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WORLD CUP ’94 : The Sole of the Matter : Two Disparate Views on the World’s Most Popular Sport and Its Place in American Society : Americans Don’t So Much Dislike Soccer as They Are Simply Ambivalent About It

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The oldest and most prolific soccer franchise in the United States is practicing on a tennis court.

Carpet covers the asphalt. Wooden boards surround the baselines.

The San Diego Sockers are young and shaggy-haired and laugh easily as soccer balls leave their feet and clang into one of the goals.

Clang , because the goal is a chain-link fence.

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Later, they will walk past courts still used for tennis, lock their cars and leave the neighborhood as prostitutes are arriving.

The Sockers have won 10 professional indoor soccer championships in 13 years, yet their British coach still fights the urge to give up.

“There are times I think, ‘Did I do the right thing by remaining in the United States?’ ” says Ron Newman, who has pushed his sport here for 26 years. “I tell my friends the horror stories about soccer, and they all say, ‘Why on earth do you stay?’ ”

Why, indeed? Despite a 20-year infusion of players, fields, leagues and knee socks with tassels, there is a truth in this country as it prepares to play host to the most important soccer event in the world:

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We do not give a hoot about soccer.

Statistics show that our children play it more than they play baseball. Our colleges have more soccer teams than football teams.

Yet we do not watch it. Not on television, not in person and certainly not where the purchase of a ticket is required.

Does Ron Newman ever have horror stories.

Ten years ago, his Sockers averaged 11,415 fans for 16 games at the 12,948-capacity Sports Arena. Since then, they have:

--Lost their longtime owner.

--Lost their league.

--Lost the roof over their heads.

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Only in soccer, only in America, could an indoor dynasty have to practice outside.

The once-proud North American Soccer League of the 1970s has been moved inside and eventually whittled into the Continental Indoor Soccer League, of which the Sockers are members and play in front of an average of 5,500 fans.

“We have just not created enough excitement for the game here,” Newman said. “People say, ‘Why should I watch?’ ”

People say worse than that.

A Harris Poll conducted in February showed that only 20% of Americans realized that the World Cup will be held in this country this summer.

Only 25% of Americans even know that the World Cup involves soccer.

And more than half, 53%, said they are not interested in watching any of the games on television.

And this is the most-watched sporting event on the globe.

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Pollsters did not ask the respondents for their reasons. But here are a few ideas.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN, WE CAN’T USE OUR HANDS?

For those casual observers who think the corner kick is a country-western dance, the game plays like a strange foreign film.

Players penalized for touching the ball with their hands? Players applauded for hitting the ball with their head?

Players who, upon being lightly bumped, fall to the ground in a sobbing heap?

“Soccer feels like it belongs to another culture,” said Eric Denson, sports psychologist at the University of Delaware. “Baseball is our national pastime, everything about football is very American and basketball is our urban phenomenon. I don’t know where soccer fits in that mix.”

THIS WEEK ON TELEVISION: 40 EPISODES OF MATLOCK, NO SOCCER.

Remember those sweet old days when the most commonly repeated adage in sports was, “May the best man win?”

Today, it’s, “Without television, you’re meat.”

No spectator sport can survive without a television contract. If you don’t believe that, there are United States Football League tickets to sell you.

Soccer is without a major television contract because network executives are convinced nobody will watch it.

Soccer fans claim nobody can watch it because it is seldom on television.

Undisputed is that in 1990, the World Cup telecasts from Italy averaged only a 1.2 rating on the TNT cable network. That translates to 571,000 cable households, less than half the average ratings drawn by bowling, boxing or the New York Marathon.

“It is not the ideal game for television,” said Kevin O’Malley, TNT senior vice president for programming. “The pacing of the game, the size of the field, the subtleties of the game, all of that makes it difficult.”

It doesn’t help that there are no home runs, touchdown catches or bench-clearing brawls.

“We are a microwave popcorn culture. We don’t want to wait long for action,” said Joel Cohen, a Los Angeles human relations specialist who wrote a master’s thesis for Boston University on the future of soccer in America. “But soccer takes time to develop. We don’t have the attention span for it.”

Of course, none of those theories accounts for the real reason Americans can’t sit and watch a 90-minute soccer games.

There are no timeouts. When are we going to go to the bathroom? Or the fridge?

EXCUSE ME, BUT WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING THE LAST 90 MINUTES?

Arguably, the most sensuous of all English verbs in the United States is score.

You score tickets to a concert. You scored big with the boss by staying late to finish that project.

And what would teen-ager movies be without somebody bragging to somebody else about, well, you know.

Recently, the NFL changed rules that have been around for 75 years. Reason? To increase scoring.

People are still writing bad jokes about the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Reason? The teams averaged 2.2 goals a game. Combined.

“All Americans want is scoring, while Europeans only care about the final result,” Newman said. “For Americans, points (are) entertainment. Europeans couldn’t even tell you the final score . . . but they know who won.”

It might help if, every time a soccer player scored, he didn’t scream at the clouds and fall to his knees and act as if this was the last goal we would see this century.

WE’D LEAP FROM WINDOW AFTER A LOSS ONLY IF PUSHED

Soccer’s biggest asset is not its strategy or its athleticism, but its passion.

