World Cup Winners

July 17, 1994

If this serious and sober newspaper were published in, say, Milan or Sao Paulo, this editorial would not be about soccer's World Cup in general. It would be about tactics and lineups for today's final match.

Americans have had a chance to see the intensity that surrounds soccer in the rest of world as the World Cup is being played in this country for the first time -- such intensity that lineups have been second-guessed publicly not just by editorialists but by the president of Mexico, the prime minister of Italy and the Brazilian coach's mother. The lesson for Americans has been alternately joyful and appalling.

Joyful: the cheering, singing, drum-beating, costumed, DTC face-painted fans. Despite fears of hooliganism, the World Cup produced fewer arrests than the average National Football League game.

Also joyful: the quality of play. The matches, excessively defensive in the 1990 World Cup, have let Americans see the extent to which world-class soccer is a physical and mental challenge.

Appalling: Diego Maradona, once clearly the finest player in the world, then thought to be over the hill, playing two brilliant matches -- and then getting suspended for failing a drug test.

And most appalling of all: Andres Escobar, the Colombian player who, in a desperate attempt to tip away a dangerous U.S. pass, accidentally kicked the ball into his own goal -- and then was brutally executed back home in Medellin.

The World Cup is able to distill delight and pride and loyalty and anger and frustration because it is a competition between national teams.

Besides bringing some stability to player rosters (once a player has represented one country in international soccer competition, can never represent another), the athletic battle between nations allows people to impose their views (and, yes, prejudices) on the teams: Fans speak of stolid English teams, precise German teams, melodramatic Italian teams.

Some questioned the decision to bring the tradition and exhilaration of the World Cup to a country in which many see soccer as a sport for flailing clumps of 7-year-olds; youth soccer has been called America's largest day-care program. But the choice has proved to be a good one.

The United States has been good for the World Cup. This is a country that knows how to stage a big event; fans turned out in record numbers.

And the World Cup has been good for the United States. Soccer's championship is a spectacle and a festival. We've been privileged to experience it.

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