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WORLD CUP USA '94 / MEMORIES : WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO : Soccer Excitement Not Foreign to Him

July 18, 1994|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | William D. Montalbano is The Times bureau chief in Rome. He covered 12 games in four cities during this tournament

On one coast I met a daughter whom I first deposited on a soccer field when she was 6. Only yesterday, it seems, but she's a Manhattan fast-tracker now, and all month she's been watching with kinsmen's approval as World Cup defenders scythe impudent attackers. My daughter, four years an All-Ivy sweeper, recited the fullback's credo: "The ball can go past, and the man can go past, but the man cannot go past with the ball."

On the other coast, inside the Rose Bowl on Sunday, I met a son playing hooky from a weekend soccer team in Northern California on which he is the only starter who does not speak Spanish as a first language. My son wore a badge that proclaimed him on-site counsel for one of the USA '94 support companies. "The fact is, nobody here needs a lawyer as much as I needed a Cup fix," he said.

I'm the one who has been watching USA '94 from the other end of the telescope. After years of living in Latin America and Europe, soccer is an old friend. Over cappuccino every morning tifosi of Roma and Lazio taunt one another across our neighborhood bar. I don't say much: My morning friends understand that I hail from a soccer-disadvantaged land. Truth is, though, I think it's funky to come from a country that can go to the moon but might never beat Brazil.

What has fascinated me in USA '94 is less the game itself than the interplay of sport and place. A foreigner's game come home to America.

We've both learned from the summer encounter.

About size, for one thing. America is so big. Big cars, big cities, big people, big portions. It strikes me every time I come home. The sense of space and proportion is utterly different here than in Europe.

Many of the foreign fans I talked to commented on their own need to adapt to impressive new dimensions. A wholesome reset, too; an eye-opener for visitors who came braced for the glitzy, saccharin, dangerous America that Hollywood has foreshortened into a television tube.

For their part, the most cursory inspection of USA '94 might bring home to Americans the reality that bigger is not necessarily better. Hard to grasp, perhaps, while American football players bench press aircraft carriers and basketball centers endanger low-flying planes. But there is room in the world athletic jungle for cheetahs too. Foot wizards from Italy, Brazil, Bulgaria and half a dozen other Cup countries--typically 5-6 and 155 pounds soaking wet--are true international giants, Jakarta to Joburg to Jutland.

Did American space, all those lovely green fields stretching till morning, influence Cup play? Experts will tell you better, but I saw a more open, buoyant and interesting soccer this year than I did in Italia '90. From the press box at least, it looked like more fun for players and fans alike.

It occurs to me that in its fullness America has also given soccer refreshing space for the psyche.

I first went to a big soccer game on a long-ago Sunday as an exchange student in Buenos Aires. What I remember best were the mounted riot police resolutely separating the blue and yellows from the red and whites. At the 1990 Cup, I covered riots in Sardinia started by hooligan British fans; violence is no stranger to international soccer.

With that as preface, I was nonplussed at my first game here to be engulfed at Giants Stadium by intermingling hordes of Irish and Italian patriots--raucous, loud, wrapped in their flags, partisan and proud. A recipe for tear gas, I thought.

Wrong. Inside the stadium, 77,000 people cheered their lungs out, Ireland won, and everybody went home peacefully.

A few days later in Foxboro, I saw something even more extraordinary; a huge, human blue and white carpet filing noisily into a lovely suburban stadium. HE-LLAS, screamed the dark blues for Greece. AR-GEN-TINA, screamed the light blues parading alongside them. I have covered both countries, mind you, and never found many sanguine people in either. But that day, and in all the others to follow, hardly anybody at America's Cup confused sport and life.

The message of crowds cheering for 24 countries at fields around the country seems clear: The assertion of difference does not require hostility. For me, such reaffirmation of an old-fashioned American principle may be the most valuable World Cup postscript. For the United States, and for a world riveted to USA '94, and to surprising images of a country it knows too well--and too little.

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