Soccer's goal: American enthusiasm WORLD CUP 1994

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This is what one national sports drink company thinks about World Cup '94: It airs a commercial with a racially mixed group of players participating in a pickup game, but most of the ad focuses on that world-renowned soccer player Deion Sanders.

Talk about an identity crisis.

World Cup '94 is here, America.

"The world's most popular sport," its organizers say.

Bigger than professional baseball and football, the games Sanders plays.

More popular than the Super Bowl -- 1 1/2 million spectators will watch this 24-team, 52-game, nine-city extravaganza, which -Z begins Friday and runs through July 17.

Draws more interest than the Olympics -- 1 billion people are expected to watch the championship game on television.

Could have an estimated impact of $224 million.

America yawns.

"I didn't know it was coming, and don't care if it's here," said Harold Perry, 18, from Baltimore. "It's sounds like a promotion at McDonald's, like a Happy Meal or something. I'm not much of a soccer fan, and neither are a lot of my friends.

Soccer may be big in the world, but it's boring. There's no action. You can't identify with any of the superstars. Plus, real football is played by big guys in shoulder pads, not little guys in short pants."

A number of Americans apparently agree.

A recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll showed that only 31 percent of Americans realize the World Cup is being played in the United States for the first time, 61 percent weren't interested in watching a game on television and 50 percent were not interested in the sport.

That's a position soccer enthusiasts want to change, but there's a more important question surrounding World Cup '94:

Will it come in with a bang and leave with a whimper, or will it generate enough interest to make soccer another major spectator sport in America? World Cup organizers not only have predicted a successful tournament, but are predicting success for Major League Soccer, a 12-team professional league that is scheduled to begin play in April.

"In due course, Major League Soccer will take its place right next to the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL, and become the fifth major professional team sport in the country," said World Cup chairman Alan Rothenberg.

"If they can put hockey in Florida and sell it, then we should be able to sell soccer in the U.S.," said Tab Ramos, a midfielder with the U.S. World Cup team. "This is our last chance to make soccer work. We have to develop a passion for the sport here."

Americans play soccer. But the rest of the world lives it.

Bulgaria's Parliament once delayed taking a no-confidence vote on Prime Minister Lyuben Berov so members could watch their team play against France.

Since the Saudi Arabian team arrived in the United States two weeks ago, coach Jorge Solari has gotten daily phone calls from the two sons of King Fahd. The Saudis have gone through four coaches since November.

Also during the past weeks, Brazilians living in the San Francisco Bay area have been showing up at Villa Felice Lodge in Los Gatos to take pictures of the 31-room, nine-suite hotel that the Brazilian team will call home through the World Cup quarterfinals.

"To every Brazilian who comes to San Francisco or San Jose for the next 30 years, this will become a shrine, because it will be a place where their beloved, revered team stayed," said Laurie Calloway, a Los Gatos resident and World Cup official.

That's passion.

American soccer fans thought they were on a similar journey in the mid-1970s, when the North American Soccer League had 24 teams, a national television contract and Pele.

But on Aug. 17, 1977, Pele bid his farewell to American soccer. There would be only two more recognizable American stars, Kyle Rote Jr. and Rick Davis. Seven years later, the league died.

"The league grew too fast, relied too heavily on foreign players and eventually caved in under its own weight," Mr. Rothenberg said. "We hope to benefit from the lesson of that bad history and do it right this time."

Taking the offensive

The outlook for pro soccer in the United States isn't good. Six major professional soccer leagues have come and gone since 1960. MoreAmericans are inclined to play it (16 million) than watch it.

"There's no doubt that the World Cup will be a success, that Americans will get into the color and pageantry of the World Cup," said Kenny Cooper, general manager of the Baltimore Spirit of the National Professional Soccer League.

"But this is a high-tech country, a society that wants instant gratification. I know the purist won't agree, but the game has to be catered more to the audience here. The game has to become faster and quicker."

Americans want more offense.

But as the bonuses for advancing through the early rounds of the World Cup have increased, the improvisation has decreased. Coaches are playing not to lose.

Through the '70s, most teams used four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards. During the past decade, the trend has been to move one of those forwards into a midfielder role, leaving four defenders, four midfielders and just two forwards.

Here are some results:

In 1954, West Germany had 25 goals in five games en route to the World Cup title. Brazil scored 19 times in six games in its 1970 championship campaign.

By 1974, West Germany needed only 17 goals in seven games to win the title. In the 1990 World Cup, the Germans won the championship with 15 goals in seven games.

And that includes a 5-1 victory over the United Arab Emirates. More typical was the Germans' 1-0 quarterfinal victory over Czechoslovakia or their 2-1 semifinal win over England, which was actually a 1-1 tie won on a penalty-kick shootout.

"Soccer can become popular in the States only if the games are spectacular, if the World Cup is something entertaining for the fans," said Robert Baggio, a forward for the Italian World Cup team. "Offense should be helped by recent rules providing expulsion for tackles from behind. Defenders will have to be careful and forwards will be able to produce a better play.

"I wonder why they bring the tournament here if Americans may not enjoy it," Mr. Baggio said.

Answered Joao Havelange, president of the sport's governing body, the Federation Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA: "It is all part of our aim to make soccer truly universal."

Coming to America

The bottom line was money, and Brazil helped, too, in 1987, when it withdrew its bid to be host to this year's World Cup because of its national debt and the country's rate of inflation.

Since 1958, the site had alternated between Europe and Latin America. Because the 1994 tournament was to be played outside Europe, the United States had a fighting chance.

During its pitch to FIFA representatives, U.S. officials pointed to the youth soccer boom here. They got a rousing, Knute Rockne-style speech from President Ronald Reagan to FIFA and another endorsement from soccer buff and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

The United States also came up with a strong national team and the promise of a new professional league.

But the real dealmaker was explaining how the World Cup could take advantage of this country's financial and marketing potential.

America, soccer's final frontier, was awarded the tournament on July 4, 1988.

"At first, there was this sentiment from around the world that, 'Why should America host the World Cup? They haven't earned it,' " said Peter Moore, vice president for global product marketing with Reebok.

"But the potential for marketing soccer in the U.S. is the largest in the world right now. It's unparalleled."

The hard sell

Top American advertisers such as Coca-Cola and Anheuser-Busch, which had sponsored the World Cup internationally for years, have been joined this year by General Motors, MasterCard, Sheraton, Sprint and others contributing more than $220 million.

If soccer does, indeed, take hold, advertisers and ABC television, which is airing the games, get first rights to pro soccer deals.

"I wouldn't call it soccer's last chance here, but it's close," said Mr. Moore. "A lot of companies think it's an opportunity they can't afford to turn down."

So, ready or not, America, soccer is here to stay, at least for a while.

Major League Soccer already has secured agreements with ESPN to televise 35 regular-season games in 1995, with ABC televising the championship.

"I think one day, in about 10 years, soccer could look like major-league baseball," said Bill Sage, the league's chief operating officer.

And then again?

"Ten years from now, soccer will be just soccer," said Mr. Perry, the 18-year-old skeptic from Baltimore. "The sports in America are already in place.

Next week, World Cup will have to compete with major-league baseball, the NBA championships, the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. Now, which event do you think Americans will watch?

"I'll give you a hint: 'I love this game.' "

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
52°