Football: A new world of difference: USA '94: The faces of Maradona and Yekini symbolise a game which has rediscovered its desire in a tournament of quality

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THE ice hockey and basketball finals are over at last, baseball frets over a players' strike and the voyeuristic gawping at O J Simpson's flight to captivity has given way to a more subdued soul-searching of American mores. Now the United States is taking to the World Cup. The World Cup, in turn, is taking to the United States.

It was a riveting first week to encourage optimism that this might be a tournament to banish the sackcloth and ashes of Italia '90 and begin, whisper it, to recall the sun-kissed delight that memory insists was Mexico '70. These finals have gone further - 16 matches - without a goalless draw than any since 1958, even if some indifferent goalkeeping has contributed.

A traditionally tight opening match won by the Germans doing just enough until more is demanded, has been followed by sights to excite. And the tone was set by Irishmen of various generations and locations colonising the aptly named Giants Stadium of New York in which their once pygmy footballing nation stood tall, none taller than Paul McGrath.

We have been through the best and worst of Gheorghe Hagi, guiding when gifted the time and space, hiding when Romania faced adversity. In the same group, we have been surprised equally by Colombia's failure to match its sum to its parts and the United States' development in four years. The sophistication of the Switzerland of the Englishman Roy Hodgson, meanwhile, has had the cow bells drowning out the car noise in Detroit.

Saudi Arabia's swiftness has exposed Holland and Cameroon have raged against the perceived dying of their light. Then a 10- man Italy revealed against Norway an unexpected tenacity and an unexpected Baggio, Dino, mounting a cover-up after the manager Arrigo Sacchi faced his own Linekergate for removing Roberto. Even Argentina, sinners and cynics last time, seem to have sensed a new mood. Appalling Greece may have been in awe of them, but there have been times when Argentina would have settled at two goals rather than the four their performance deserved.

And for all his flaws in real life, in a syndrome that might be recognised in Paul Gascoigne, the 33-year-old Diego Maradona retains the goodwill of those who wish simply to see him do that for which he was created, performing on a football field. 'He still draws players to him, opening it up for others,' said the watching, admiring Eddie Thomson, the Australian manager whose side were eliminated by Argentina in a qualifying play-off. The rediscovered desire in Maradona's face, projected on to the world's television screens after he had cutely curled home the third goal, will live long in the memory. He almost seemed to want to come back on after being substituted and take the last-minute penalty that Gabriel Batistuta converted for his hat-trick.

It was to Brazil and Nigeria, though, that the first week was most indebted. After their pre- publicity, the Brazilians seemed primed to disappoint against Russia but, with a performance of rhythm and touch, instead fuelled belief that they, finally, might be the successors to the spirit of the 1970 team. Striding on to the pitch with hands linked was but the first touch of class.

In the left-back Leonardo we have discovered not a teenage mutant hero turtle but an inventive artist. In Romario, with his uncanny ability to turn and leave defenders with unusual angles of touch and eye-of-a- needle shooting, there is a potential portait to set alongside Maradona's in the World Cup's hall of fame.

While Brazil know when to quicken and slacken the tempo to suit them, the Nigerians have only one gear. Top. It may ultimately drain them and their challenge but while the African champions run directly, disturbingly at defences, it is to be marvelled at and moments such as Rashidi Yekini jubilantly in the back of the net after scoring to be enjoyed.

Games have produced a promising helping of goals, even if not yet radically more than in Italy, since higher scores occur in group matches when weaker nations are still in the competition. That initial impressions are so favourable is due largely to the laudable if late efforts of Fifa, the game's much maligned governing body, to clean up the mess of Italy and its 2.21 goals per game. Three points for a win, one consoling import from England, made more of a difference to the first set of matches than might have been envisaged. The avoiding of defeat remained a priority for some teams but fewer than before, and the glint of a win, with its near certainty of qualification for the second round, attracted more.

Mexico, for example, raised their game 20 minutes from time against Norway in search of the three points, only to lose their nerve and allow their unlovely opponents' trump card of resilience to collect the pot. With such a kitty, teams leading by a single goal also appear more willing to seek a settling second.

