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WORLD CUP USA 1994 : A Tale of Nine Cities : Finding the Best and Worst at World Cup Venues, Where New York Meant New Jersey, Boston Meant Tribal Dancing in the Streets and a Rose Bowl Sno-Cone Meant $2.50

July 10, 1994|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They came for the soccer.

We gave them Americana.

Their tickets entitled them to World Cup games.

We threw in an education in United States history, geography, and the economics of the $20 baseball cap.

They expected an athletic tournament.

We staged a county fair, featuring nine exhibits stretched across 3,000 miles, with people and surroundings as varied as our twangs.

Visitors to the Boston venue will remember the success of the Soccer Train, a commuter rail and site of opposing pep rallies on the 50-minute trip to Foxboro Stadium.

Imagine that, longtime Bostonians said. A culture clash where nobody gets hurt.

Visitors to the Dallas venue will remember our failures: the blight around the aging Cotton Bowl, the empty seats inside, the construction-hampered traffic flow that turned game days into nightmares.

For nearly a month, in nine locations, the world has applauded our wonders, cringed at our bruises, and, in some places, even felt our embrace.

So how did we do?

Sometimes, we shined. Other times, we stumbled.

Sometimes we yelled too much, pushed too much. When the rest of the world was rushing joyfully out of a subway or dancing through an alley, often we put up our dukes and played the frightened bullies.

But we also smiled a lot, and listened a lot, and sometimes accepted that which we did not understand.

Like those hourlong postgame fan celebrations that forced stadium police to work overtime. We eventually realized something could not be so bad if it made so many people so happy.

We hollered and hugged, we were impatient and helpful. In other words, we were ourselves.

Sometimes we thrilled. But other times, we disappointed.

Visitors to the New York venue will remember what Dublin sales representative Gerry Taylor remembers.

Nothing.

Taylor learned on the first weekend that despite slick World Cup advertisements, New York was not New York.

Just as Boston was not Boston, but Foxboro. And Detroit was not Detroit, but Pontiac. And Los Angeles was Pasadena.

And New York was actually a smelly, industrial area in northern New Jersey.

Taylor left his Manhattan room early one Saturday morning, four hours before the opener between Italy and Ireland.

He wrapped himself in an Irish flag and planned on a making a pregame stop in a pub next door to Giants Stadium.

"Do this all the time in Dublin," he said. "Pop a few Guinness at the pub, talk to other fans, get ready for the game."

But upon arriving in East Rutherford, N.J., he realized the only thing he could drink next door to the stadium was toxic waste.

There wasn't a pub in sight. Or a store. Or a house. Or even a street that wasn't an expressway.

He spent the next three hours sitting with two friends on a curb, cursing his introduction to sports in America.

"Are all stadiums like this, away from cities, in the middle of nothing?" he asked. "Seems to me it must be hard to have good sports in places like this, isn't it? We are let down."

The only thing we can assure him, and others as disillusioned as Taylor, is it wasn't because we didn't try.

Rating the 1994 World Cup venues, best and worst of show:

CHICAGO

* BEST: We knew this would be a great spot from the moment we first bit into something called "the Belly Buster," sold at a hot dog stand near Soldier Field.

Ingredients: Polish beef dog, relish, ketchup, mustard, onions and jalapeno peppers. It lived up to its billing. Trust us.

And so did everything else.

Soldier Field is the perfect location for an international event, being just a short cab ride from one of America's great downtowns.

Michigan Avenue has been buzzing for a month, what with German tourists in Bermuda shorts buying black patent leather shoes to accompany their white socks. At night, horse-drawn carriages fought with taxis for street space in some of the best action since Ben Hur.

* WORST: The only people who didn't enjoy themselves here were the Greeks, both the national soccer players and the large Chicago-area community that gathered to watch them one Sunday morning against Bulgaria.

Greece lost that game, 4-0. In the process, the teams drove Greek fans so crazy they started seeing things.

At one point during the game, a Greek tossed a smoke bomb on the field, later claiming it was tradition to do so after his team scored.

His team is back in Athens, and it still hasn't scored.

* IMPRESSIONS: The World Cup's kind of town, Chicago is. Not only were the streets brimming with international flavor, the shuttle system to Soldier Field was so efficient that cabbies complained about not getting enough chances to rip people off.

Now that's a venue.

* YOU HAD TO BE HERE: During a bachelor party held on the 36th floor of a prominent local hotel, somebody poured beer down the elevator shaft. By morning, the ale had dripped to ground floor and short-circuited the electrical system.

Many hotel guests--some checking out with reams of World Cup-related luggage--were forced to carry everything down 20 flights of stairs.

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