U.S. Cup brimming with profits WORLD CUP 1994

July 19, 1994|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun Staff Writer

Want passion? Go to the opera.

Want reverence? Go to a place of worship.

Want to make a profit? Go to the United States.

Six years ago, critics slammed FIFA for awarding the 1994 World Cup to the United States, a soccer backwater in the eyes of Europe and South America. The 15th World Cup is history, and despite isolated complaints, now it seems that the question regarding the event isn't why it ever came here, but when it will return.

It wasn't the most aesthetically pleasing World Cup, but it was certainly more appealing than the dud staged in Italy in 1990. Financially, it was the most successful World Cup ever.

Attendance improved 40 percent over the previous best, as American fans bought into the prestige of the World Cup without hesitation.

Tackiness aside -- psst, buddy, want to buy "World Cup Commemorative Coins," or one of the original, official World Cup USA 94 City Light Pole banners? -- a third of the estimated $1 billion in World Cup merchandise sold worldwide was purchased in the United States.

It's estimated that more than 2 billion people worldwide watched the telecast of the championship match. The overnight ratings for ABC eclipsed the previous record for an American soccer telecast, the two-week-old mark set for the United States vs. Brazil in the second round.

The unfulfilling final still produced a worthy champion, as Brazil overcame Italy, 120 scoreless minutes and the dubious process of a penalty kick tiebreaker to become the first four-time winner.

The other 180-plus member nations of FIFA already are plotting to better their lot in France in 1998. The World Cup after that most likely will be awarded to Japan, and if it doesn't return to Europe in 2006, South Africa is interested.

After that, will South America have the financial and political stability to hold its second World Cup since 1962? If not, maybe Mexico will become the first to play host three times.

The United States again in 2010?

If FIFA decides to take advantage again of the NFL and college stadiums -- and more important, all that disposable income -- Americans will be better versed in soccer fan behavior.

What to make of 60,000 Irish backers at Giants Stadium on June 18, stopping their singing only once in the 90 minutes, to exult in the goal that handed Italy its only regulation defeat of the competition? What to make of the Brazilian fans who brought a samba beat to Silicon Valley?

This World Cup included the ridiculous -- a Nigerian walking on all fours like a dog and "marking his territory" after scoring against Greece -- and the sublime. The brilliance of Romario, Roberto Baggio and Hristo Stoichkov was predicted, but it was an unexpected pleasure to witness little-known Saeed Owairan carrying the ball 60 yards through Belgium to give Saudi Arabia its first World Cup victory ever.

Maybe the most stirring individual play of the entire 52 games came on a shot that missed the mark, the bicycle kick that Marcelo Balboa unleashed on Colombia in the United States' 2-1 upset victory that lifted it into the second round for the first time in 64 years.

The list of winners doesn't end with Brazil and the marketing departments.

The Saudis became the first Asian group representative since 1966 to advance past the first stage, and Nigeria picked up the African banner dropped by Cameroon. Bulgaria, with an 0-11-6 World Cup record on the morning of June 26, streaked into the semifinals.

Coach Bora Milutinovic delivered on his promise to get the U.S. team into the second round, thanks to the growth of youngsters such as Alexi Lalas, a defender whose play was thought to be as nTC unruly as his hair. Likewise, Univision announcer Andres Cantor might turn his 15 seconds of fame into a contract with one of the networks.

The losers?

Colombia, one of the pre-tournament favorites, didn't get out of the first round, and upon returning home to Medellin, defender Andres Escobar was murdered because his "own goal" had led to the loss against the United States.

Maradona, the greatest player since Pele but one haunted by personal demons, was banned after testing positive for "a cocktail of drugs" that presumably allowed him to gain match fitness. Stefan Effenberg was banished by German coach Berti Vogts after giving some heckling fans a one-fingered response. Shortly thereafter, the Germans went home.

Domestic World Cup profits are the seed money for Major League Soccer, scheduled to open in 1995 in 12 cities. Will it fly without the premier Americans, who need Europe an exposure to develop? Will the fans turn out tomorrow to watch today's collegians?

"We expect to average crowds of 12,000 to 13,000 at the start and we will build slowly from that," said Alan Rothenberg, who heads both the new league and the U.S. Soccer Federation. "We're not expecting overnight success. It could take 10 years to move our sport to the level of the big ones -- football, baseball and basketball."

It may take longer. It may never happen. Soccer as a spectator sport is not a new venture here, and the legacy of the past month doesn't necessarily translate into a viable first division come the 21st century.

The World Cup? An entirely different matter. Whenever FIFA wants to return, it's likely to be welcome.

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