Football / World Cup USA '94: A New York state of indifference: Ian Ridley surveys the World Cup scene from a city with other things on its mind

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The Independent Online
DEFENCES have been on top in the low-scoring games, which have been characterised by some over-physical play, drawing stinging criticism from some Americans. Welcome to the world championship. Of basketball.

It has been quite a week in New York. Not only are their Knickerbockers - Knicks for short - showing by contesting the National Basketball Association's seven-game finals series against the Houston Rockets, but their ice hockey team, the Rangers, thrillingly won one of the biggest, heaviest and ugliest trophies in sport, the Stanley Cup, for the first time in 54, what were thought accursed, years. 'Now I can die in peace,' read one sign in the crowd.

'It's Cup to you, New York, New York,' trilled the victorious Daily News cutely, while fans of the vanquished Vancouver Canucks in another country were also reacting riotously, but less healthily so.

The city is also playing host to the Gay Games this week, which include, it is believed, some sex ice dancing; Pearl and Dean rather than Torvill and Dean, perhaps. (No letters please. More of the same is available at the coinciding gay comedy festival.)

Oh, and there is football's World Cup.

New York is an astonishing sports city when it comes to the four 'main' games: American football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey. It has two major league teams in each, including northern New Jersey. So this soccer thing will just have to wait.

There was the traditional Manhattan ticker-tape parade for the Rangers from Battery Park to City Hall on Friday, producing 500 tons of paper and costing dollars 1m. 'Chump change,' said a spokesperson, considering how much the Rangers had made for the city. It estimates dollars 71m from the play-offs for both teams. World Cup banners draped high here and there around this tallest of cities went underlooked.

It then gave way on Friday night to game five of the NBA finals at Madison Square Garden, which the Knicks won 91-84 to take a 3-2 lead in the series.

Ireland v Italy? In some quarters could be spotted the black of the Guinness and the Azzurri of the jerseys but few mentions in the papers. Mostly the T-shirts have proclaimed the coming of their ice men or the motto of their basket cases: 'It's all about soul.' (One newspaper did, however, feature a cartoon entitled 'World Affairs Cup' of a group of nations kicking around President Clinton's head.)

This is a city accustomed to sporting failure - it is 21 years since the Knicks won their last title - but bears it with little stoicism, as testified by its lack of inhibition in railing against life's daily irritations. A clutch of coaches have been hired and fired in this most demanding of markets trying to bring it success. Many have turned down the opportunity, anxious to avoid a media which called the way the Knicks were playing in the past 'Casketball'.

Pat Riley, however, was big enough to take it on, having nothing to prove to his home town after previously winning four titles with the Los Angeles Lakers.

An irony is that in LA, Riley oversaw a team, embodied by Magic Johnson, playing a 'showtime' basketball that suited the city. In New York, his strategy has been based on aggressive defence. Consequently the Knicks have had their knockers, at least outside the city. Riley's team doesn't have nicknames, someone has suggested, it has aliases.

That, too, seems to suit the city. While neutrals feel that it would be bad for the game for them to win the series, New York does not care: whatever it takes. It seems to have viewed with amusement rather than embarrassment the sportsmanship of the film director and Knicks fan Spike Lee, who sits behind the Houston bench 'trash-talking' the opposition's players.

The Knicks' rough, tough approach was apparent in their 91-82 win over the Rockets, which levelled the series, at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night. 'When the score is low, it's in our favour. If we can cut them down, it is going to be a low-scoring game and we have a better chance,' said the Knicks' Derek Harper, though low-scoring in basketball - and 173 points in a 48- minute NBA game is such - is only comparative.

'We have won all year with defence and we have to win this series with defence,' Harper added. Any such talk by a World Cup footballer over the next month will see him vilified.

It is questionable whether New York and America will take to the World Cup once the Rangers are put off ice and the basketball hoopla is over, or merely turn back to its baseball boys of summer with the Mets, Yankees et al.

Figures released on World Cup ticket sales do seem good, however. The claim is that all but 100,000 of the 3.6 million available have been sold, surpassing the previous record of 2.5 million in Italy four years ago. And it will be an extravagant show, in accordance with the American way.

Tickets to matches may be going mainly to the immigrant population, but elsewhere there does seem a polite interest. New York, however, has other things on its mind. Is that dog Pickles still alive? Perhaps he could help the city find the World Cup.

BEING accredited to the World Cup as player, coach, official or journalist means agreeing to inquiries into one's background by the Federal Bureau of Investigation lest one might be what is termed an undesirable alien, and not in the sci-fi sense.

