Football as the Americans understand it is a microcosm of their society, played by heavily armoured hulks for whom propelling a ball seems (misleadingly) a secondary consideration to inflicting bodily harm upon the opposition in as grievous a fashion as possible. (Supporters of Wimbledon FC may not find this image unfamiliar.) American football differs from real life there only in so far as the participants rarely carry firearms. 'Soccer' is regarded as effete, indulging in needless elaboration and failing to deliver high scores. After the World Cup, US soccer officials intend to tackle the latter problem by increasing the size of the goals by 24 per cent, and moving corner kicks to the edge of the penalty area.
This summer's tournament will be adhering to the dull old laws of Association Football. But one new rule has caused consternation locally: a ban on alcohol at matches, breaching the US citizen's near- constitutional right to drink beer at a game. Police departments fear trouble might flare up between gangs of supporters if, say, Greek ouzo oiks were to collide with Mexican tequila thugs. But though America is a dangerous place in many respects, the risk of getting caught up in a soccer riot is insignificant. Travellers can enjoy the United States in June and July, with or without the World Cup.
The World Cup cities read like stops on a package tour: Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, San Francisco and Washington DC, with a couple of wild cards - Dallas and Detroit - thrown in. But some future edition of A Question of Sport will no doubt set the poser: 'In which World Cup were fewer than half the grounds in the cities where they claimed to be?'
Only Chicago, Dallas, Orlando and Washington can boast a World Cup venue. The remainder are mere geographical approximations - and in one case the stadium is not even in the same state as the 'host city'. To help football fans and foes alike, the Independent Traveller presents a geographically correct tour of the venues.
This is the closest American city to the UK in more ways than one. It is probably the place in which British visitors feel the most comfortable. 'Bean Town' is compact, manageable and handsome. Unfortunately, it is also the one where the World Cup Organising Committee has been guilty of the greatest geographical inexactitude. The Foxboro Stadium is nearer to Providence, Rhode Island, than to Boston.
At least the Britain-to-touchline journey is reasonably straightforward. British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Northwest Airlines fly from London to Boston. The airport is almost in the city, and a short hop on the subway takes you to Boston's South Station, a grand Victorian structure which is an attraction in its own right. From here trains run direct to the stadium, 25 miles south.
The airport accommodation bureau is adept at last-minute bargains; it found me a room at the plush city-centre Park Plaza Hotel for dollars 89 (pounds 59). And the city is blessed with hundreds of decent places to dine. The restaurant that most effectively combines a splendid setting with good food and low prices is Durgin-Park, a bustling dining hall opposite Faneuil Hall in Boston's heart. 'Established before you were born', is its slogan. The menu is solidly seafood and steak - accompanied of course by mandatory hot cornbread.
Lager louts can take advantage of free beer: the Samuel Adams Boston Lager brewery offers tours of its premises in Bismark Street (0101 617 522 9080). You can walk off the free samples on the Freedom Trail, a tour of 16 sites in the city centre. The trail is marked by a thick red line on the sidewalk, so even those who have taken advantage of Boston's tax-free licensing laws ('In Massachusetts,' explained the man in the liquor store, 'alcohol is considered a necessity') should be able to stagger around the birthplace of the American Revolution.
The World Cup opens in what is arguably America's greatest city. New York has pretensions to the title, but Chicago can quietly boast three of the world's five tallest buildings, a 25-mile lake shore, and the best restaurants in the nation (including almost 2,000 pizzerias). This kinda town is impossible to dislike.
Soldier Field, dedicated 'to the men and women of the armed forces', is home ground for the Chicago Bears and the venue for the competition's opening match. Of all the World Cup grounds it is the grandest and has the best location. It sits by the lake a few blocks from downtown, and is topped by an imposing neo-Classical crown. You need not bother taking the ride to the top of the Sears Tower or the John Hancock Center (first and second tallest in the world respectively); just head out along the promontory from Soldier Field, from where you can see a cityscape with twice the power of New York's. Without stretching your legs too much farther, you can visit the Field Museum of Natural History, alongside the stadium.
