For drama, this Cup runneth over

July 11, 1994|By Phil Jackman

They say Americans don't relate to soccer; at least not in dizzying numbers, which lead to huge television ratings, mammoth salaries, staggering ancillary rights, agents and all the other things that we know have a way of contributing to the ruination of sport.

So let's view Sweden's victory over Romania in the last World Cup quarterfinal match yesterday as a guy hitting a three-run home run with two outs in the last inning with his team trailing by two runs. In dramatic lore, it is known as "the Shot Heard 'Round the World."

Or how about comparing it to a quarterback launching a Hail Mary pass from midfield with his team trailing by four points and a teammate hauling it in in the end zone after time has expired? Doug Flutie, take a bow.

Then there's the last-second shot from afar by the player whose team is trailing by two points and, as the final buzzer sounds, the referee signaling it's a three-pointer. What was the name of that young lady from North Carolina?

And there's the hockey goal in sudden-death overtime, the double eagle to win a golf tournament (the Masters, no less) and a perfect score on the balance beam, from the diving platform or in the number of targets hit.

Sweden was down a goal and playing a man short in overtime. This after giving up a goal in the last 90 seconds of regulation time to allow Romania a tie. But it got a goal late to force a 5-on-5 shootout and appeared a sure loser again when its first designated shooter sent the ball rocketing over the goal.

Meanwhile, the Romanians were like automatons -- bing, bang, bong, bing, their first four shooters cashed in. Sweden needed a connection by its fifth shooter to tie and force a sudden-death shootout, then goalie Thomas Ravelli had to thwart the fifth Romanian shooter. Done. No problem.

Sweden knocked its first one in, then Ravelli guessed right again and Romania was beaten. This was Bobby Thomson stuff, Jerry West, Kirk Gibson, Roger Staubach, Dusty Rhodes, you name 'em . . . and with the world watching.

I suggest we can relate. Especially considering 48 Cup games to date have averaged 66,805 spectators per game and names like Hagi, Romario, Klinsmann, the Baggios, Dahlin and Stoitchkov are flowing from the lips like Tinker to Evers to Chance.

We're probably going to find out even after the U.S. team was eliminated, the reading, watching and listening audience continued to grow through the second round, the quarterfinals, Wednesday's semis and the big one come Sunday.

For too long it has been assumed that America's interest in the so-called minor sports is restricted to what "our boys" do, which is a roundabout way of suggesting that, generally speaking, we are not a very sophisticated audience willing to expand our interests. Sometimes, it seems as if we have as many sports, professional and amateur, as some countries have people and we're always willing to take on more.

It is not to be assumed, however, that come the new pro soccer league starting in the United States next year, large live and TV audiences will be part of the show and some guys will be making Cal Ripken-like salaries come the next World Cup in 1998.

It took the kind of ending the Swedes provided late in the afternoon to relegate Bulgaria's stunning 2-1 upset of defending champion Germany earlier to lounge-act status. Bulgaria has not beaten Argentina, Mexico and Germany consecutively, so it's not like an Indiana State making it all the way to the final of the NCAA basketball tourney.

But Germany's failure to make the semifinals seems somehow sacrilegious. The Huns (which should make them Baltimore's team, right?) had been there every tourney since 1978. And since being allowed back in FIFA after World War II, Germany had made eight of 10 Final Fours.

This game was far superior to the one that followed all the way through, Bulgaria overcoming a 1-0 deficit resulting from a penalty kick by scoring goals in the 76th and 79th minute of the 90-minute match. The diving header goal by Iordan Letchkov, the winner, was as exciting as they come and undoubtedly he has already been signed to serve as host of Bulgaria TV's equivalent of the "Today" show.

And Saturday's other quarterfinals were just as good, Italy, as usual, saving its heroics for the end while nipping Spain, 2-1. Then Brazil, after being the beneficiary of what was probably a missed offside by the referee earlier, winning on a free kick goal in the late going, 3-2.

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