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WORLD CUP USA '94 / QUARTERFINALS : COMMENTARY : With Time, Game Comes Into Clear View


NEW YORK — In general, press coverage of World Cup soccer has been highly positive. The event has been a new experience for many of us and has been an attractive thing about which to write. So there has been a rush to gush.

But let's pause amid the puffing and praising and do a little panning. Let's be an ugly American. Let's take a look at soccer from the bar stool of a baseball fan--which might be the very essence of an ugly American.

First, this yellow card-red card routine is silly. Every time I see one of these referees, dressed in his cute little shorts and knee socks, dash up to a player who has committed a foul and reach into his breast pocket to pull out a card and flash it in the offender's face, I snicker.

Picture this: Bruce Froemming has just called Mike Piazza out at home on a close play that costs the Dodgers the lead run in the ninth. The dust clears, Piazza is furious and in Froemming's face, and Tom Lasorda charges the plate, eyes bulging and veins popping in his neck.

Froemming braces, standing his ground as only Froemming can. Lasorda unleashes vulgarities and spittle. Froemming, having heard enough, reaches into his pocket and flashes a pink doily in Lasorda's face.

Lasorda, instantly mortified, turns and marches off through the dugout and into the clubhouse, serving his expulsion in shame.

The next day in The Times, the headline reads "Dodgers Blow Lead as Lasorda Gets Hanky.

Then there is the issue of soccer injuries. Frankly, until Tab Ramos was leveled, I didn't think real soccer injuries existed. I was convinced that Greg Louganis missed his calling by not trying soccer. The only problem is, these guys all do the same dive: forward tuck to fetal position, degree of difficulty zero.

Remember where we are coming from now. Our ugly American is sitting on a bar stool, eating pretzels, swigging beer and belching a lot, while he curses Lasorda under his breath for letting Tom Niedenfuer pitch to Jack Clark years ago, and before him on the big-screen TV appears a soccer game.

Quickly, one player is bumped by another and the first player crumbles to the ground in apparent agony. Our bar stool fan is concerned, because active pro athletes don't usually have seizures during games.

So he watches as the bumper is scolded and flashed a yellow card and the bumpee is carted off on a stretcher. He is mesmerized, because in the NFL, they don't use a stretcher for anything less than three broken bones.

But then, as if the hand of God has reached down to heal the sick, the bumpee bounces off the stretcher and sprints back into the game. Lo and behold, it is another medical miracle in soccer!

After a few more pretzels and a few more belches, our fan understands that what he is watching is part sport and part play-acting. So he reaches his conclusion easily: Real men don't eat quiche and don't play soccer.

Next, there is the matter of the single referee. This sport takes a field bigger than a football field, 74 by 115 yards; puts 11 player-actors on each side, places a high measure of the outcome on the calls made, and then expects one person to see all and call all.

The NFL has officials positioned strategically all over the field. The NBA went to three refs a few years ago and it is playing in a tiny area compared to soccer. The NHL does it with one guy, but he's also got much less territory to patrol and he is on skates. Baseball has an umpire on each base.

Soccer throws this one poor guy out there, then sends him home in shame when he misses a call, even though he has to make most of them from 20 to 30 yards away and is dealing with better actors than they have on Broadway.

Also, the degrees of fouling are so vague. One player tackles another in what is deemed an illegal action and all that happens is that play is stopped for a few seconds, the ball is put down by the offended team and play resumes immediately. But soon after that, one player tackles another and, although it looks about the same as the previous infraction, it brings a stoppage of play and all sorts of formations and discussions and defensive walls.

The policing of the sport is a swirl and a jumble. Players are diving all over the field, the referee is pointing, signaling and gesturing while everybody is running around in circles, and linesmen along the sidelines are waving flags and pointing them like a couple of guys riding on the backs of convertibles during a Fourth of July parade.

To the untrained eye of our guy on the bar stool, this all appears to be some sort of foreign conspiracy to confuse and distract us until they are ready to invade. To him, watching soccer is not only stupid, but stupefying.

But then he figures it out. He sees that there is one hugely redeeming quality to soccer: It would be a cinch sport to bet.

All you have to do is research the referee, because he controls everything. Penalty kicks that he can award fairly easily are sure goals. Key players who are the goal-scorers can be red-carded right out of the game. Almost any goal that is scored can be called back by an offside ruling. Ticky-tacky fouls can be turned into life sentences. The referee is the game, and if you figure him out--his politics, leanings, strengths, weaknesses, tendencies toward Italian restaurants--you've got it.

So soccer, like all major American sports, will become a game played most seriously in Las Vegas. Vegas, which would promote action on seniors croquet if it thought it could make big bucks, will start giving over-unders on corner kicks.

Soon, our guy on the bar stool will be interested because he is betting--betting because you are interested is not the American way--and the growth of soccer in this country will be assured.

I'm positive about that.

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