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WORLD CUP USA 1994 : SOCCER / GRAHAME L. JONES : Life on the Trail: Paralysis to Paradise

July 10, 1994|GRAHAME L. JONES

BOSTON — There comes a point in many a journey when the traveler has to decide whether it is better to go on or simply curl up and die by the side of the road.

In Dallas, that monument to bad taste that lies shimmering in the heat and haze of the Texas wasteland, it occurred to me that the curling-up option seemed the best bet.

The clock on the bedside table said 4:20 a.m. The congealed remains of last night's room service pizza, most of it uneaten, lay nearby, testimony to yet another unfortunate choice in meals.

Sleep was something desperately needed but not likely to be achieved. At 4:30 a.m., the telephone rang.

"Good morning. This is your wake-up call."

Wake-up, hell. I hadn't been to sleep for fear that the call would not arrive, as had happened several weeks--or was it lifetimes?--ago in Pontiac, Mich.

By 5:15 a.m., with the sky still an inky black and the temperature already approaching 80 degrees, I stumbled out of the hotel, into a cab and took off for Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport.

But as bleak as the day was starting out, all was not lost. The cabdriver turned out to be Nigerian and had very definite opinions on the Super Eagles' chances against Italy in the next day's game 1,552 miles away in Foxboro, Mass., which is where I was going.

He also had some interesting thoughts about the previous day's game between Sweden and Saudi Arabia at the Cotton Bowl, which is where I had been.

Welcome to life on the World Cup '94 trail.

This is not about teams or players. Nor is it about coaches or referees, or even games. Rather, it is a gathering of personal impressions on the impact World Cup '94 has had on America in the last three weeks.

It is a collection of postcards hurriedly scribbled and sent home from various stops during a 13,480-mile odyssey on the road to the Rose Bowl.

In another week, that journey will be over and so will the tournament. The national teams of 24 countries will have played 52 matches in nine U.S. cities over the course of 31 days. Those are the bare statistics.

But the postcards tell a different story.

LOS ANGELES: The flags and banners that adorn downtown streets and the roads around LAX will soon become a familiar sight. The same decorations, hundreds of them, have been draped on poles from Palo Alto to Orlando. What is going to happen to them once the World Cup is over? Will they be discarded, given to the volunteers, sold for charity, sold for profit? Who knows? And by the way, how long are those World Cup murals alongside the freeways going to last?

CHICAGO: This is a real city, probably the finest in America after San Francisco. And it has caught World Cup fever. Almost every store and restaurant along classy Michigan Avenue sports some sort of tournament-related paraphernalia, even if it's only a soccer ball or two in the window. The Chicago Tribune plays the World Cup big every day. Newsstands and bookstores are bulging with international newspapers and magazines filled with soccer news.

FIFA's brass has installed itself in a waterfront hotel, but the interest is not so much in the political wrangling among soccer's leaders as it is in the fight going on for the World Cup 2002 bid.

Japan and South Korea have set up adjoining hospitality suites and are going toe to toe in an effort to win support for their respective bids. Both countries are seeking to stage the tournament and the intense rivalry will continue until a decision is announced in 1996. Japan has the edge, but not by much.

Highlight of the opening ceremony at Soldier Field: Singer Diana Ross trying to hit an open net from 10 yards and missing completely. She could play for Greece.

PONTIAC, Mich.: It's difficult to know what's more impressive, the incredibly enormous Swiss flag hanging from two construction cranes outside the Silverdome or the Silverdome itself.

Inside, amid sauna-like conditions, Teofilo Cubillas is hurrying through the crowd. Only in the United States can a legitimate World Cup star--he played striker for Peru in Mexico in 1970 and in Argentina in 1978--pass unnoticed and unheralded. You want to shout, "Do you know who this is?" But Cubillas is not concerned. He came to see the United States play Switzerland, not to sign autographs.

Later, the Moose Preserve Bar and Grill in nearby Bloomfield has promised to show the day's second game, between Colombia and Romania, on its big-screen TV. Its menu bids us welcome:

"The featured wines this month are inspired by the World Cup Soccer Games (sic). They will draw people from all over the world to our city. We hope that this will be just one of many events that we will host in the years to come."

That's unlikely unless the Moose Preserve folk move their tables farther away from the big screen. That astonishing free kick goal by Romania's Gheorghe Hagi had to elude not only the Colombian defense and goalkeeper but three or four diners, several beer bottles and a salt and pepper set before hitting the back of the net.

And the picture was fuzzy too.

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