LAS VEGAS -- In the force-feeding of the sport of soccer to America, yesterday in Las Vegas will stand as a seven-course meal.
It was Final Draw day. Soccer people in the know always make that phrase upper case, just as easily and confidently as the National Football League makes it the Super Bowl. This is major stuff, who plays who in which group and where. An estimated 500 million people worldwide watch this every four years. That's major, all right.
And the United States handled it as it handles so many things: with a Hollywood extravaganza. Dick Clark meets Franz Beckenbauer, President Clinton stops a penalty kick.
One man's theory had it that, had they stressed lots of soccer film and highlights in this 90-minute show, rather than only a smidgen, it would have immediately driven all the hard-core, beer-drinking, talk-show-calling U.S. fans to their TV remote button. But this one was so Hollywood, so familiarly glitzy, that it might have kept them around long enough to see the Belgium-Morocco matchup come to pass.
Certainly this was much ado about balls being drawn out of fishbowls, but then, there are plenty of silly, overblown things that take place in the traditional U.S. sports scene, too. Baseball's spring training jumps to mind.
Most of those in the live audience -- estimated at 3,000 in the Las Vegas Convention Center -- loved the show and still got the necessary details of how the month-long tournament will shape up next June and July.
James Brown, the second-loudest person to appear on ESPN after Dick Vitale, started it off with a reprise of his routine from "Rocky IV," in which Apollo Creed fought a hated Russian in Las Vegas and came out for the fight to the backdrop of 750,000 tiny U.S. flags, dancing girls, fireworks and Brown singing "Living in America." This time, live in Las Vegas, the backdrop was eight dancing girls, fireworks and Brown singing "Living in America."
With appearances of one sort or another from Hollywood types such as Faye Dunaway, Stevie Wonder, Barry Manilow, Vanessa Williams, Willie Nelson and Rod Stewart, the star of the show, at least in the category of comic relief, might have been the general secretary of FIFA, soccer's international governing body, a man named Joseph "Sepp" Blatter of Switzerland.
Blatter, your basic international sports official, meaning that he wears a coat and tie to bed and has never ridden in an automobile less than 35 feet long, is one of perhaps 11 people in the world who understands exactly how the World Cup Final Draw works. At one point during the show, he even explained it to the audience of 500 million: "It would appear to not be logic, but it is."
Later, he elaborated on the draw board: "It goes from left to right, or right to left, depending on how you look at it."
At times, it appeared as if Blatter was auditioning to host "Jeopardy." To Dunaway: "May I call you Faye?"
But Blatter's true starring moments came when they brought out Robin Williams to help with the last fishbowl of balls. Blatter immediately rose to the occasion, providing the ultimate straight man for Williams, a comic genius who seldom needs one.
Blatter welcomed him, shook his hand, and Williams said, "It is nice to meet you, after all these years of feeling you."
Then, in quick order, Williams watched Blatter break open one of the plastic balls and remarked, "Panty hose?" That was followed by Williams donning a plastic glove for his reach into the fishbowl and telling Blatter to "turn your head and cough."
Throughout, Blatter was brilliant. Right there, on international television, a foil was born.
The missing element to the show -- and the main topic of controversy all week -- was an appearance by Pele. The former Brazilian star is the most recognizable soccer figure in the world.
Pele was not included, much to the chagrin of the American World Cup '94 organizers, because he is involved in a lawsuit with the son-in-law of the president of FIFA, Joao Havelange of Brazil. Logic would indicate that the good of the World Cup overshadow personal squabbles, but guys who sleep in coats and ties and travel in limos aren't as held to logic as the rest of us.
So Pele sat this one out, making it one of the few truly important international soccer events that has turned its back on his capacity as a goodwill ambassador.
Pele took it philosophically. "My life doesn't change if I don't take a ball out [of the fishbowl]," he said.
However, because some other people did take some balls out of some fishbowls here yesterday, jump-starting the best-ever effort to make soccer a game that U.S. fans can understand and love, our sports scene may never quite be the same.
The effort will be monumental, the promotion unprecedented. And to those who will resist, Robin Williams has the answer. Turn your head and cough.