World-class pressure it isn't WORLD CUP 1994

June 22, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

PASADENA, Calif. -- The members of the United States' World Cup team insist that, as the host team, they're under intense pressure to win. Wherever he goes to hide between games, Arrigo Sacchi must be laughing.

Sacchi is the coach of Italy's national team. He is a kind, gentle intellectual whose every move is second-guessed and debated by the tifosi, or carriers of typhoid, the lovely nickname for Italy's 50 million hysterical soccer fans. If Italy doesn't win the Cup, the tifosi probably will throw rocks at him when he gets home, or at least steal his dog.

That's pressure.

Colombia, which plays the United States tonight in the Rose Bowl, was expected to challenge for the Cup, but got bamboozled by Romania in its first game. The defeat overshadowed a presidential election back home and led to such understated headlines as "Nightmare!" A loss to the long shot U.S. team would be viewed as no less than a national disgrace.

That's pressure.

The truth is that every other Cup team is under considerably more pressure than are the Americans. The others are all Dream Teams, composed of their country's best and brightest superstars in by far the most popular sport. The Cup is the Super Bowl, World Series and Olympics wrapped into one in those countries. The players and coaches face microscopic scrutiny -- and plan to vacation abroad if they lose.

Here in the United States, some large, colorful soccer posters have gone up in airports, and the Cup's television ratings have managed to surpass those for golf and bowling. If the Americans want to call that pressure, fine, but it doesn't quite measure up to having your face painted on a dart board in some bar.

The German players, who must win the Cup to satisfy a public grown accustomed to such success, are under pressure.

The Russian players, who revolted against their coach and then were exposed as weak by Brazil the other day in front of 150 million television viewers back home, are under big-time pressure.

Brazil's Carlos Albert Parreira, a guileful, accomplished coach who is called an idiot every day of his life by someone with a forum to do so, is under pressure.

The Americans don't know from pressure.

The national debate in Italy today is whether Sacchi should use more offensive-minded players. U.S. coach Bora Milutinovic could start 11 kangaroos and the American sporting public wouldn't utter a peep.

Colombians -- and fans in most other countries, for that matter -- are worried about their team accumulating enough first-round points to advance to the knockout portion of the Cup. Most U.S. sports fans don't know what the home team needs to advance, and, just a hunch, don't care. Maybe things would be different if O. J. Simpson somehow were involved. Oh, well.

As much as happy, sellout crowds and relatively high TV ratings indicate a successful Cup and a heightening of America's soccer consciousness, the public isn't demanding that the U.S. team succeed. Far from it. How can anyone expect success when there's never been any before?

Of course, say the U.S. players, that's the precisely the reason they're under pressure: Because it's up to them to turn the United States into a country that cares about soccer. (Cares enough, at least, to support a new pro league starting next year.) "We're carrying the flag for the future of our sport here," goalkeeper Tony Meola said.

The players are young and well-intentioned and all that, and you can see their logic; now that the Cup is here and they're getting some attention, it's time to make a move. But, let's face it, if soccer's future in the United States rests on the shoulders of a team that is just trying to make it to the second round, soccer's future in the United States is bleak.

Somehow, it's hard to envision the American public going bananas just because the United States managed to avoid becoming the first host team in Cup history to avoid first-round elimination. That's the team's goal. Not exactly an adman's dream.

Yes, the overall Cup experience can give soccer momentum here, and probably will, but any success ultimately will come down to how creatively the sport is packaged and sold. David Stern can tell you all about it. U.S. success in the Cup would help TV ratings in the short run, but, in the end, soccer's debatable future as a U.S. spectator sport will come down to that great American institution: the sell.

The U.S. players are stuck on this self-defeating notion of saving the game, however, and it's making them tense when they should be loose. They don't have an avid fandom to satisfy. No one expects them to go far in the Cup. No "Nightmare!" headlines await. Colombia, tonight's opponent, is under twice as much pressure. But, as goes the great unwritten rule of sports in the '90s: If you can't find any adversity to face, just make some up.

TODAY'S GAMES

First round

* Romania vs. Switzerland at Pontiac, Mich., 4:05 p.m., ESPN

* United States vs. Colombia at Pasadena, Calif., 7:35 p.m., ESPN

Standings, previews, notes, 9C

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