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WORLD CUP USA '94 / MEMORIES : HELENE ELLIOTT : Humidity, Mosquitoes: She Loved It

July 18, 1994|HELENE ELLIOTT | Helene Elliott covers the National Hockey League for The Times. She covered nine games in four cities

For this I went to journalism school?

It was an hour before the Brazil-Sweden semifinal. My assignment was to gather interesting and newsworthy notes, so there I was in the parking lot of the Rose Bowl, interviewing a 10-foot tall chicken.

What do you ask a 10-foot chicken: Why did you cross the road?

Maybe, but I couldn't even do that. This chicken spoke only Portuguese and a little Spanish.

Yes, this was a memorable World Cup.

*

The Rolling Stones have their Voodoo Tour. I had the humidity tour.

Orlando, Fla., home of Disney World, Epcot Center and enough sodden, heavy air to soak the Sahara. Take a shower, dry off, go outside, and get so sticky that you want to jump into the shower again.

No sympathy from the office. One of my editors, who is from Orlando, listed the city's attractions. He would have gone to the dog track. Or jai alai. Me, I was dragging myself back to my room, drained, after each game and practice. And I hadn't been running for 90 minutes, as the players had.

Oh, my editor said, how he wished he were there!

Risking instant unemployment I inquired sweetly, "If you liked it so much, why did you leave?"

No wonder I was stationed there long enough to qualify for residency.

*

On to New Jersey. A notice in the hotel room warned guests that because the Meadowlands sports complex is built on what used to be swampland and some mosquitoes haven't yet gotten the news, insects still invade the area in hordes each summer. Environmental regulations prohibit spraying them into oblivion, so be prepared to scratch.

What an impression that must have made on foreign visitors. Welcome to our country, and by the way, you're gonna need an ocean of calamine lotion.

*

This was a month of moments, not of days.

Of moments when I wondered if anyone was reading what we produced, of moments--principally after diving into the mixed zone--that I wished I had listened to my mother and gone into a different line of work.

But there were moments of exquisite tension, of glorious games settled by one goal or resolved by penalty kicks. I had covered soccer before and have seen enough leagues fold to fill a bowl of alphabet soup--remember the NASL and MISL?--yet I had forgotten how wonderful soccer can be.

The quickness of the Mexican forwards was marvelous to watch. The skills of the Dutch were dazzling. Bebeto and Romario were mesmerizing. Belgian goalkeeper Michel Preud'homme was an acrobat. I can replay dozens of goals in my mind and times when defenders headed balls off the goal line, never losing my awe of the skills those feats required.

*

The lasting memories are of the people I encountered along the way.

Of course, the fans. They didn't need cheerleaders to hold their interest, or scoreboards telling them when to clap and what to chant. They entertained themselves in the stands by forming makeshift bands, playing an astonishing variety of songs. They brought signs honoring their local pub, their home club or each other.

Irish fans danced with Dutch fans, who got along fine with Belgian fans, who admired the Mexican fans' exuberance. It was a huge and happy party with no dress code and no language barriers.

I can't forget feeling humbled by the European players' ease in speaking three or four languages--or the triumph I felt at connecting with one player, whose language I didn't speak and who spoke no English, through French and bits of Spanish and hand gestures.

I will remember seeing old NASL friends like Dutch Coach Dick Advocaat, who played for the Chicago Sting when I covered that team for the Chicago Sun-Times. Of hearing him say, "You haven't changed," and wishing I could say the same about him, except he had a lot less hair and a lot more pounds around his midsection.

Then, too, are the people whose names I didn't know, all the people who filled stadiums and made the tournament a box-office success, and those who worked for the organizing committee and made the tournament run smoothly. I rooted for no particular team, but on some level, I wanted this to be a success, to show the world that Americans aren't soccer heathens.

I think we succeeded. I know we gained the attention, however briefly, of those who scoffed at soccer before the World Cup began. It's not the games that matter, it's the people who play them. Sometimes, we lose that in a sea of statistics. Drama is universal, whether in baseball, hockey, football or soccer. It's an athlete challenged by an adversary of equal or better skill. It was a great show.

*

Now that we've discovered--or rediscovered--the beauty of the game, it's over. There's no league to follow, and if Major League Soccer ever gets off the ground, it won't feature the caliber of players we've just seen.

Anybody know a place to catch some Italian League games?

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