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WORLD CUP USA ‘94 / THE FIRST ROUND : After the Fall, Show Goes On

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Down went Oprah and so did Bolivia.

At the same stadium where Gene Tunney once got knocked off his feet and stayed that way for a very long count, then got up to win a famous heavyweight fight with Jack Dempsey, the world’s greatest football tournament kicked off Friday with some pretty sloppy footing.

Opening-act Oprah Winfrey, mistress of ceremonies for the World Cup ’94 soccer pageant, lost her balance and fell on stage after introducing singer Diana Ross. More embarrassed than hurt by her pratfall, Winfrey went on with the show, welcoming an estimated 750 million TV viewers worldwide and a Soldier Field audience that included numerous dignitaries, among them President Clinton and popular Times sportswriter Henry A. Kissinger.

Clinton in turn made a snappy speech welcoming two fellow chief executives and soccer buffs, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada of Bolivia and Helmut Kohl of Germany, saying, “I say especially to President Sanchez and the people of Bolivia, buena suerte today. And to Chancellor Kohl and the people of Deutschland, viel gluck. Good luck to you all and welcome to the United States.”

And viel gluck to you all too Bill.

It wasn’t quite “Ich bin ein Berliner,” but it’ll do.

Some of this gluck obviously rubbed off on the gutty little Bolivians, who kept favored Germany scoreless for a full 60 minutes, or two-thirds of a game. Soccer’s reigning champions won, though, 1-0, when Juergen Klinsmann scored into a goal as wide and inviting as a tunnel painted onto a mountain by Wile E. Coyote to halt the Roadrunner.

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With an impetuosity he would regret, the goalkeeper for Bolivia, one Carlos Leonel Trucco, wandered much, much too far from his assigned post. In his haste, Trucco slipped on the Soldier Field sod as though on the peel of a Bolivian-grown banana. Splat, he went.

Klinsmann could have pushed the ball into the goal with his nose.

Final score, one to nil, as the Europeans say, with the only goal going to the dashing young Klinsmann, the man who during the ’90 World Cup drove to all of his team’s practices in a ’67 Volkswagen Beetle.

Calling conditions “very brutal, very hot” and complaining that the battlefield of Soldier Field was wet and slippery, Klinsmann nonetheless praised the host city and host country for a good beginning to these World Cup festivities, implying that he enjoyed himself even more than he had at that Chicago White Sox game the other day.

Putting on a show, Chicago brought in 35,000 balloons, a 40-foot replica of the World Cup, 10,000 yards of gold fabric, 4,700 yards of sequined fabric, 1,500 kids from local high schools, a 300-kid children’s choir, the “one and only” (as she was introduced) Oprah, the one and only Diana, presumably one-and-onlies Daryl Hall and Richard Marx, four F-16 fighter jets and everything but a 40-foot replica of Refrigerator Perry for the opening ceremony.

Although there weren’t quite the 150,000 people who packed Soldier Field for a 1944 wartime speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt--who at no time wished anyone from Germany viel gluck-- it was nonetheless a large and demonstrative crowd here Friday, with tens of thousands primed for Day 1 of a thrilling month o’ soccer.

More accustomed to playing 12,000 feet above sea level or above Lake Titicaca or wherever it is Bolivia usually plays, the underdogs were a sentimental choice among whichever part of the crowd did not hail from Chicago’s enormous German-American community.

Inspired by the unforgettable words of forward William Ramallo, who said, “Actually, we run faster at sea level,” the Bolivians made several strong bids to get on the board, particularly with a left-footed blast just barely wide to the left of the net by Erwin (Magic) Sanchez.

(No, sorry, wrong nickname.)

About the only good swift kick for Bolivia after that, though, was one by forward Marco Antonio (El Diablo) Etcheverry, aimed at a German opponent, that got El Diablo kicked right off the field and right onto el bench.

The Germans hung on for a hard-earned victory, on a day with only the one talk-show host injury reported.


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