Chicago has daily flights from both London and Manchester. O'Hare airport is the world's busiest, but reaching downtown Chicago is easy and cheap on the El - the elevated railway which provides some stunning views. The city's hotels have hundreds of rooms empty during the World Cup, and a special youth hostel is opening at 731 South Plymouth Court (0101 312 327 5350).
Picking one restaurant from the thousands that make Chicago the most fattening city in the world is tricky, but the delightful quasi- Swedish ambience at Ann Sather on West Belmont Avenue is more entertaining than an Abba gig, and the food is hearty.
The 'Big D' seems to have neither heart nor soul. The approach is a study in American urban malaise. Communities cling to the loop freeway, Dallas's version of the M25. The centre of the city is a cluster of sharp, shiny office blocks. The terrain between the two is a void: not the kind of lively-but-risky areas you find encircling most big cities, just a big, bad nothing. 'Shopping and eating,' commented one Dallasite I met, 'that's all this town is good for.' He was not planning to watch any of the World Cup games for the simple reason that he was not aware that they were taking place. For his and your information, the venue is the Cotton Bowl. To find it, just look for the Ferris wheel which dominates the state fairgrounds east of the city centre.
The city excels at air travel. Until next Sunday (when the new Denver airport is due to open), Dallas-Fort Worth is the world's biggest airport. American Airlines and British Airways fly in daily from Gatwick.
Just as everyone can remember where they were when England's Stuart Pearce missed the vital penalty on 4 July 1990, so all who come to Dallas later recall what they were doing when they visited the Sixth Floor Museum (from where, allegedly, the shots that killed President Kennedy were fired). They were queueing. Head instead for the stunning Dallas Museum of Art, a Texas-sized gallery with a billion- dollar collection. Admission is free, and the space is intoxicating.
Accommodation in Dallas is confined almost exclusively to cloned corporate hotels, and most rooms will be filled by journalists and engineers. (Dallas is the media centre for the World Cup.) Try Bed & Breakfast Texas Style (0101 214 298 5433), which can organise a room in a private home. Unless you have an expense account, stick to cheap and cheerful restaurants, such as those in the West End Marketplace.
The first thing you should know about the Giants Stadium is that it is not in New York - either city or state. It is across the Hudson River and then some, at a place called East Rutherford. (The word 'place' is used loosely; it is really just a freeway turn-off.)
The name of the sports complex, Meadowlands, evokes an image of semi-rural tranquillity; in fact, a less idyllic location is hard to imagine, even amid the post-apocalyptic squalorscapes of New Jersey. From afar, the Giants Stadium looks like an aircraft hangar, and a constant procession of jets to Newark airport heads over it.
You can land at Newark courtesy of British Airways, Continental Airlines and Virgin, and then get a cab (plus, ideally, an armed escort) to bring you to the stadium. Alternatively, coming from New York itself, get a bus (dollars 3.75 each way) from the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Ireland fans who fondly imagined their team would be playing in Manhattan, or at the very least one of New York City's other boroughs, may be alarmed to find themselves consigned to a dodgy part of America's ropiest state. Accommodation is easy to find (try the Comfort Inn in the optimistically named suburb of East New York).
Whoever booked Belgium to play Morocco here, so close to Walt Disney World, was presumably anticipating a Mickey Mouse game. Off the field, those two teams - plus Ireland and the Netherlands, who also play here - have an unparalleled range of distractions, including a choice of theme parks. This is one reason for the wide range of charter flights from British airports to Orlando.
The stadium is the Citrus Bowl, part of the Orlando Arena complex, a mile and a half west of the city centre. Plenty of charter flights arrive from the UK, and a dollars 15 shuttle ride whisks you from the airport straight to the ground. The local police chief, perhaps used to British lager louts, insisted the sale of alcohol was banned before and during the match, saying he was unable to guarantee law and order otherwise. And local law enforcers have been issued with groin protectors. Soccer is clearly a different ball game here.
