AMERICANS have a hard time imagining the nationalistic fervor that surrounds a sports event that dwarfs the Super Bowl: soccer's World Cup. ``Take the Super Bowl and multiply it 166 times, because that is how many nations participate, and you can begin to understand the excitement,'' says Julio Mazzei, former coach of the New York Cosmos. Italy is hosting the quadrennial, month-long competition that began here last week with tiny Cameroon beating World Cup champion Argentina, 1-0.
Two years of qualifying matches have determined the 24 finalist nations who are competing in 12 different cities, with the final being held on July 8 in Rome.
While there is no clear-cut favorite, soccer fans hope this Cup will include the moments of magic that made this tournament so special in the past: the goals by Brazilian superstar Pel'e in the 1960s, or the more cerebral style of team play that followed and was personified by Franz Beckenbauer of West Germany and Johan Cruyff of the Netherlands.
That team-oriented style gave way in 1986, when Diego Maradona single-handedly steered Argentina to its second World Cup in eight years. Maradona dominated that World Cup in a way no other player had ever done. ``Maradona was as close to a one-man show as the World Cup has ever seen,'' says British soccer commentator Paul Gardner.
Maradona may not be enough for Argentina to retain the world title, as their early defeat showed. The Argentines had been showing abysmal form of late, with only one goal in the last 10 games.
The perennial World Cup favorite with fans has always been Brazil, because of its flair and powerful attack. But Brazil, under coach Sabastiao Lazaroni, now plays a more cautious game. Says Gardner, ``it still looks like Brazil, because Brazilian players, whatever they do, have a matchlessly skillful way of doing it. But the attacking game has been tempered, and that is not good news for the spectator.''
If the 1990 winner is European, Italy and West Germany are the obvious choices. On the field, the Italians will do their traditional thing: skillful defense, lightning-fast counterattacks. But if their attack doesn't click early, they may face enormous pressure. ``We need to get off to a quick start, otherwise our home advantage could become an albatross, with the emotional local fans turning against us,'' says Italian goalkeeper Walter Zenga. Italy beat Austria in its opener, and was scheduled to play the United States yesterday (no score was available at press time).
Flair is not the West Germans' strength, but the 1990 squad shows the usual abundance of technical ability. They beat Yugoslavia 4-1, and play the United Arab Emirates today.
In its 60-year history, the World Cup has been won by only six countries: Brazil, Italy, Argentina, Uruguay, West Germany, and England. If an outsider is to break into the select group, the most likely candidate is the Netherlands. Currently the European champions, the Dutch are admired for the speed and attacking drive of their play.
Two other teams who will be watched closely are England and the US - not so much for their on-field ability, but for the media attention they attract.
``While we are a political superpower, on the soccer field we are still a developing nation,'' says US national team coach Bob Gansler, a fact that was brought home in Sunday's lopsided 5-1 loss to low-ranked Czechoslovakia. The American team squeaked into the tournament for the first time since 1950, and will host the World Cup - for the first time ever - in 1994.
The English, on the other hand, are a team to be reckoned with both on and off the field. More attention will be paid to English fans, with their reputation for rowdiness. Italian officials have put an additional 600 police on the island of Sardinia, where the English played a 1-1 tie with Ireland. Some fan violence and arrests were reported outside the stadium, but nothing major.