SOCCER / GRAHAME L. JONES : Hard to Tell Sometimes, but Sport Does Have Lighter Side

There’s only so much bad news a person can take.

Murder among the fans, drug-abuse among the players, match-fixing among the coaches--it’s been one depressing headline after another.

Despair not, however, international soccer does have a lighter side. . . .



Consider, for example, the strange case of Nicky Papavasilou.

A native of Cyprus, Papavasilou desperately wanted to play in England’s Premier League. Newcastle United was interested and, in order to hasten his transfer under European Community rules, Papavasilou exchanged his Cypriot passport for a Greek one.

But he failed to make the grade in Newcastle and soon was traded to OFI in Crete, where the Greek government caught up with him.

It seems that as a new Greek citizen, he has the small matter of a military obligation to fulfill.


Now, the unfortunate Papavasilou is being all he can be--but not in the way he had imagined.


Back in England, there is the matter of that electronic scoreboard at Millwall, the south London club where American goalkeeper Kasey Keller has become a local hero despite being continually and inexplicably ignored by the U.S. national team.

One recent message displayed on the board attracted particular attention: “Ex-wives disposed of without a trace.”

Not to worry, it was merely an ad for a tattoo parlor.


While on the subject of American goalkeepers, Tony (Near Post) Meola is tempting fate yet again.

The former World Cup player flunked his tryout as a kicker with the New York Jets, then signed for something called the Buffalo Blizzard of the National Professional Soccer League (a misnomer in three ways).


Now, it appears, Meola wants to be both a goalkeeper and an actor.

After signing last week with the Long Island Rough Riders of the USISL, he is taking a leave of absence from the Blizzard, an indoor team, to play a title role in an off-Broadway production of “Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding.”

Theater critics can hardly wait.


Over in Italy, meanwhile, another U.S. World Cup player is having the time of his life.

Alexi Lalas sounds very upbeat about coming to play for the proposed-but-as-yet-unrealized Major League Soccer, a least according to league officials.

But in the European press, it’s a different story. The MLS, remember, has a salary cap of $1.3 million per team.

“Put $1.25 in my pocket and the others can split the rest,” Lalas told England’s Sunday Telegraph.



Want to know why Dick Advocaat quit as coach of the Dutch national team to become coach of PSV Eindhoven?

A $546,000-per-year salary is one reason.

Advocaat, described not long ago as “short, bald, looks like a bus driver,” by the English magazine “90 Minutes” used to play for the Chicago Sting in the old North American Soccer League.

His PSV salary would appear to limit his chances of returning to these shores as an MLS coach.


South America recently held its qualifying tournament for this summer’s Women’s World Championship in Sweden.

It took place in Brazil, where the home team qualified by beating Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile by a combined 42 goals to one.

But that wasn’t the story. Admission to the 10 games was not by ticket but by a donation of food.

By tournament’s end, 80 tons of food had been collected and distributed to the needy.


Still in Brazil, an eccentric and hence hugely popular referee died last month of AIDS-related pneumonia.

This is hardly amusing, but even in death Jorge Emiliano dos Santos was remembered with a smile and an anecdote by those who knew him.

Brazilian journalist Sergio Leitao, recalling that the 40-year-old ref was better known by his nickname of “Margarida,” said players respected him but fans loved him.

“When a team scored, he would skip and run his way back to the center,” Leitao told Reuters. “And when he whistled for a foul, he would give little whoops of delight.

“People who supported neither team would go to games just to watch him.”

In an era increasingly devoid of colorful characters, “Margarida” will be missed.


Hare today, fined tomorrow. That was the story in Cataluna, where government officials slapped a $2,000 fine on the defending Spanish League champion, Barcelona.

It seems that during a game last year against Atletico Madrid, a fan released a live hare onto the Nou Camp stadium field and the animal evaded capture by players for several entertaining minutes.

Finally, a club official grabbed it and, in full view of 90,000 fans and a television audience, killed it.

Not sporting, said local government officials, who last month finally got around to imposing the fine.


There are bad weeks and there are really bad weeks, the kind Romario has endured. In the past week, the Brazilian World Cup star has:

--Been accused of attacking a photographer outside a hotel in Rio de Janeiro, a woman inside a restaurant and a 10-year-old peanut vendor on the beach.

--Had his car rammed outside a Copacabana beach hotel.

--Seen his wife file for divorce and freeze his bank accounts.

--Been threatened with a paternity suit by a woman in Barcelona.

--Failed to score a goal in his official debut for Flamengo in front 99,000, uh, expectant fans at Maracana Stadium.

Other than that, he’s doing fine.


Finally, there is the unfortunate case of Umbro, the English sports equipment company based in Manchester but doing a brisk business around the globe.

And apparently not paying quite enough attention closer to home.

In England, the “throwback” jerseys popular in the NFL are known as replica kits, and Umbro has been producing them for several of its famous clients, including England’s national team.

But its latest product, a Manchester United jersey with the names of no fewer than 98 current and former stars woven into the fabric, has produced an outcry among United fans.

It seems Umbro forgot a few names.

The universal reaction was neatly summed up by former Manchester United and Ireland goalkeeper Pat Crerand (whose name, incidentally, is included among the 98).

“I’d like to find the idiot who decided on the names,” Crerand told the Sunday Telegraph. “Whoever it was can’t understand the tradition of the club or who the great players were.”

And another fine idea comes unraveled.