For LA, read Pasadena - an old Indian word meaning 'crown of the valley'. The Rose Bowl, the tournament's premier venue, lies concealed in a rumple of the valley. Pasadena is separated from Los Angeles by a good 20 freeway miles. Not any old freeway, the old freeway: Highway 110 is the oldest in California.
Los Angeles is second only to New York in terms of its accessibility from London, and BA can also bring you here from Manchester. Bus 401 from downtown LA slices through opulent suburbs to the modest city of Pasadena.
The main drag is Colorado Boulevard, flanked with trendy restaurants and trendier shoppers. At its western end stands the sleek Norton Simon Museum, with a Rodin outside and a stupendous collection of South-east Asian art inside, along with works by Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh.
A mile or two beyond the museum lies the stadium where the 1994 World Cup Final will be played. The approach is rather more sublime than the Wembley Way: you drift downhill through soft-focus forest to the Rose Bowl, its name spelt out over the entrance in lazy italics, beneath a 30ft high scarlet neon rose. The setting looks too demure to stage the world's biggest single sporting event.
You could reach the stadium on bus 177, but hardly anyone does. I tried to flag one down beside a parking area the size of a small Central American republic. 'I've never stopped here for anyone before,' the driver whispered, in the manner of an extra from the pub scene in Straw Dogs. Soccer fans be strangers here.
Do not strain your eyes studying the map of San Francisco in search of California's second stadium. Stanford Stadium gets its name from Stanford University, on whose campus the arena basks. It lies at the north end of Silicon Valley, about 30 miles away from San Francisco, where the scenery consists chiefly of industrial parks. If you know the way to San Jose - the closest city - you find a charmingly rambling collection of turn-of-the-century buildings.
Sane supporters, however, will head north to stay in San Francisco, 'everybody's favourite city', according to Alistair Cooke. San Francisco's air links with Britain are about to be amplified by Virgin Atlantic's arrival.
Eating out in San Francisco is reasonably certain to be a joy, particularly if you avoid Fisherman's Wharf. Most restaurants on this dowdy stop on the tourist trail are not a patch on those elsewhere in the city; the predominantly gay community in Castro-Polk offers the most varied menus and the keenest prices.
The Robert F Kennedy Stadium is only 20 blocks from the US Capitol, so the city is ideal for anyone wanting to combine sightseeing and spectating. And Washington has easily the highest concentration of museums in the US, from the Smithsonian Institute to the FBI Museum. The latter offers a free firearms demonstration.
To reach the frontline of America's murder capital, take a 'Ride-along' with the Washington Police Department. Call the Community Relations Division (0101 202 939 8721) a day or two in advance to win a place in a police patrol car on the city streets. The police will even drop you off at the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium in time for the Saudi Arabia game (they could provide useful protection if there is any trouble from alcohol-free-lager louts).
The best area for a post-match dinner is Adams-Morgan, centred on the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road, a mile or two north of downtown. The dominant cuisine is Ethiopian, best eaten crouching on floor cushions. Salvadorean is a close second, reflecting the number of refugees from this war-ravaged Central American country. If Washington gets any more dangerous, some may soon decide to return home for safety.
The best transatlantic deals are likely to be between London and New York on unfashionable airlines such as Air India, Kuwait Airways and El Al. Summer discount prices are around pounds 275 return; try Major Travel (071-485 7017), Trailfinders (071-937 5400) and Unijet (0444 458611).
Tickets for World Cup matches can be obtained by calling 0101 213 365 6300; you must pay by credit card. This number is open 7am-9pm Pacific Daylight Time (3pm-5am British time). In the US, dial 1 800 769 1994. Allocations for the semi-finals and finals have not yet been made. Call one of the numbers for the latest information.
For travelling between matches, the best deal is likely to be a Northwest Airlines airpass, for pounds 335, which allows unlimited standby travel within the US for a month and covers the host cities.
Simon Calder is editor of the Travellers' Survival Kit: USA & Canada (Vacation Work, pounds 11.95). He supports Crawley Town FC of the Beazer Homes League, and has pounds 10 on Colombia to reach the semi-finals.
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