Football: Dream teams give Americans nightmares

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The Independent Online
THE American World Cup organising committee people are still doing their best to appear optimistic about making 1994 a success. They churn out more and more publicity. The latest news release from New York declares that there are '569 Days and Counting'. Counting? They should be praying.

If the American public know anything about soccer - a negotiable supposition - it must be that it is a game beloved of the British and Latins. It would be mighty difficult to persuade them that a competition to find the best team in the world could be truly serious if it started off without the countries of the game's origins, which, as it happens, are also the roots of many of their own forebears: Italy, England, Spain, France, plus the country they spent so many cold-war years trying to hate, the former Soviet Union.

After the all-powerful television lobby convinced Fifa that there was a lot of money to be made by giving the United States the World Cup, the great hope was always that although not many jumbo-loads of Europeans would go there in '94, Americans would fill the vacant seats because they always support events held in their own backyard.

Surely, though, it would be stretching good old American local pride beyond belief to expect that, say, the loyal folk of Boston are going to turn out in droves if the opening match there just happens to be between Sweden and Norway. Damn it, what do they do, ski with a ball?

Inventive as the 'World Cup USA '94' publicity machine may be, explaining why in soccer, unlike in most American sports, surprises happen, including mega ones like Denmark beating Germany in the European Championship final last summer, could be one hell of a problem.

If the qualifying competition goes on in its present vein, someone is going to have to illustrate how it is, for example, the world finals are going to have Switzerland but not Italy (let alone Scotland). Every American knows that the Swiss are really into cuckoo clocks and peace-making, but what sort of game is this, they may ask, if the pacifists do all the winning? They always said soccer was a game for tiny tots. And Norway? If they get to the finals they will have come out of a group containing England and the Netherlands. Great, but didn't England invent the sport, and the Dutch, didn't they discover an all-new ball game slightly before Rick Parry?

Other questions will be asked. Why call it a World Cup if you don't let the real soccer countries come? Well, we could want to know about a 'World Series' in which only Americans play but perhaps it might not be diplomatic to pursue that line.

At this point in time (why do they always say that; what's wrong with NOW), the World Cup qualifying competition is completing its first year. The European group leaders are: Switzerland, Norway, Spain (just ahead of the Republic of Ireland after beating Latvia on Wednesday, but the Irish have a game in hand), Belgium, Greece and Bulgaria.

What a bundle of irresistible colour that little lot will present to a country bursting with indifference. Ireland would become the local favourites, followed by Mexico. How about that for a final screened over the whole world? But what a night it would be if those two did reach the final. The only soccer match ever to captivate a large proportion of the United States, while leaving millions around the world totally unmoved and more than ever convinced that Fifa's decision to go to the States was quite mad.

Will the finals be saved from farce? The evidence is far from convincing. Take England's group. In spite of their drastically over-praised beating of Turkey, and the Netherlands' unconvincing 3-1 defeat of Turkey in snowy Istanbul on Wednesday, the leaders, Norway, are still not only points but goals and goals ahead. Admittedly, England and the Dutch have games in hand, but those goals could count and after beating the Dutch and drawing with England, the Norwegians' confidence is bubbling.

Then there is Italy's group. The Italians still have a lot of ground to make up on the Swiss who are unbeaten and have a nice little buffer on goal difference. Spain, too, have the ominous double threat of the Irish and Denmark.

In all probability the Russians will make it. Greece, who currently lead the group, have yet to visit Moscow and Budapest. France, behind both Bulgaria and Sweden, are living with real uncertainty. So all in all, World Cup USA '94 could be a final for a game discovering that soccer is now all about getting the best players into the richest clubs with no more than an afterthought for the international game.

The United States was sold the idea of a chance to see the best soccer teams in the world. Who is to explain that the real world champions are actually Milan?