The World's Game WORLD CUP 1994

June 19, 1994

Think of the excitement generated by the "dream team" representing the United States in basketball in the 1992 Olympics. Then imagine 143 countries fielding dream teams. And imagine that rather than brushing aside a bunch of Angolas, the U.S. team is facing an intensely competitive tournament in which at least half a dozen teams have a good chance of winning. Finally, imagine that nearly everything stops in countries around the world as people watch the games.

That gives you some idea of what soccer's World Cup means -- at least outside the United States, which is playing host to the tournament for the first time. Matches will be played over 31 days in nine U.S. cities. Washington has its opening ceremonies and its first match today.

Soccer is the most universal of team sports.

Invented, or at least codified, in England more than a century ago, it spread throughout the British empire, and well beyond. There are professional leagues in many countries, and league winners play each other in various cup competitions. But the main event is the World Cup, with all-star teams from each country meeting every four years.

Virtually all the 3.5 million tickets for the 52 games have been sold, but the hosts remain largely indifferent. A Harris Poll released Monday reported that 71 percent of Americans still didn't know the World Cup was being played here.

Some suggest the world's most popular sport hasn't caught on in the United States because it is so low-scoring (just 2.21 goals per game in the last World Cup). Perhaps it is because in a nation obsessed with quantifying its sports (The Sun reports 15 separate batting statistics each week for every player in major league baseball), soccer is a game with virtually no numbers: just a few goals scored.

But the rest of the world will certainly be paying attention. The cumulative television audience for all Cup matches is expected to be 32 billion. (Of the five most-watched sports events in television history, four are soccer matches.) More than 2,000 Bulgarian fans have received visas to come to the United States and watch their team compete. College students in Bangladesh -- a country that didn't come close to qualifying -- held street demonstrations to have their exam schedules changed so they could watch the televised matches.

If we don't pay attention, it's our loss. One of the world's great spectacles is being presented here: a flowing, improvisational sport played at the highest level, and spectators who combine the enthusiasm of fans with the intensity of patriotism.

Enjoy.

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