This Guy Is a Real Footballer

Can you imagine a football fan who doesn't know who Joe Montana is? Who never heard of Red Grange? Or, the Four Horsemen? Who thinks Notre Dame is a cathedral in Paris? Who thinks the Green Bay Packers sell meat? That the Miami Dolphins perform at Sea World?

There's about 500 million of them. They have never seen a forward pass or a zone defense.

When you say "football" in most parts of the world, you mean it. You are talking about a game that is played only with the feet. Our game should be "armball." The arm is vastly more important than the foot. The only guy in our game who never touches the ball with anything but his feet is the kicker. And, he's usually from an island in the Mediterranean, or a fjord in Norway.

American professional football proposes shortly to invade Europe. It is to be hoped it has better success importing our football there than they had with their football here.

Americans resisted the European game as stoutly as they resisted monocles, grand opera, powdered wigs and archdukes.

Did you ever think you'd meet a captain of his football team, one of the best players in the country, making 35 grand a year?

Well, meet Rick Davis, midfielder for (a little fanfare music, please, professor!) the American national football team, presumably the best aggregation of its kind this side of the San Francisco 49ers. Rick can do everything in his sport that, oh, say, Brian Bosworth can do in his. But, nobody's breaking his door down to get him in deodorant commercials or shoe promotions.

We call his game "soccer" in the United States, but it's football in the rest of the world. The governing body's initials, FIFA, stand for Federation De International Football and it makes the National Football League look like a branch office. It runs the game in 80 countries worldwide.

Soccer is at the crossroads in the United States, Rick Davis admits. It has its best chance in the next decade to crack through into the American consciousness as a bigtime event. For one thing, the World Cup, soccer's super Super Bowl, is coming here in 1994. With television starved for new divertissements, soccer/football hopes to rush into the void. The World Cup takes place just as the basketball and hockey playoffs are winding up and the game's fondest wish is an American team that can be competitive in its playoffs in the hopes Americans will take take this legal alien in and assimilate it.

The good news is, the host country gets a pass, an automatic invitation into the World Cup in its country. It doesn't have to qualify for 1994. But, the American team has to shoot its way into the next World Cup, in Italy in 1990.

So far, it is doing nicely, thank you. It is currently leading in the final playoffs in the CONCACAF (Confederation of North and Central America and Caribbean Assn. Football) qualifying, a five-team final round-robin for the final qualifying spots for Rome in '90. An American team has never kicked its way into soccer's World Series. The last time it went (Brazil 1950), it got in free (invitation). It didn't stay long.

Apart from the fact he's not driving a gold-colored Corniche, you'd never be able to tell Rick Davis was a football player. Soccer players don't run to Brobdingnagian dimensions. Nobody is called "Hoss," or "Bubba," or "The Refrigerator." Even the great Pele would have been able to make the welterweight limit.

Rick Davis is 5-foot-7, 155 pounds. The Raiders would use him at cornerback. But they might not want him. He has no police record, he's never busted up a bar, assaulted a motorist or even been caught speeding. But he's tough. You have to be to play soccer. There's no padding, no substitution (to speak of, you're allowed two a game, even if the starter gets killed). The game is 90 minutes long and is played on a field just smaller than Rhode Island which means you can be in for a 10-mile run in an afternoon.

Play is continuous. There are no TV timeouts. Although there are supposed to be no more than 11 men on a side, the ranks are sometimes swelled by 10,000 for one team as the United States found out when it played El Salvador two years ago. The spectators got in the act, even throwing Molotov cocktails at the Amis. It was nothing personal, the Salvadoreans did it to their compadres, the Honduras team, too, to the point the game had to be suspended with four minutes to play and the National Guard called in. This has resulted in a temporary postponement of the El Salvador-USA World Cup qualifying match.

Rick Davis, who has played for the New York Cosmos and the indoor soccer league (St. Louis Steamers, Tacoma Stars) thinks Americans could become a World Cup power. There are thousands of Peles in this country, he believes. The trouble is, most of them have a basketball or a bat in their hands or are wearing a T-shirt that says "Property of USC Football."

On Aug. 10 and 13 in the Marlboro Cup at the L.A. Coliseum, the American national team will get some gauge on how far it has to go when it meets the powerhouse Juventus Club from Italy. Juventus is sort of the Chicago Bears of European football. Six of its players were on Italy's victorious 1982 World Cup team. The winner of USA-Juventus on the 10th will play the winner of Mexico-South Korea in the final on the 13th.

"It's a proving ground and we'd like to prove we've arrived," said Captain Davis. Of course, in soccer, you don't know you've arrived till they start throwing Molotov cocktails at you. And you haven't hit the big time till they have to build a moat around you and fill it with piranhas.

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