WORLD CUP '94 : The Sole of the Matter : Two Disparate Views on the World's Most Popular Sport and Its Place in American Society : What Americans Don't Understand About Soccer, They Don't Care to Learn

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Soccer is not the most popular sport in the United States.

Soccer-bashing, however, ranks right up there, with the media leading the way.

Whatever the media cannot understand--and the list is a long one--they all too often delight in criticizing, ridiculing or, worst of all, ignoring.

And few sports in this country have been ignored as soccer has.

The result is that although the sport has experienced phenomenal growth in terms of participation on the youth, high school and collegiate levels over the last quarter-century, it still is perceived as being unpopular.

The blame for that can be shared, but much of it must be borne by the media.

True, newspapers are devoting far more space to the sport now that the World Cup is here. It's that way every four years--plenty of coverage during the quadrennial world championships and virtually nothing during the four years between tournaments.

Television is an even greater culprit.

Ten years ago, for instance, soccer was the best-attended event during the Los Angeles Olympics, attracting 1.4 million fans. Yet ABC ignored the sport, not bothering to televise a single game.

World Cup '94 kicks off in less than two weeks, yet how many features have you seen in the sports segments of the major networks' news broadcasts? Have any teams or players been profiled? Has the tournament even been mentioned?

No, and the reason is the perception that nobody cares, that the interest simply is not there--even though more than 3 million tickets have been sold.

Time and again, TV points to the low ratings when soccer games are televised. Time and again, newspapers pick up these figures and reinforce the myth.

The truth is, soccer fans in the United States long ago learned to bypass the mainstream media, both print and electronic, and find what they wanted elsewhere.

"Elsewhere," in this case, means the Spanish-language newspapers and television networks, as well as overseas newspapers and magazines that can be found on newsstands in most major cities.

Another example: The 1990 World Cup in Italy was televised in the United States by Turner Network Television (TNT) and Univision. TNT griped about low ratings. Univision was ecstatic. Because its coverage included no commercial interruptions and no inane chatter by pseudo-experts, Univision drew most of the audience, including large numbers of fans who did not even understand Spanish.

Similarly, while major newspapers nationwide are devoting more space to the sport, Spanish-language papers such as El Diario in New York and La Opinion in Los Angeles give soccer in-depth coverage year-round.

Another aspect of English-language media coverage that soccer fans see as totally unfair is the emphasis on the negative.

Soccer gets into print or onto the air in the United States whenever there is "hooligan" trouble, no matter how minor or localized the incident, and whenever there is a disaster, such as a stadium fire or grandstand collapse.

No one questions the need to cover such news, but soccer fans wonder why no coverage is given to major championships other than the World Cup, such as the European Championship or the Copa America (South American Championship) or the Women's World Championship.

It often is said that Americans like winners. Do well and the press will come knocking at the door.

It's not necessarily true.

The United States is the reigning world champion in women's soccer. It won the title in China in 1991 and will defend it next year in Sweden. But how much attention do the media pay to the U.S. women's team? Virtually none.

Similarly, the United States has national teams at different age levels competing in regional and world championships all the time. But does the public get to hear about that? Not a chance.

These are players who are American-born and American-raised. Youngsters who have come up through youth and high school soccer programs and are good enough to represent their country in international competition. They are also America's future Olympic and World Cup players.

How much better do they have to do to be recognized?

Those who deride soccer always use the same feeble and worn arguments. They claim it is a "boring" sport, with little or no scoring, and regard it as an "ethnic" sport and therefore somehow almost "un-American."

It is difficult to know which argument is the more ludicrous.

First of all, those whose pleasure from sport comes only from seeing a ball fly over a wall, a puck slam into a net or a football passed for a touchdown, are missing the point. Scoring is simply the culmination of a series of plays.

That scoring is more difficult in soccer makes the game more interesting, not less. Soccer is an intellectual game, chess with feet, as it were. Its beauty is in the constant improvisation occurring on the field.

This kaleidoscope of moves--without timeouts to check the playbook or diagram a play or ask the coach for help--shows not only the players' athletic ability but their intelligence. More than in most other sports, soccer players have be nimble of foot and mind.

There are columnists and commentators who find it laughable that soccer players are not allowed to use their hands.

That's not even correct. Goalkeepers can use their hands. Once again, opinion-makers have hold of the wrong end of the stick.

Soccer is not less attractive because of the no-hands rule, but more so. Former World Cup referee Ken Aston of England once said he believes the world's fascination with soccer is precisely the fact that people are intrigued by what can be accomplished without the use of hands.

There are literally millions of soccer fans in the United States, people who want to read about the sport, see it on television and go to games.

The problem is, because no major professional league exists here, these fans are confined to following the game overseas.

So, in Los Angeles for instance, they watch Univision or Telemundo or La Cadena Deportivo, all of which regularly show games from Europe and Latin America and include soccer in their daily sports news coverage.

They order videos from overseas and buy newspapers and magazines from Mexico or Italy or Brazil or wherever their favorite teams come from.

They form their own teams and leagues. They name them after the famous teams overseas, the ones they watch and read about. In Southern California alone, there are hundreds of leagues. Not teams, leagues. Most leagues have at least 10 teams. Most teams have 15 or 20 players. The math is simple. Never mind the millions of youth players nationwide, there are tens of thousands of adults playing soccer here, just as there are in cities across the country.

They are the soccer underground, the uncounted millions who, because they no longer rant and rave about how their sport is ignored, continue to be overlooked.

Those who, for whatever reason, would tear down soccer's increasing popularity in the United States point to polls that show "only" 20% of Americans know anything about the World Cup.

But 20% of Americans means 50 million people, and even if only one in 10 of those has an abiding interest in the sport, that's still 5 million fans who deserve better than to be ignored.

The irony is that American companies spend millions of dollars each year in sponsoring players and teams and competition abroad. If they invested even a small percentage of that money in the United States, a professional league here could become viable.

Soccer is not out to replace football or baseball or basketball or hockey. That has never been its desire or the intent.

All it seeks is a place in the American sports scene.

That place is deserved, but how much longer will it be before it is given?

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