Viewer finds himself in the dark at World Cup soccer telecasts

I've covered hundreds of sporting events, some in broad daylight, some at night, but very few in pitch blackness. That, however, is basically the situation in which I've viewed World Cup soccer.

As an American, some might say I've been in the dark about soccer for years. If they were talking about the closed circuit World Cup telecasts I've attended, this year and in two previous years, they couldn't be more right.

My first exposure to this quadrennial spectacle occurred in 1974, when the World Cup matches were beamed into the old Boston Arena. Talk about dark, the only illumination came from the screen at one end of the arena, plus a disconcerting number of lit cigarettes. Making the adjustment from the well-lighted lobby was exceedingly difficult, especially for someone who can barely negotiate his own bedroom during a blackout. That I found a seat in the balcony, and not on a stranger's lap, should rate a spot on ''That's Incredible.''

Four years later, Boston soccer fans were watching World Cup games in the more luxurious Music Hall in the city's theater district. The building probably never housed a wilder audience than the one apparently armed to the teeth with firecrackers for Argentina's victory celebration.

This year, closed circuit coverage moved into the Bradford Hotel, a nearly forgotten downtown establishment with a siesta tempo. A large screen was set up on the ballroom stage, with a sea of dining chairs available for those watching the Spanish International Network feed.

A sizeable Italian contingent, many of whom probably live in Boston's North End, considered the $12 admission a bargain on this particular day. In the first match of a doubleheader, Italy defeated defending Cup champion Argentina. After a lunch break, the Italian fans returned to the ballroom in good spirits for the afternoon game, with at least one gaily blowing a referee's whistle.

Arriving early for the England-versus-West Germany matinee, I picked my spot in a side balcony and watched the floor below fill to about half capacity. A soap opera, part of the network's regular programming, was projected on the screen, but few seemed to notice or care. But as the houselights dimmed and the World Cup telecast began, everyone's attention was soon riveted front and center.

With my grasp of Spanish limited to words heard on old TV Westerns, the play-by-play could have been in Swahili for all I knew. I'm sure it wasn't, but I never could determine when Pele, the special color commentator, was talking.

The closed-circuit promoter had told me the language would present no barrier to my enjoyment of the telecast, that the action spoke for itself. Maybe so, but the broadcaster must not have felt that way. He seldom took a breath, his tongue working like a taxi fare meter. I could have closed my eyes and still known if a team was attacking by his syllables per second.

He reached top speed late in the game when a West German shot rocketed off the goal crossbar, a sequence replayed several times to the utter delight of the spectators.

The game, however, ended in a scoreless tie, which prompted some booing. Nothing really vicious, just a nice absentee ballot that said we were there, too. And so was I - in the dark, of course.

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