or do I stay home and get to go to World Cup games?

Not an easy choice.

So here I am, 8,000 miles away, on this Sunday morning hoping that I haven't heard who won the USA-Switzerland game yesterday because South African television isn't showing it until this afternoon.

(Cup competition began Friday, and continues for a month at nine U.S. cities.)

It's frustrating, but at least I am in a country where soccer is recognized as a major sport, where there is widespread excitement about the World Cup. All the games will be televised, even if some are delayed.

Because Americans play sports that developed in isolation, we have little appreciation for the passions that develop when you follow a national team on an international quest, feelings that are raised even higher here because the country's teams are emerging from decades of their isolation.

Here, an entire country's pride was on the line two weeks ago as the South African rugby squad took on the British team that had humiliated them the week before. The South Africans prevailed.

A similar obsession took over when South Africa and Australia spent about three months playing each other in home-and-home series of cricket matches.

Like virtually everything in South Africa, this is affected by race. The Afrikaners play rugby, the English play cricket. The blacks play soccer. Actually, the soccer squad is one of the few truly integrated national teams. Though improving, it hasn't done that well since returning to the international scene. It just lost two 1-0 games in Australia. There's great skill, but the team needs more experience on the international level.

On Monday, a television set in a store window was showing a replay of the second Australia game. Some 50 people stood in front of the window watching. All were black.

From this distance, it is hard to judge how much my native country is appreciating the sports spectacle that is just beginning to unfold before them. Americans should know that much of the world is poking fun at them for their lack of knowledge of soccer and enthusiasm for the World Cup.

As for those Americans, many of them sports columnists, who wallow in their ignorance and take pride in their parochial tastes, to me they are the equivalent of people who walk into the Louvre and don't bother to look at the paintings, who go to Paris and hang out at a hamburger joint where they serve Budweiser.

The point is this -- even if you know nothing about soccer, don't be afraid to learn. Four billion people can't be wrong. This is a great game. Try it, you'll like it.

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