There are few press boxes in European stadiums, by request of the reporters. To cover a soccer game there is to sit in the stands and cover the singing, weeping, flag-waving and fistfighting.

That doesn’t quite describe your typical Dodger fan.

“I just watched the Knicks beat the Bulls in their final playoff game, and it was an intense game,” said Kyle Rote Jr., the first American soccer player to gain renown here. “But there were not any suicides in Chicago the next day, and the Chicago mayor was still in office. People simply turned their attention to the White Sox and the Cubs.”

In other countries, soccer is the sport. If the national team loses, there could be a coup.

Not containing the flash of other sports, soccer requires this passion to survive. Newman said it can be developed here only when that boy down the street grows up to be a pro soccer player, and the entire neighborhood becomes his fan.

Soccer needs people, not cheering for a sport, but for other people.

“When my wife was coaching youth soccer in Dallas, there was a father who wouldn’t stay for the games because he didn’t understand them,” Newman recalled. “But after a few weeks, when he realized he was missing a part of his son’s life, he started staying longer and longer.

“By the end of the season, he still didn’t know much about soccer, but I caught him fighting another parent in a ditch.”

INK-STAINED WRETCHES WOULD RATHER PICK UP A CHECK THAN WRITE ABOUT SOCCER

It is the soccer family’s belief that opinion makers in this country hate the sport. They believe the media either rip it or ignore it, without ever understanding it.

“You show me a sports editor of a major newspaper in this country who likes soccer, and I will show you a miracle,” Newman said.

Upon hearing this comment, George Solomon made the earth move.

“I like soccer,” said Solomon, assistant managing editor, sports, for the Washington Post. “If you look back at how the NASL was covered, it was covered well. On a number of occasions--the Washington Diplomats were here--we led the newspaper with it. A well-conceived outdoor league would generate coverage and interest.”

Soccer fans complain that even when columnists write about their sport, they trash it.

“That really annoys me,” said Glenn Dickey, longtime sports columnist of the San Francisco Chronicle and former soccer beat reporter. “Very few sportswriters understand soccer at all, but rather than make an attempt to learn, they just dismiss it as stupid because nobody scores.

“If a guy doesn’t know about a sport, don’t write about it. I don’t.”

Bob Smizik, sports columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was recently embroiled in local controversy when he ripped the sport. And his son plays it.

“It’s very boring. I can’t get excited even at my kid’s soccer game,” Smizik said. “There is a lack of scoring. A lack of understanding about the rules.

“Violence in sports turns me off, but it turns most Americans on . . . and soccer is not violent enough. It’s too clean.”

Even in Pennsylvania, one of the top soccer-playing states, Smizik is not alone.

When the fledgling Major Soccer League began campaigning in Pittsburgh for $50 ticket pledges in hopes of bringing a franchise there, a local television reporter offered to pay people not to buy the tickets.

“Under no circumstances does this guy want a soccer team in this town,” Smizik said.

IMAGINE BASKETBALL IN A COUNTRY WITH NO FULL COURTS

Newman remembers walking into Balboa Stadium in San Diego during renovations and noticing long-jump pits being put on the sidelines.

“I rushed home and wrote the city a letter, asking them to please put the long jump pits in the end zones so the field could remain wide enough for soccer,” Newman recalled. “I got a letter back from an official who wrote that he would not change anything because he was trying to make the field suitable for all sports.”

Newman sighed and said: “But wasn’t that my point?”

Appropriately, one of the best soccer stadiums in the country is one that has been deserted by a football team--the facility at Cal State Fullerton.

Rare is the field built just for soccer. Fields that could attract professional outdoor teams are built for football. Most new recreational fields are built for softball.

For those wishing to watch good soccer, neither works.

Football fields are too narrow. An official football field is 53.3 yards wide. A proper soccer field should be at least 70 yards wide.

“So the soccer that many Americans see is like soccer being played in an alley,” Newman said. “That makes it easy for the defense. Fewer goals are scored, leading to all the complaints about no scoring.”

Softball fields have pitching mounds and dirt, both of which hurt soccer players more than other sports.

“The trend today is to just put a soccer field in the middle of softball fields,” said Mona Nahimy, recreation specialist for the city of San Diego. “Many people play soccer, but many people also play softball. And baseball is still our national sport.”

THE GRANDFATHER FACTOR

Many children have learned about baseball from older relatives who have taken them to games and explained the nuances.

When a grandfather and his grandchild attend a soccer game--if ever--the child does the explaining.

“It is hard to spread the beauty of the sport when there are generations of people over 30 who do not understand it,” said Rote, now a sports agent. “I take my son to a baseball game, I can explain about cutoff throws. The more he appreciates the game, the more he loves to watch it.

“For many parents and grandparents, that cannot happen in soccer. And it won’t happen until today’s younger soccer players grow up.”

Rote hopes to serve as a surrogate grandfather at the Rose Bowl later this summer when he coaches the contestants in the Gillette Free Kick Challenge. In the contest, a person can win $1 million for kicking a ball into a four-foot space from 15 yards away.

“I will teach this person about kicking from the inside of the foot, and outside of the foot, and off the shoelaces,” Rote said. “It will be a great chance to school someone on the nuances of the game.”

And if the contestant is American, he will probably figure out a way to throw it in.


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