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We did our best, now kick it back


PASADENA, Calif. -- Well, they gave us the World Cup, and we didn't drop it.

We didn't use day-glo orange balls, cut up the games into four quarters, outlaw the offsides rule or do anything sacrilegious to sell soccer to skeptical Americans.

Nor did we plead ignorance and decide not to pay attention, as the smug Europeans and South Americans who love the game feared that we would.

No, we managed not to embarrass ourselves or the game or the people who care about it. We managed to do OK.

We managed to put on only the best World Cup in history, in many ways.

The biggest, happiest, sellout-crowdingest, T-shirt-sellingest, riot-free-est World Cup of them all.

So, now we can give it back.

Back to the people who deserve it and the places where it belongs. Back to the countries that really care.

Back to the countries where fans can march en masse from the pub to the pitch, which is the way it's supposed to be.

FIFA, soccer's governing body, came here because we were a huge, untapped market. We'll see how much we were tapped. Don't bet your beach vacation money. Don't confuse a popular big event with the stirrings of a soccer boom. We get into big events, even ones with sports we don't know. (See: Olympics, Winter.) But we're not a true soccer country. Never have been, never will be.

That was the only thing wrong with this World Cup: It was in the wrong place.

As much fun as it was, and as much as we sold out big stadiums, created wonderful atmosphere at games and gave the event every inch of the big shoulders it deserves, we couldn't give it a soul.

We just don't care enough about soccer. Not enough of us do, anyway. Look at the television ratings, which were good, better than anticipated -- an average of 4.4 million households watched the games on ABC. That's peanuts compared with football or baseball or basketball playoffs.

In countries where they really care, every TV set is turned to the Cup. Businesses shut down. Presidents hold all calls. You can't get service at a restaurant. The busboys are all in the back, huddled around a TV.

That'll never happen here. Not unless the next Tonya or O. J. plays for the U.S. soccer team.

In countries where they really care, going to a game is like going to an old abandoned castle in Scotland. You feel the history in your bones.

That'll never happen here. It can't. We have no soccer history.

In countries where they really care, the Cup was Topic A. Here, it was basically a set of bubbles on the landscape. Inside, at games, passions ran hot and every ticket was sold and fans waved flags and sang songs and did a good imitation of Milan and Rio and Amsterdam and Mexico City. Outside, where the vast majority of the population sat, people watched baseball and told jokes about the funny guys kicking the ball.

It doesn't mean that our Cup was inferior. Not nearly. We couldn't give it soul, but we gave it a lot of other things prior Cups haven't had.

We gave it clean, big, full stadiums. We gave it upbeat, positive crowds as peaceful as a pack of kittens. We gave it a modern infrastructure, highways, airports, big hotel rooms, stadium parking lots. We gave it that most American of traditions, the big sell. Millions of T-shirts were rung up. Four years ago, Italy barely printed any. You can be sure that won't happen again.

What did we give the World Cup? We gave it a new, higher standard for excellence. The French, who are putting on the next Cup, already are apologizing about their small stadiums.

What's amusing is the Europeans and South Americans are surprised by this, surprised that we could take their baby and nurse it every bit as well as they could. They don't get it. America's Cup was always going to be a success. It was a perfect fit from the day it was assigned. We may not love soccer, but we love sports and big events, and we've got millions of ethnics who do love soccer. The rest of the world just couldn't see it coming. They've watched one too many "Beverly Hillbillies" reruns.

Sure, we had help. It helped that Iraq didn't qualify, which would have made things tense. It helped that England didn't qualify, eliminating the hooligan threat. It helped that the quality of the soccer was far superior to the Cup of four years ago, with more scoring, more stars and more attacking play. (Brazil will beat Italy in today's final, 2-1.)

The worst thing that happened was the horrific murder of Andres Escobar, the Colombian player who was killed for knocking a ball into his own goal in a game. But that happened a continent away and had less to do with sports than with the problems in Colombia's tragic, drug-infested society.

The best thing that happened in this World Cup? How can you choose one? There was the magic of Romario and Baggio and Hagi. There was Bulgaria's memorable upset of Germany. There was the electric crowd at Italy-Ireland in Giants Stadium. There was the swarm of happy Brazilian fans on the West Coast.

Ours was a fine, warm World Cup. The experiment was a success by any measure. We pulled it off. The event now moves on to France, then probably Japan or South Korea in 2002. No matter where it goes, it will go to a country that cares more about soccer than we do, a country that is a more fitting host. But no matter where it goes, it will have to surpass America's Cup before it is judged one of the best.

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