Football: Birth pangs to follow love-in: World Cup aftermath - Rupert Cornwell predicts a hard time ahead for the new kids on the block in American sport

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A GOALLESS 120 minutes of the World Cup final had just ended, and this baseball devotee flicked channels to catch up on the Baltimore Orioles, who were playing the California Angels in another suburb of LA. A panel came up in a corner of the screen with the news: Italy 0, Brazil 0 (after overtimes). 'Lotta action there,' said the commentator, his voice dripping sarcasm, 'Great game, soccer, huh?'

Baseball, of course, is in no position to gloat at what that new breed of journalist, the American soccer writer, has vainly tried to pretend was not a wretchedly anti- climactic end to a phenomenal tournament. Barring divine intervention, the national pastime is lurching towards a late season strike. No World Series - and even the dwindling band of irredeemable US soccer haters could be dreaming of Romario in the Rose Bowl.

But the Orioles' announcer (as they call television commentators here) had a point. For a month this country has indulged in a 'gigantic love-in,' as Alan Rothenberg, the US soccer chief, put it, with a sport which for the average television viewer was about as familiar as the Eton Wall Game.

Even so something is still missing. The curtain has fallen, the novelty is over. And in its supreme showcase, the game came up short. For aficionados, Brazil v Italy may have been as riveting as a classic pitchers' duel. For the wavering convert, it was confirmation of his every doubt.

So where does soccer go from here? In the opinion of most sports writers, not very fast, and probably not very far. Only in America would 83,000 turn out to watch a first-round game between Sweden and Cameroon. More pertinently, though, the average home attendance of the El Paso Patriots, the biggest crowd-pullers in the US Inter-regional Soccer League, was 3,800.

Part of the deal which brought the World Cup to the United States was the start of Major League Soccer in April 1995. With nine months to go, it has a television contract and two sponsors, but no teams. Five of the 12 franchise slots are still unfilled. Rothenberg's ambitions are modest, average crowds of 12,000 or 13,000 and a wait of at least 10 years before soccer can hope to match baseball, basketball and American football for popularity.

But even that looks optimistic in these tough days of World Cup withdrawal. True, Americans have learnt that there are other soccer players beside Pele. But this country wants the best. Alexi Lalas and Tony Meola are no substitute for Romario and Roberto Baggio. And if Lalas and Meola join European clubs, they may not even play in the new domestic league. And what if, as is entirely possible, the US fail to qualify for the 1998 finals?

'The United States does not have soccer stadiums,' the columnist George Vecsey wrote in the New York Times yesterday. 'Its best players must go to Europe for money and experience, and Rothenberg must uncover wealthy benefactors and network executives ready to gamble on a league with no world stars.' Such are the difficulties ahead. No wonder they are praying for an own goal from baseball.

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