Media : It's the Sportswriters' Cup That Runneth Over : The party was great but it's over for reporters covering the World Cup. The U.S. will have a hard act to follow as host in 1994.


Mamas, let your babies grow up to be sportswriters.

For a month now, 5,000 sportswriters, editors, photographers, radio and TV announcers from 80 countries, together with technical wizards enough to repair the Hubble, have ricocheted through a dozen Italian cities in the name of soccer.

Most of the world's press revels in the World Cup as that once-every-four-year extravaganza when the news turns upside down--when sports fare normally relegated to the "back-of-the-book" suddenly dominates front pages and television screens from Siberia to Patagonia; Yaounde to the Yalu. More than sporting success, at stake is a priceless trophy: national pride.

Well, the party's over. The 52-game, 24-nation tournament ended Sunday night in one last full-throated catharsis at Olympic Stadium here. More's the pity. It is possible to conclude in the waning blizzard of glamour and adjectives that the toughest thing about the Cup for visiting sportswriters is to leave it.

The players are infinitely better paid, but in World Cup times at least, the men--and a few women--whose journalistic careers are wed to the caprice of the bouncing ball, are soccer's royal family. For thousands of them on every continent, assignment to a World Cup is among the most coveted of journalism's awards.

For the uninitiated, including a sprinkling of foreign correspondents masquerading as sportswriters, World Cup journalism in Italy proved a dazzling, almost fantasy world where--what's this?--there was never any need to chase the news.

No traipsing under the broiling sun for a quote at the World Cup. For a month, facts and figures came booming in, elegantly prepackaged and practically endless. Did you know . . . that Mexican referee is really a gynecologist, and really from Uruguay. . . .?

There is a lesson here, for most of the same journalistic cast will be on an American stage four summers hence, flitting around the United States which is the improbable host for the next Cup. In person, in print and on the tube, the world's international sportswriters will be comparing U.S.A. 94's performance to Italia 90 memories.

A tough act to follow, too. In Italy, the sportswriters were nursed and nourished, flattered and cosseted with an abandon normally reserved for conquering heroes.

They repaid public devotion with singular dedication. Never have so many written, talked, photographed, filmed, analyzed, debated, so much. About so little?

All Italian newspapers, like many counterparts around the world, published a special Mondiale section every day. Sports reporters rated every player in each game. They produced elaborate play diagrams that looked like intestinal maps. All 52 games were minutely dissected in merciless, often repetitive, public glare.

Every night, one glamorous Italian TV personality, who boasted about her ignorance of the game, perched in a short skirt on a spidery stool to interview actors, players, singers, fashion designers, politicians and clerics about all aspects of the unfolding soccer drama.

A proceeding both fulsome and fickle, to be sure.

For a month, Italy was filled with journalists for whom each match was a passion play; wordsmiths who could transform what might have looked like a ho-hum 1-0 game into a ringing exposition on the magnificence of the victors and the ineptness of the losers.

When defending champion Argentina lost the opening game, commentators broadly denounced its coach as incompetent. When Argentina rallied to reach the finals, he was lionized again. By then, the journalistic roof had fallen on the Italian coach, whose team yielded only a single goal in six games but was nevertheless eliminated.

Where did we go wrong? the Italian press demanded, switching, one edition to the next, from praise to scorn. Fifty-seven million Italians knew the answer. All different. And most of them, it seemed, wrote or broadcast their opinions.

One of Italy's two national sports newspapers has a daily circulation of more than a million. Both of them routinely process huge quantities of stories and pictures with skilled elan in the shadow of late-night deadlines that would dumbfound most American newspapers.

Foreign correspondents dragooned into writing about the Cup were scarcely more at sea than Cup sportswriters writing about the world. One eminent European soccer columnist managed in consecutive paragraphs to put Colombia in Central America and Costa Rica on an island. But he did correctly pick most of the second-round winners.

In Italy, the arcane expertise of the world's soccer soothsayers could hardly have been more appropriate. To say that Italy is soccer crazy is like observing that the Pope is still Catholic: 95% of all Italian television sets were tuned to Italy's heartbreak semi-final loss.

On the tournament eve, Cup-hungry newspapers warned that Italy seemed on the verge of a logistics collapse. When the curtain went up, though, seamless organization proved more durable than national dreams of a Cup championship.

In addition to its run-of-the-mill lovely weather and marvelous food, Italy mobilized perks for journalists ranging from freebies and discounts to the use of information-laden computer terminals and next-century telecommunications. The Cup had five times as many viewers as there are people on the globe, all of their sets fed simultaneously from a specially-built television center that may be the planet's most modern.

At all game cities, sportswriters found new, cool, spacious, round-the-clock press centers built for the Cup and staffed not only by their own myriad communications technicians, but also battalions of beautiful, polyglot Italian hostesses who served as interpreters and information specialists. Each press center, linked to Rome by a sophisticated computer network, boasted its own doctors, firemen, bankers, travel agents, free newspapers, coffee bars and plainclothes security force.

Here in Rome, there was even a restaurant, and a boutique selling Cup souvenirs. Sportswriters who felt cramped on free press buses could cheaply rent motorbikes. An obliging sportswear company stood by with trunks and towels to lend to sportswriters with time to lounge by the sparkling pool that was a venue of the 1960 Olympics.

Stadium facilities were equally impressive. Every sportswriter got his own desk with a television monitor to share with his neighbor for the replays. Computers assigned the press box seats, and in the international babel, inevitably made strange bedfellows. At one game, an American soccer neophyte, terrorized at the prospect of having to expound on a 0-0 draw, found himself sandwiched between a German from Hamburg who said he was a sportswriter but couldn't keep track of the time, the play or the (lack of) score, and an Egyptian who said he spoke both English and Italian but knew neither.

For venturesome sportswriters, those Italian cities where England played offered games of a different sort. The British Embassy gave daily hooligan press briefings on the maraudings of English zealots who had sallied south for the Cup--that day's count of injured, arrested, deported.

One snooty English financial paper deplored tabloid colleagues who, in beer-bellied truculence, resembled the hooligans they had come to cover. "I watched in horror today as English fans charged Italian police . . . ," one tabloid reporter wrote, describing a footnote encounter between police and English hooligans in Sardinia. "World War," read the page-one headline of another London tabloid recording the skirmish.

In and out of the stadiums, Italia 90 was great world fun. So much so, that as the sportswriting legions head home, it must be with some premonition that they have already savored the good old days. Given the consuming disinterest of Americans for the sport, U.S.A. 94 may turn out to be a world happening that soccer's assiduous chroniclers celebrate to the sound of one hand clapping.

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