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WORLD CUP USA '94 / MEMORIES : RANDY HARVEY : Lesson Learned in the American Way

July 18, 1994|RANDY HARVEY | Randy Harvey covers the Olympic movement for The Times. He covered 12 games in four cities during the tournament.

I am at the bar in a Los Angeles restaurant, waiting for a table, when an Englishman sits on the stool next to me and begins discussing the World Cup with the bartender.

The bartender says he is not sure soccer will become successful in the United States because of the competition from sports that he believes offer more action, such as football, basketball and ice hockey.

"Naturally," the Englishman says, coming as close to a harumph as I have ever heard. "Americans have the attention span of gnats."

I consider challenging him. I, an American, have as long an attention span as some Brits. Prince Charles, for instance.

Instead, I decide to count to 10.

One, two, three, four, five, six. . . .

Where were we?

Oh, Americans. After one month of playing host to the world, I am more than a little tired of hearing foreigners tell us who Americans are. The only thing I am more tired of is hearing Americans tell us who Americans are. They ought to know better.

I am talking primarily about some of my colleagues in the media, those who informed us before the World Cup that soccer would never capture the hearts and souls of Americans because Americans like a lot of scoring, because Americans don't like sports that require the ball to be advanced by kicking instead of throwing, because Americans need sports with commercials for their beer and bathroom breaks.

So, I ask them, if Americans don't like soccer, who were those 91,000 people who went to the Rose Bowl to see the United States play Mexico the weekend before the World Cup?

It might be true that most of them have Spanish for a first language. It is true that most of them were cheering for Mexico. But it also is true that virtually all of them are Americans.

"These people did not drive from Mexico," U.S. Coach Bora Milutinovic said that day. "These people are from Los Angeles."

I know an American from Sweden. I've never known him to have an interest in sports, although I recall we did discuss Bjorn Borg once. If he asked me for suggestions regarding his splendid New Year's Night parties, the only one I would have is that he occasionally turn on the Orange Bowl so I could get the score. But I doubt he's ever heard of the Orange Bowl.

During Sweden's World Cup games, however, he amazed his friends and family by revealing that he had roots in fandom. They remarked upon this one afternoon during lunch while he ignored them to watch a game on television. "You can't understand," he said. "Soccer takes me back to my childhood."

I know an American from Greece. He knew too much about soccer to tie his emotions to the Greeks, predicting all along that they would be as miserable as they were. Pulling for Romania and Bulgaria, he might have been the only person in the United States who was disappointed when it was determined that they would not meet for the championship.

I know an American from South Africa. The only sport he likes more than soccer is cricket. Now, Mr. Englishman, there is a sport that tests my attention span. My friend also likes basketball and baseball. But he is having difficulty explaining the all-too-frequent fights among the players in those sports to his young son.

"When there is fan violence in soccer, as deplorable as it is, I at least can explain that to him," he says. "The fans have been drinking too much or they are too passionate about their team or they are looking for trouble. But it is harder for him to understand why players fight. What kind of message about sportsmanship are they sending to our children?"

I known an American from El Salvador, a country that once went to war with Honduras when a border dispute accelerated after a soccer game. She watched World Cup games on television with her husband. They pulled for the United States until it was eliminated, then switched their allegiances to Italy.

"Why not Mexico?" I asked her one day.

"Because," she said, "many of the Mexicans I know become arrogant when their team wins. They look down on the Salvadorans and the Guatemalans. I don't even like to go out of the house when Mexico wins."

I know an American from Italy. He owns a restaurant, which he closed each time his beloved Azzurri played on television so that he could suffer and smoke in solitude. He wouldn't take phone calls, wouldn't take deliveries, wouldn't go to the door unless it was a policeman knocking. When one did one afternoon, my friend figured he was about to be ordered to turn down the volume. No, the policeman said, he just wanted to know the score.

This country where we Americans live, it's a big tent.

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