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WORLD CUP USA 1994 : A Very Good Year : Vintage '94 Has Had Full Stadiums, Well-Played Games--Everything but a Superteam

July 14, 1994|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Like a fine wine, the World Cup requires a little aging before it can truly be enjoyed.

Trying to analyze what was good or bad about a tournament still in progress serves little purpose. Impressions gathered over the course of a month need time to mature.

Later, what seemed meaningful at the time might be regarded as meaningless, and events that appeared inconsequential might take on added significance.

However, it is possible to tell a good year from a bad almost immediately, and already it is clear that 1994 has been a vintage World Cup, one that will be enjoyed in retrospect for years to come.

That, at least, is the early consensus of the experts, those writers whose World Cup experience is counted, not in years but in decades.

"On the field, I think it's been one of the best for quite a long time and certainly far better than in 1990," said author, playwright and journalist Brian Glanville, who has covered all 10 tournaments since 1958 and whose book, "The History of the World Cup," is widely regarded as the definitive text on the event.

"The football has been much more open and immensely more entertaining than 1990, which was horrific. Then, you really felt the end of the World Cup was nigh.

"At the same time, in a curious way, I think the tournament is going to be won by default because I don't see any great teams, as evidenced by the fact that a team like Bulgaria, with all due respect to it, can get as far as the semifinals; and so can a team like Italy, which isn't a patch on the Italian teams of, say, 1978 and less still of 1982.

"I don't see any great players, either, with the possible exception of Romario. It's a very diminished Brazil. . . . But when you've got a player like Romario, anything is possible. He can win any game for you."

Carlos Maranhao, executive editor of Vega, a weekly news magazine in Sao Paulo, Brazil, first attended a World Cup in West Germany in 1974. This tournament, he said compares favorably to most that he has seen.

"In terms of the soccer, I think it's a very good World Cup with some very brilliant matches, like Bulgaria-Germany, like Brazil-Holland, like Romania-Argentina," he said. "But you don't have at the moment a new king of football. This is bad. But it's better than Italy and, in my opinion, better also than Mexico in 1986, but not as good as Spain in 1982."

What has impressed Maranhao has been the fans. "I think this is the most beautiful World Cup I have seen in terms of the participation of the public," he said. "The stadiums are always full. They are not full with people who came from Germany or Brazil, but with Americans. This is because the U.S.A. is a country of great ethnic diversity.

"I think the match that most impressed me in this way was Ireland-Italy here in New Jersey. Most people supposed the Italians would fill the stadium, but there were about 70% or 75% of Irish fans who didn't come from Ireland. This is possible only in the United States."

New York-based columnist Paul Gardner, author of "The Simplest Game" and a writer who has covered six World Cup tournaments, was one of many who doubted whether the United States could produce a proper World Cup atmosphere. He too has been pleasantly surprised by the fervor and involvement of American fans.

"The atmosphere in the stadiums has been fantastic," Gardner said. "Going into one of the stadiums, you could be in Rio or Milan or anywhere. There's been a lot of cheering, a lot of flavor, a lot of excitement and passion inside the stadiums and immediately around the stadiums. The party atmosphere has been terrific."

One reason, of course, is that the quality of the soccer has been better than in quite some time. The success of the tournament always was going to depend on the attitude of the players, and they have come through, despite the appalling temperatures at some games.

"I think it's been utterly disgraceful that players have been obliged to play in this heat," said Glanville, switching to his curmudgeonly mode. "I think they (the players) have been totally heroic. It's wonderful the way they've resisted physically. They are absolutely phenomenal.

"It was disgraceful to choose Orlando (as a World Cup venue), knowing that they'd have to play at midday when it was going to be filthy hot and vilely humid. And the (Pontiac) Silverdome was always a stupid idea. Pseudo-innovation, I suppose. The only thing you could say for it was that it wasn't any worse than playing outside.

"It's a disaster without air conditioning, and it was perverse to have to grow the grass in California and bring it out there. And for what? So they played indoors? Well, OK. Now let's forget about indoors."

As uncomfortable and trying as the heat and humidity were, there were other factors that disturbed some World Cup reporters.

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