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WORLD CUP USA 1994 : COMMENTARY : Will Middle America Keep Soccer Front and Center?


It might turn out that soccer won't make it big in America permanently because soccer has made it so big in America temporarily.

The World Cup has come, 52 games' worth, and now it will go, sometime around 3 p.m. today.

It will leave a legacy of good feeling, of memorable moments, of exciting and emotional games and of clean, safe fun for all. Stadiums have been all but filled everywhere, and lots of money has been made. Also, the generally cynical foreign press came, saw and was mostly conquered by a well-done event.

But today, it will go.

And before long, Part 2 of Alan Rothenberg's plan for making soccer a big-time sport here will begin. Sometime in the spring, at various cities all over the country, Major League Soccer--a league that represents the most-recent attempt to rank the sport alongside football, basketball, baseball and hockey on an already crowded sports calendar in this country--is scheduled to make its debut. For the American public, the balloon payment will have come due, and there are many reasons to expect a default.

First, the World Cup has spoiled American soccer fans, especially those really paying attention to soccer for the first time. It has been high-quality entertainment and athletic competition, but it is also the best that foreign money can buy. We are watching AC Milan and FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich and Real Madrid and the University of Mexico City. We will not be watching them this spring.

Nor, in most cases, will we be watching the American players who, almost overnight, became household names. Alexi Lalas will probably take all that facial hair and find a regular barber in Europe. Paul Caligiuri has become a hot item and it is likely we will discover that you can take the boy out of Diamond Bar, especially for lots of European diamonds. Tony Meola has been on every TV show except "Geraldo," and he might be able to squeeze that one in too before he also is enticed to the lands of francs, pesetas or pounds.

Then there are the American stars, who, while certainly American in heritage, were mostly here on a soccer lend-lease deal from Europe and Mexico. They are John Harkes, Ernie Stewart, Tom Dooley, Eric Wynalda, Cle Kooiman. . . .

So it's the same old story. How you gonna keep them down on the farm after they've seen Paree? Or at least after they've seen Paree's checkbook.

Rothenberg has done a wonderful job with this World Cup. He has tackled the task, taken his knocks and gotten it done. American capitalism, innovation and work ethic have come through again, with Rothenberg leading the way.

When Peter Ueberroth made the 1984 L.A. Olympics into a huge financial and aesthetic success, Time magazine put him on its cover and called him man of the year. But when the '84 Olympics ended, Ueberroth's remaining mandate was merely to write some large checks to the International Olympic Committee and have the stadiums swept out.

Rothenberg too must write some large checks to FIFA and have the stadiums swept out. But he must then persuade the American public to keep all its recently acquired warm and fuzzy soccer feelings on hold for about eight months and then go out and plunk down lots of season-ticket money for games in lesser stadiums featuring lesser players in an atmosphere of lesser soccer ambience.

That's not impossible, just very difficult. America is a big-show place. It loves its Olympics, its Super Bowls and now its World Cups. But try to sell it soccer on Tuesday night in Tulsa and watch it turn tail.

The press will play a key role in this. The World Cup has become something of a writers' event. Whereas some publications have merely covered it, others have romanticized it. It is a sport that seems to stir those who love to wax poetic.

James Michener, no less, in an article for Soccer Watch, wrote: "Every four years, when the World Cup is up for grabs--the supreme contest in the world's sporting events--national patriotism rises to a fever pitch and the great spectacle is under way."

The distinguished Murray Kempton, in Thursday's New York Newsday, wrote: "It occurs to me that the worm of time's gnawings could well make this my last World Cup and that I must hasten to multiply my prostrations at the Communion rail. Since the Almighty is a multinational deity, I cannot conceive of any game licensed for playing in heaven except the World Cup. The archangel Michael will, of course, be coach and object of widespread grumblings in the angelic choir. But then, he can quiet all public discontents by bargaining Diego Maradona's release from the infernal regions. And then heaven will be truly heaven."

Suddenly, an American press that, four weeks ago, didn't know AC Milan from AC-DC finds itself interested in the European Championships, interested in whether Stoitchkov and Romario can truly get along as side-by-side strikers at Barcelona, in whether Roberto Baggio will forsake his Italy for Japan's J-League, in whether Miguel Mejia Baron survives and Bora stays.

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