WORLD CUP '90 : COMMENTARY : By Rubbing Elbows With Pros, U.S. Team Can Be a Contender


The World Cup soccer extravaganza called Italia '90 is roaring toward its climax here to rapt international attention and a television audience on five continents measured in the billions.

A willing but unable American team, making the first United States Cup appearance in 40 years, has long since departed. The Americans, though, had the only team already qualified to play in the next edition of the world's most popular sports tournament. As host country of the 1994 World Cup, the United States qualifies automatically as one of the final 24 teams.

As Italy is discovering this summer, amid some travail but mostly triumph, the coveted Cup sponsor's role is a unique opportunity. More than just a sporting event and commercial bonanza, the 1994 World Cup will be a chance to offer a broad, revealing glimpse of the real America to an international audience weaned on Hollywood superficiality.

Success, directly involving the cream of American business and at least a dozen of the more than 30 cities vying to be 1994 game sites, ought to become a national commitment.

The ability of the United States to effectively stage the next Cup is unquestioned. The danger, though, is that the 1994 Cup will be technically perfect but artistically empty when the American team steps onto the field. There is every prospect, alas, that the United States again will be the doormat of Cup play.

As their performance here demonstrated, the Americans are a generation behind the rest of the world in competitive professional soccer. There is skill, and there is will among the young American players. But there is no way they can catch up in a country such as the United States without a professional league in which to hone and extend their talents.

They have already gone about as far as the anemic structure of American professional soccer will allow. Even if--against all odds--a high-quality soccer league were to spring full blown in the United States tomorrow, there is no way it could be good enough soon enough to make the American team competitive in 1994.

It will take prompt initiative, more than a dash of audacity--and a little help from our friends--to avoid a sad-sack replay. But it can be done.

America's dedicated young players deserve a chance to show us, themselves, and the world in 1994, how good they could become.

If there is nowhere for young Americans to grow at home, then Mohammed must go to the mountain.

Two mountains, in fact, both soccer-tall, both friendly, both with a lot to teach.

One is Italy, the other is Brazil.

They play some of the world's best soccer, as different as samba and opera in their purest forms, but winsome in either.

They are also special friends of the United States of whom we could unabashedly ask a favor in our interest, and theirs. Both are bound to be major characters in the USA '94, both are likely to be pleased by the compliment implied by the request, and the pride of authorship of its potential result.

Here's what we should do:

Let the United States enroll one team of America's most promising players, the kernel of the 1994 Cup team, as an exhibition squad in the Italian second division, and another in a Brazilian second division. That is not asking to be admitted without credentials to the major league--the first division--but to the high minors, where the quality of soccer is good and American all-star teams would be immediately competitive.

Players on the teams would be paid honorable salaries by the U.S. Soccer Federation in collaboration with the corporate sponsors of the 1994 cup. U.S.-based multinationals are prominent among the Italia '90 sponsors.

The American teams, led by two world-class coaches, and based, say, at a soccer ranch in Sao Paulo state, and a soccer farm in Umbria, would play a regular league schedule, two tough games a week. The results would not count in league play.

Any money the games generated would go to the local clubs, or to their leagues. Besides the novelty of having soccer-hungry Americans in their midst, that would help make it worthwhile for the teaching teams to play an extra game or two a season.

The American teams would abide by all rules of the league with the exception of having total control of their rosters. If an American player drew an offer from a European or South American club, he would be immediately released and his spot filled by a fresh recruit from the United States.

When the Americans were not playing league games, they would be playing intra-squad at a facility dedicated to soccer and stocked with new talent as some players left and others arrived.

Between times, if they became good enough, the overseas Americans could barnstorm through the European and South American heartland of professional soccer. There are many games to be lost, and perhaps some to be won, but every one would be a positive step toward 1994.

Who knows? When the "Brazilians" and the "Italians" came back to the United States to play against down-home teams and one another, Americans might even go out to watch the results of such an provocative experiment.

Let's get moving now. Letting a friendly international connection help make America competitive on the field in 1994 will take dynamism, organization, and a sure diplomatic hand to overcome the murmur of lawyers and the whining of the it's-never-been-tried-befores.

Who could get the ball rolling?

Henry Kissinger could.

Kissinger is a to-his-roots soccer fan, a columnist for this newspaper at Italia '90, and a major reason that the United States will be the host country for the 1994 tournament. A guest of FIFA, the international soccer federation, Kissinger is hopscotching his way through Italian stadiums en route to the Cup final in Rome July 8.

Kissinger has the access. He has the know-how. The iron will never be hotter. Just as Italia '90 is this summer, USA '94 should be a great show for the world. But who wants to come to a party at which the hosts are inept?

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