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WORLD CUP USA ’94 : COMMENTARY : Don’t Laugh: Now Is Soccer’s Chance

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TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

The hands-off approach to the sport of soccer has always been fashionable in this country, whether you are the sports editor of a large newspaper or the guy at the corner bar, snarling epithets about long-haired foreigners.

What American sports fans don’t know, they make fun of.

And it’s very possible that after the conclusion of the monthlong World Cup extravaganza we began Friday--after 24 of the world’s best teams showcase their sport in 52 games in nine cities in front of nearly 4 million on-site spectators--American sports fans will have a further shift in emotion about soccer.

They might openly detest it.

But soccer has a favorite phrase about all this. It says: Five billion people can’t be wrong.

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For Americans, it is a little like the mother who goes to watch her son march in the military parade. Every time the rest of the soldiers step right, her son steps left. To those around her, the mother explains, loudly and proudly, that all those other marchers are wrong.

If United States sports fans are truly out of step with the rest of the world on this soccer issue, two things are clear:

--They are loud and proud about their dissent.

--The only real chance soccer has to change this is happening right now.

As we all heard, ad nauseam, soccer was to be the Sport of the ‘60s, then of the ‘70s, and the ‘80s. In effect, it disappeared for general-interest purposes with the death of the North American Soccer League--featuring Pele, the Cosmos and occasional huge crowds--in 1984.

So, can something basically dead and buried for 10 years be teased into resurrection by a one-month traveling carnival?

Yes it can, at least for the short term. And for three reasons: Change of pace, sex and passion.

--Change of pace is easy to explain:

American sports fans need one. They are saturated by lengthy seasons, greedy owners and surly athletes. They’ve read the same stupid quotes from the same mindless athletes reported by the same bored sportswriters on the same predictable sports pages for way too long. They are at the point where they think a night in front of the tube, watching SportsCenter, is as good as it gets. They might be within one more player strike, or one more Darryl Strawberry comeback, or dashing off screaming into the night. Or worse, starting to watch the Home Shopping Network. Indeed, the fact that soccer is totally foreign to most might be the best thing it has going for it right now.

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--Sex, or make that thighs:

During the Mexico-USA tuneup soccer match on June 4 at the Rose Bowl, two female sportswriters were overheard discussing the fact that soccer players, because of all the running they must do, have wonderfully toned thighs. They discussed this while peering through binoculars. They peered for a very long time, eventually raising the question of whether binoculars embedded in foreheads can be removed surgically. Since females historically control much of the television watching habits in the home, the TV ratings people might be in for a pleasant surprise.

--Soccer and passion, almost synonymous:

Paul Gardner writes in his book, “The Simplest Game,” about his trip to Wembley Stadium in 1953 and his passion for Blackpool star Stan Matthews, who turned out to be the hero of a dramatic victory over Bolton. Of Matthews, Gardner writes: “At his feet, the ball was at home, comfortably nestling in absolute security, caressed with soft little touches as Stan shuffled his bowed legs toward yet another hapless fullback.” Gardner’s emotion is no less intense than Roger Kahn’s for baseball and for his Boys of Summer.

A 17-year-old, Martijn van der Steen, from Vlaardingen, Norway, writes the sports editor of the Los Angeles Times. His is perhaps the 70th such letter received in recent months from foreign writers, or aspiring foreign writers, wanting an American outlet to both give them close-up access to the sport they love and a place where their love affair can be showcased in print. “I have been following soccer ever since I was able to read and watch TV,” the young Norwegian writes, pleading his case.

An 87-year-old Mexican, Jose Guadalupe Vargas of Guadalajara, a former coach in the top-division Mexican soccer leagues, learns that his daughter will be a translator for an American newspaper and that she will see many games. In his fraternal excitement and pride, he sends her a series of four-page, single-spaced, hand-written letters to make sure she fully understands what she is about to see. They arrive, day after day, by Federal Express. And the wisdom of his 87 years shows. “The losing team never talks afterward, and they always blame the referees,” he writes.

Certainly, the challenge soccer faces in winning over America is no small one. United States sportswriters tend to lead the way by being smug about all that is different, all that is out of their comfort zone. Upon arrival at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, one of the first destinations for many United States columnists was any local restaurant that served dog meat. They went, munched and yukked it up for the readers back home. In 1992 in Barcelona, much sport was made of the local practice of eating dinner at 11 p.m. It was foreign, therefore it was funny.

The issue of soccer not being violent enough for American fans’ tastes might be solved early, when TV replays show the action in front of the net off a corner kick. There is usually enough kicking, holding and gouging to make John Starks jealous.

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The issue of low scoring might never be solved. As David Brooks wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal: “When a goal actually does come, it only seems so magnificent because the rest of the game is so terrible.”

And then there’s the hooligan issue. If it crops up, it could greatly influence the final American perception of World Cup.

That should not, however, be a problem in Los Angeles. If the hooligans run wild here, everybody will think they are Raider fans.

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