It caused concern among media personnel anxious about the freedom of the press to pursue their legitimate activities but it might have been more of a problem for Diego Maradona or Claudio Caniggia.

If Mr Blobby can make it in, though - not Maradona but the TV character, who came to New York last week trying to sell himself or perhaps take England's revenge for not making the World Cup - it seems that anyone can.

Both Argentine players have served suspensions from the game for drug use and indeed the immigration form for the United States poses questions about whether anyone has just such 'moral turpitude' to declare - as if anyone is likely to answer 'yes' to them.

There was apparently never any question of an international incident over the two men of substances being refused entry to the US, however, despite Maradona being refused a visa to play in a tournament in Japan last month.

Calls to the FBI, State, Justice, Customs and Immigration departments elicited responses that respectful waivers for all teams and their officials would be granted. 'We are more concerned from a security standpoint about safety inside stadiums,' said a spokesman for the FBI (number openly listed in telephone directory). 'Background checks are really to see if any evidence of terrorism is there to be turned up.' Clearly, he has not seen Argentina play.

LOSS of fluid is a problem for players acclimatising to the prevailing severe heat and humidity of the US, which was being documented on New York's Channel 2 News by a weather reporter called Storm Field.

The Irish were advised, indeed, to take on board seven pints of fluid a day. One or two responded, however, that they had no plans to cut their consumption.

TRAINING camps for squads are mostly idyllic, set amid the excellent facilities that every small town appears to have. Opulent university campuses are favoured.

Norway, for example, use the Ivy League surroundings of Princeton University in New Jersey, all rural retreat and dreaming towers. Their practices in the midday sun, with no longer any need for the sweaters and bin liners they donned in training in Oslo to simulate conditions here, are held on the pretty little field where Princeton honed their skills to reach the national collegiate semi-finals.

There is another side, however. Bulgaria are in Austin, Texas. At the Burger Center.

INEVITABLY, footballing thoughts are often still at home in the week building up to the World Cup. It was in the same period four years ago that Swindon's 'relegation' for financial irregularities was announced.

Erik Thorstvedt, the Norwegian goalkeeper, has been trying to apply a tourniquet to Tottenham's potential slow bleeding. 'Perhaps this whole thing might bring everybody more together. In a normal season we should be able to cope,' he said.

Thorstvedt, who is wearing a 10- kilo vest everywhere so that when he takes it off his jumping should have improved, says that he will stay at Spurs. 'Maybe the chairman will say we have to spend our way out of it,' he added.

IT sounds as if Glenda Slag may be alive and well and writing in the New York Daily News. Take this from a World Cup 'style watch':

'Gnarly] That's Jorge Campos, goalkeeper for the Mexican World Cup team. If he isn't a vision of studly cool, we don't know who is.

'Jorge is a surfing dude from down Acapulco way, so it seems apropos his uniforms have that flourescent, hang-ten look. Whether stopping rocket-like shots or hollering instructions to his team-mates, Campos is a symphony of cerise pink, lime green and acidic yellow. And in case you hadn't noticed, his small but well- muscled little bod is quite buff.'

THE standard response from mostly helpful and engaging Americans, when you tell them you're here for the World Cup football is: 'Oh, sarker'. Many have some sort of anecdote or distant recollection about the game.

On a rail journey back from the Norwegians' training camp to Penn Station, New York, the conductor revealed that as a young sailor on a tour of duty of Europe that also took in Beirut, Lebanon, he had even once played against Barcelona for the United States Navy. In a bullring, he thought it was. Missing David Seaman, however, the Navy were sunk 11-1.

ATTEMPTS to establish a professional league in the US, which Fifa decreed a condition in awarding them the World Cup, are experiencing, as we say in this trade, mixed fortunes.

Fifa wanted to see a league in place by now but the Americans convinced them that it would dilute their World Cup effort. Nor could they have wanted the possible embarrassment of a pre-tournament flop. The proposal, instead, is that a 12-team league will begin in April next year.

However, of 22 bidding cities, only Columbus in Ohio has fulfilled a criterion that clubs should have 10,000 season-ticket pledges at dollars 75 each. Still, six others have so far been awarded franchises: Boston, East Rutherford in New Jersey, Los Angeles, Uniondale in New York, San Jose and Washington.

The world does wish them well. The only worry is that the 'seniors' sports in vogue here give them ideas about recruiting those guys Pele, George Best and Rodney Marsh.

(Photographs omitted)

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