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COMMENTARY / BOB OATES

Common Heritage, Uncommon Fate : Soccer and Football Share Similar Roots, but World Cup Notwithstanding, World's Most Popular Game Will Never Catch American Version in This Country

August 01, 1993|BOB OATES | Editor's note: Bob Oates, veteran Times sportswriter, today begins a new monthly column designed to deal with opinions, trends and issues in sports. Oates' column is scheduled to appear on the first Sunday of each month.

The country that gave us Joe Montana, Michael Jordan and Nolan Ryan will be overrun by anonymous soccer players next summer in a monthlong test of America's notorious indifference to the international pastime.

In the end, most Americans will remain unmoved. Soccer isn't their game. But the World Cup is like an elephant in the front yard, so big that everyone notices.

And it is the 1994 World Cup tournament, soccer's quadrennial jubilee, that is heading for Pasadena and eight other U.S. cities to showcase the best of the athletes who play ball with their feet.

There are two matters to consider:

--Can a World Cup in America, bringing in teams from 24 countries, be as successful as the soccer community envisions?

--Can it be as influential? That is, will it lead to big things here afterward, creating widespread American interest and demands for a national soccer league?

Today's projections:

1: The World Cup will be recognized as one of the biggest sports events in American history, perhaps the biggest. Profits will be in the millions, viewers in the billions. Even in this country, there will be sports fans who tune in to see what the kicking and hooliganism are all about.

"We have nearly 3.6 million tickets to sell, and we'll sell them all," Alan Rothenberg, chairman of World Cup USA, said the other day at his Los Angeles office.

2: After the World Cup, Americans will remain largely unimpressed with soccer, rejecting it as they did once before.

Soccer was the national pastime of both England and the United States at the same time in the early years of the 19th Century, before baseball took over here.

But because U.S. sportsmen didn't like it, they converted soccer into the game the world knows now as American football, and they did it the American way: with revolutionary changes in the soccer rule book, more than 700 so far.

Thus, life in America after the World Cup seems likely to trouble such soccer realists as Clive Toye, a New York promoter.

"The problem has always been: What happens when the circus leaves town?" Toye told a group of Eastern writers.

It's an old problem.

The soccer circus first left America well over a century ago, in the late 1860s, when it wasn't greatly mourned by the players who eased it out while gradually building a new game.

But until the early 1860s, when London's Football Assn. codified the rules of soccer at a convention in a Queen Street pub, soccer was still the favored game here, too.

In the fall months, it was the only game that U.S. colleges played until the players, who had learned it from their British cousins and uncles, began to change it.

The changes were all made by student-athletes at Princeton, Harvard and other Eastern colleges. They apparently wanted a livelier pastime.

In the first major revision of the rules, Princeton's 1860s teams, dissatisfied with 1-0 and 0-0 results, defined the winning side as the first to score six goals.

America's famous first intercollegiate football game, won by Rutgers over Princeton in 1869, 6-4, was basically a soccer game with the six-goal rule.

Although that rule didn't last, other changes did. And in time, the students, as they continued to tinker with soccer and its successor here, rugby, produced a different game.

Making changes yearly during decades of experimenting, they developed and then authorized ballcarrying plays, forward passes, blocking and tackling, a vital scrimmage process, a four-down possession rule, and the many other appendages that make football what it is.

That make it unique.

*

In the evolution of soccer into American football--a long development period that lasted through the brief American rugby era in the 1870s--no coach or college administrator played any role, according to a turn-of-the-century rules committee member, Parke H. Davis.

In a 1911 book, "Football," Davis summed up: "The native genius of the young American for invention was (decisive)."

As one development followed another, Davis noted, the student geniuses discarded everything about soccer except its British name, football--which still survives, both in America and Britain, identifying two different games.

Hence, World Cup promoters, planning boldly for 1994, are out to reverse the tide of history.

Can they do it? Just because Americans turned it down once, is big league soccer still off limits here?

Soccer's leaders, unhappily for them, will find that it is.

They are appealing to a new generation, true, but 20th-Century Americans, in their zest for scoring action--for touchdown passes and slam dunks and home runs--clearly resemble those who originated American football so long ago.

Although, conceivably, soccer will make some gains some day, it will never be a threat to football.

"Soccer is a nonviolent aerobic sport," said Kevin Starr, professor of urban history and planning at USC. "So it would be nice to think it will (challenge football). But the fact is, it's not part of the American temperament.

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