Then there has been the hardening attitude towards foul play, the two-game suspensions imposed on the first offenders, Miguel Angel Nadal of Spain and Marco Etcheverry of Bolivia, sending a clear message. In addition, the threat of seeing red for the tackle from behind has modified the baser instincts of defenders and freed forwards.

The benefit of the doubt going to the attacker in offside decisions has also increased goalmouth incident while the immediate introduction of a stretcher for injured players has not only enhanced their recuperative powers but improved the flow of matches. Warnings of yellow cards for flights of fancy have made Jurgen Klinsmann, for one, look less like the male lead in Swan Lake. 'I am pleased fair play is now making itself present on the field,' Maradona said. 'In 1990 they talked about this but still hit us on the head.' That may sound ironic from an Argentine but he personally has always been more sinned against.

There have, of course, been human errors. Romario was denied a penalty when mauled by his Russian marker Vladislav Ternavsky; Colombia's Faustino Asprilla another when brought down, with the score at 2-1, by Romania's Miodrag Belodedici. Moreover, a Romanian's upending of Switzerland's Stephane Chapuisat from behind went unpunished while the United States were denied a goal by Alexi Lalas for a debatable offside. But refereeing, by and large, has been adventurous, the best example that of the Hungarian Sandor Puhl in allowing advantage to Norway as they went on to score a winning goal against Mexico. Clearly Fifa's lowering of the age limit for referees to 45 - the average is 39.9 in the United States - has allowed games to breathe. Fitness requirements have been exacting, with referees expected to run 50 metres in 7.5 seconds twice in quick succession and 2,700 metres (walking not permitted) in 12 minutes. Thus not in need of blowing the whistle just to take a break themselves, they are better prepared to implement new guidelines.

There is, too, evidence of tactical development to suggest ways around the stifling defences of four years ago. The use of a single striker can look defensive but the trend is towards two deep-lying supporting attackers, as used by Terry Venables and England latterly, who can unsettle static defenders previously comfortable dealing with balls played in to twin strikers.

Germany seem at present to be debating a choice between a partner for Klinsmann and the withdrawn Andy Moller and Thomas Hassler but the Nigerians have shown through Yekini, Emmanuel Amunike and Daniel Amokachi how it can be done. 'I think sometimes in England we are a bit simple and take the easy way out in knocking balls forward to two strikers,' said the Luton manager David Pleat, watching the Germany v Spain match for BBC Radio. 'We need to look at these games and think about it a bit more.'

The 90-degree temperatures and high humidity have been factors. In a scene from a Sunday League match where players nip off for a quick drag on a cigarette, six Norwegians were caught on the right touchline taking on water as the Mexicans broke down the left. Erik Thorstvedt also had to react hurriedly to a free-kick after dispatching a water bottle into the back of his net. They have not, however, been significant factors yet. Several teams look plodding after the Nigerians, but the pace has been remarkable.

Add to the cocktail the Americans themselves and a heady brew is developing. The crowds have been astonishing, the lowest so far 44,132 for Nigeria v Bulgaria in Dallas; the highest 93,194 for the US v Colombia in Los Angeles. Some have looked inflated, such as the 52,535 in Washington for Holland v Saudi Arabia and the 61,428 for Romania v Switzerland in Detroit, but the Americans insist those were the number of tickets sold.

It has proved that there is a football community in the US even if it is in a minority. Because of the sheer size of its population, that still means more than many countries where the game is the national sport. And not all are expatriate. While probably half the crowd in the Rose Bowl was affiliated to Colombia, some 40,000 Americans were still present. Would the English rally similarly to, say, the world basketball championships?

It has been touching to see the enthusiasm; of thousands of Washington children giving themselves to an opening ceremony for the games there, probably barely understanding the action that was to follow, or of two small boys reacting with excitement to a match in the Silverdome when asked by mom and dad how they had enjoyed it. Spectators used to seeing heading only in a dolphin show at Sea World, but learning quickly, react with glee.

One hesitates to be so effusive so early, having witnessed so many false dawns. Perhaps we are over-eager to escape the negativity that has characterised major football for so long. But we may be, just may be, privileged to be in on the beginning of the global game rediscovering itself.