Football / World Cup USA '94: Americans are beginning to move to the beat

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The Independent Online
ON THE occasions that Romania chose to play possession football against the United States at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena - a sensible ploy considering that the temperature was fast approaching a record - they incurred vociferous displeasure.

The response of the majority in an audience of more than 91,000 was splendidly old-fashioned. They booed. I haven't heard booing like that since Joe Bugner strode to his corner for a comeback. The sound was not offensive, but it was indicative.

It is a curious thing to sit among so many people and realise that a great number have come fresh to what they are watching. Not for them the sophistications of technique and tactics. What they want is energy, drive, passion. Above all they want an American victory.

So will the World Cup be remembered here as a four-week fad, or does it signpost the future?

In the afterglow of last week's

2-1 victory over Colombia, the secretary-general of Fifa, Joseph Blatter, said: 'I have been in football 19 years as an executive, and I have never come across this feeling of emotion, and the awareness of our games as we have had in the United States. They proved that this game has a right to have its place in the US.'

In view of corporate and media resistance, Fifa's relief is understandable. 'It is not like some American commentators have said,' Blatter added. 'It is not a one-time event. It is a legacy, not a two-day circus. A half-hour after the match (US v Colombia), people were still in the stadium cheering. We have seen the United States play with such fighting spirit, it is such a tremendous thing to see. They produce such an emotion.'

But will it last, will the interest quickly dissolve after the World Cup final on 17 July when the NFL's panzer divisions come into view? Tom Cushman, sports editor and columnist of the San Diego Union-Tribune, is among those reserving judgement. 'I have to admit that the World Cup has excited more interest than I imagined,' he said, 'but we'll know more from the result of readership surveys.'

The idea that everybody in the US is talking soccer is loose thinking on the part of some observers. It is what they want to hear, but it isn't necessarily the truth.

Derek Palmer, a former professional boxer from south London, has lived in California for more than 30 years. 'I've watched all the televised matches and the football has been exciting,' he said, 'but when I get enthusiastic people ask me why I'm watching such a silly game. I just don't know whether soccer now has a real chance of taking off here.'

The cable network, ESPN, which is putting out most of the matches, drew a 4.3 national Nielsen rating for the US-Colombia game. The best of the season for baseball was 4.1 on the opening day when they showed Cincinatti Reds against St Louis Cardinals. 'I refused to make any ratings guesses before the World Cup and I'm glad because I would been way out,' admitted Jack O'Hara, the executive producer of ABC sports, which took a no-risk share of the weekend action.

Television coverage of the World Cup may well raise interesting questions on Madison Avenue. No TV time-outs. No commercials. Is the on-screen game-clock, with its attached Coca-Cola logo, the most subliminally effective innovation in TV sports advertising? A bigger question is whether the World Cup will retain its television audience after the US are eliminated, an imminent probability since, as the third- placed team in Group A, they are likely to come up against either Brazil or Germany?

For Pat Putnam, latterly of Sports Illustrated and a contributor to the Observer's sports pages, it has been reminiscent of a famous victory the US achieved over the Soviet Union to take the 1980 Olympic ice hockey gold. 'Forget the 'Dream Team' in Barcelona. That was a farce,' he said. 'The hockey was something else because we were up against the best. That explains why the World Cup match against Colombia had us rooting. They were reckoned to be one of the best teams and the US was out there licking them. If you asked me to report a soccer game I wouldn't know where to start, but that Colombia thing really got me going.'

Expansive in its coverage of the World Cup, the Los Angeles Times quotes Al Misteri, who is the soccer coach at Cal State Fullerton. 'At the Colombia game there was a fight in the section behind us,' he said. 'I'm not sure what exactly happened but somebody got in a Colombian's face. It's not what you like to see at a game. But at least someone finally gave a hoot about soccer. I feel proud. It felt really good to see. This is the kind of passion that only this game can produce.'

Sunday was different only in that it brought defeat. If technically inferior to the Romanians and lacking their collective nous, the US nevertheless played their hearts out and the support for them was thrilling. 'Like the majority, I don't know much about the game,' said Calvin Davis, a construction worker from Long Beach, 'but those were our boys out there and we were rooting for them.'

That is at the heart of the matter. What will the World Cup mean to America when the flags are at half-mast?