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World Cup Diary: Turn-on for the home supporters

LIKE the tournament itself, television coverage of the World Cup in the United States has improved day by day after an uncertain start. They seem even to be cottoning on to what all the fuss is about.

The sports channel ESPN, which is showing 41 of the 52 first- phase matches live - some of them, unfortunately, on their second station, which has limited access - began badly by failing to cover the opening ceremony. It then transmitted blandly, admittedly mirroring the match, the Germany v Bolivia encounter. Worse, it failed to provide adequate replays of incidents.

Gradually, and probably with the input of imported European directors, they have realised the importance of showing again close offside decisions, as well as close- ups of players and spectators to capture the atmosphere.

Commentary is well informed and shows good judgement, even if there are understandable Americanisms ('Donadoni is an offensive weapon,' mused one broadcaster). The expatriate Irishman Seamus Malin, for example, correctly identified Colombia's persistence with a middle route, rather than exploiting the wings, as one reason for their demise against the United States.

The hosts' win that day has fuelled interest to the point where ratings can be expected to go above the best so far of 5.5 million people who watched their first match against Switzerland.

On ESPN, Roger Twibell's South American-style howl of 'Gooooooooooooll' after the second against Colombia has endeared him to many of the good ol' boys. One American writer swears that the guys who sit in the booths by New York's bridges have caught the mood. 'Tooooooooooooll,' they demand.

THE Aston Villa manager, Ron Atkinson, was being accredited at the New York media centre for his work as an ITV contributor. 'Your tag is just being laminated,' explained the hostess. 'Crikey, what does that mean?' he asked. A journalist nearby explained, and bet him dollars 5 he couldn't get the word into his commentary of the Ireland v Italy match the next night. 'The new Irish shirts with their laminated badges look nice,' he duly reflected on air.

THE former French midfield genie and manager Michel Platini arrived in Washington last week and rang a World Cup office to request a car to RFK stadium. 'Why do we have to pick up some French woman?' wondered a driver.

'I'll pick her up,' volunteered a bright young Turk, Yavuz Baray. He knew what he was doing, however. 'I'm a player, a coach, a soccer junkie,' said Baray, who described his subsequent red-hot soccer chat with the Frenchman as one of the highlights of his life. Platini rewarded him with tickets for the Mexico-Norway match.

WHEN O J Simpson was cruising the Los Angeles freeways in his white Ford Bronco being pursued by police, all live on television, we were trying to think of a revered English footballing equivalent who might take off round the M25 in his Range Rover. It proved impossible. With all the motorway cones, he would never have got past Leatherhead.

MAJOR sporting events are always good opportunities for getting messages across. Surprisingly, the 'John 3:16' banners prevalent at Italia '90 have not been in evidence here, but we have had 'Save Bosnia'; 'Stop killing whales, Norway' (but for an H, that could have been directed at Romania) and 'Macedonia was, is and always will be a part of Greece.'

We await this week's matches. 'Sign a treaty with the North, Korea', 'Get your inflation under control, Brazil' or 'Underwear down in price at K-Mart, America,' perhaps?

THE ARSENAL manager, George Graham, was an interested spectator at the Germany v Spain match in Chicago last week, enjoying the match, he said, but finding his pleasure impaired by the constant passing sideways along his row of hot dogs and Coca-Cola. He would have liked them pushed forward sooner, apparently.

He revealed afterwards, incidentally, that back at Highbury the goalless Dane John Jensen has invested in a pair of the new Adidas Predator boots, receiving from team-mates a ribbing to match the design of the footwear. 'I think his shooting has got worse,' lamented Graham.

ARRANGEMENTS for interviewing players and managers after matches are haphazard, conducted in the bowels of stadiums, where journalists' experienced in dodging umbrellas at Wimbledon is good practice for evading Brazilian television crews.

Though more of an exclusion zone, these places are called mixed zones. For mixed grills, presumably.

IT IS one of football's little injustices that a brilliant shot, such as Marcelo Balboa's bicycle-kick for the United States against Colombia that went just wide, and one that hits the corner flag both count for the same: nought.

The national newspaper USA Today, whose coverage of the World Cup is excellent, has got around it by inventing a new scoring system. They took, for example, Argentina to beat Greece by one and a half goals and Bulgaria to beat Nigeria by a half.