What's in a Game?

A STRANGE calm came across the lands. In Lebanon, Haiti, Cameroon, Czechoslovakia, and many West European states, streets were empty. Stores were shut. Government office phones in Colombia and Romania rang unanswered; regional conflicts and internal tensions lulled. What's up? Has peace broken out? Did H.G. Wells's aliens finally land? Is it the half-hour silence in heaven described by St. John?

Not exactly. We're talking about the effects, north and south, in city and hamlet, of the quadrennial World Cup soccer matches broadcast this month from Italy. Americans may not understand a game played without the hands. The rest of the globe goes nuts over it. In the process, that which can seem so ultimate, so unswervingly serious, can seem a bit less so.

In Lebanon, which doesn't even have a national soccer team, rival Christian groups in Beirut, yards and blocks apart, dropped their weapons to watch West Germany play Yugoslavia. In south Beirut, Hizbullah and Amal groups struggling to dominate Shiite Muslims have, temporarily, forgotten to fight. The city hums with generator-powered TVs.

In Haiti, where there's practically been no power for seven months, the electricity is back - just in time for the soccer matches. It's no coincidence. Street crime and violence are down in Port-au-Prince.

Remember the vigilante miners imported to restore order in Bucharest, Romania, last week? The Iliescu regime partly restrained them by setting up TVs. Journalists in Colombia trying to get military clearance for trips find officials are unavailable.

Soccer matches hardly substitute for diplomacy. But when peoples can break a self-obsessive grip on present demands and desires and get collectively lost in a game, another dimension of life can show itself. Maybe a few things come into perspective. Americans have been finding this out at the ballpark for years.

Speaking of America: The first US team to compete in the World Cup has been eliminated. But more's in store: In 1994 the Cup's 52 matches are held in the US.

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