Football / World Cup USA '94: America's passing interest

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SPORT can be a puzzle beyond comprehension. A puzzle currently occupying the home of the brave is football.

Round ball, 11-a-side, 45 minutes each way and if a great star straddles the 1994 World Cup he will probably stand six inches shorter than what the majority of Americans imagine an athlete to look like.

Trouble is that some of my colleagues persist in regarding this as a gap in education, irrefutable proof of insularity. Football is the world game they say, so why doesn't the United States wise up and embrace it?

What troubles me is the offensive nature of their perception. Making a case for football is one thing. Putting down American games is quite another.

For example, last week in one of our more popular prints, baseball was referred to snidely as a game in which a man on a mound throws a ball at man standing in front of a plate while the audience swigs beer and munches on hot dogs. Elsewhere, there isn't a good word for gridiron. As for basketball, it's giraffes cavorting in their underwear.

No wonder that an American in our midst, David McNickle, was moved to protest vehemently. 'Let's face it,' he writes, 'the only reason that the World Cup is being held in the United States is because the organisers see dollars dollars dollars dollars dollars dollars . After seeing the Olympics make money in Los Angeles they figured they were on to a winner. The majority in the US who are interested in soccer play the game, they don't watch it. You may think the World Cup to be 'the greatest sporting show on earth' but most Americans would . . . place it somewhere down the list along with watching paint dry or grass growing.'

There is more. 'If I came from Iceland I would probably find soccer interesting. I would probably find the Eurovision Song contest interesting . . . I find cricket boring but instead of moaning, as Brits tend to do, being an American I found a simple solution: I DON'T F***ING WATCH IT . . . Why must Brits with their 'We know what is best for the rest of the world' attitude keep trying to convince Americans soccer is good for them. WE DON'T LIKE IT. IT IS BORING. LEAVE US ALONE]'

That happens to be my view exactly. On the eve of departure for my eighth World Cup there is the memory of a time, 27 years ago, when I took part in an attempt to ignite football on the only continent cool to it. I signed on as a consultant with the Toronto Falcons but they weren't keen on my consultations.

I tried to tell them that all around the world, football's popularity had grown out of the ghetto. They appeared determined to make it a white, middle-class sport. They were planting the seeds in the suburbs, in the private schools, in the colleges. The wrong places. 'What's the ghetto game in America? Basketball?' I declared. 'If you're betting on an explosion here, I'll put my money on basketball.'

Anyway, the belief of the North American Soccer League was that once given root, the game would develop naturally. It had a dollars 1m ( pounds 600,000) contract with CBS who hired Danny Blanchflower as a colour commentator. Much to the consternation of sponsors, Danny put the boot in frequently. 'This is not going to last,' he said and it didn't.

A recent survey showed only 20 per cent of Americans know their country is hosting the World Cup. In terms of population that's more than enough to make it work. I was mentioning this to an American sportswriter the other day. He was not greatly moved. 'There's a lot wrong with my country,' he said, 'but one of its abiding strengths is uniqueness. For us the World Cup is a passing parade, nothing more.'

The only sensible conclusion is that the United States doesn't need football any more than football needs the United States.