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Stars, Stripes--and Soccer? World Cup Fans Cry Foul : Yes, the Earth's most revered sport is coming to a country that shuns it. The reasons add up to billions.

January 04, 1994|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Talk about the ultimate punishment!

It was 1990, Italy was hosting the World Cup soccer championships, and an Italian judge had before him an avid fan convicted of hooliganism during an Italian league match. The sentence: Silence. No talking about soccer for the duration of the quadrennial tournament that regularly captures the globe's biggest sporting audience.

"Rip out my heart! Sacrifice my offspring! But not this!"

The World Cup.

It was her country's loss to Austria in the 1978 World Cup that drove a young West Berlin woman to leap from her apartment window shouting: "I don't want to live any more!"

During that same game, a man in a Frankfurt restaurant tried to strangle another diner who was cheering for the other side.

Eight years later, when the tournament finals moved to Mexico, a Colombian man became so enraged when his wife turned off the TV set during the middle of a game that he shot her. He turned the set back on, watched the rest of the match, then called police to turn himself in.

The United States may be preoccupied with sports, but nothing here rivals the place soccer holds in the global society. In many countries, it is the social fabric that knits disparate classes and groups.

Some examples:

* By winning the 1990 World Cup, West Germany united East and West in ways that the fall of the Belin Wall could not.

* Bolivia's qualification for the upcoming 1994 World Cup tournament, to be held in the United States, set off a national hysteria that is only now abating in the tiny landlocked Andean nation.

* When Bulgaria squared off against France in Paris for a World Cup qualifying spot in November, Bulgarian Parliament members postponed a crucial ratification vote on a new government so they could watch the game on television.

* Argentina's former president, Carlos Saul Menem, so persistently insinuated himself into public appearances with Argentina's wildly popular national team that players began rolling their eyes when Menem appeared. Diego Maradona, the team's temperamental star, seemed to take great delight in keeping the country's chief executive waiting.

* Pope John Paul II--a pretty fair goalkeeper in his youth in Poland--happily blessed the refurbished Olympic Stadium in Rome for the 1990 World Cup.

Of five most-watched sports events in television history, four are soccer matches. That 1990 final in Rome leads the list with a worldwide audience of more than one billion people in 167 countries.

Hundreds of millions tune in just for the World Cup Draw--a boring bit of housekeeping in which Ping-Pong balls representing nations are drawn from bowls and arranged into competition groups.

So why, oh why, soccer purists ask, did the sport's governing body award its most revered prize to a country with a reputation as the sport's Siberia? How could the Federation International de Football, or FIFA, so desecrate the World Cup, this glittering spectacle, by allowing it to be staged by the Americans, who have again and again shown their barbarity. Who don't even play professional soccer, for heaven's sake!

For generations, Americans have given the sport the back of their ticket-buying hands. An alphabet soup of professional leagues have come and gone--the NASL, the MISL, the APSL, the MSL, the CISL the USISL.

This summer, the World Cup will be held in nine U.S. cities in a monthlong tournament climaxing with the July 17 championship game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Yet with only six months to go before the playoffs begin, only 13% of Americans surveyed in a recent poll were even aware their country would be hosting the event.

So what did FIFA have in mind?

One key is clearly that the World Cup is Very Big Business.

The 1990 affair in Italy generated $8 billion in revenue. And, as FIFA is well aware, the Americans have proven adept at organizing well-run and financially successful mega-events. (Remember the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and their $250 million surplus?)

FIFA is gambling that by placing the World Cup finals in the United States, it can tap into the seemingly bottomless vats of money possessed by American television networks, sports sponsors and marketeers.

Besides, while they may not emulate more soccer-crazed nations by halting virtually every other form of human activity during the World Cup, the Americans have shown that they're trying. Consider, for example, the Silverdome.

Traditionalists blanched when it was announced that some games would be played at the indoor arena in Pontiac, Mich. Never before had a World Cup game been played indoors. Those Americans had clearly let their ignorance about soccer trip them up this time--FIFA refuses to sanction matches played on anything other than natural grass. And everyone knows grass can't grow indoors, they said; only that ghastly bright green plastic turf can thrive.

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