Giving US an Appetite for Soccer

Seamus Malin tells how Americans could warm up to a low-scoring game

SEAMUS MALIN knows his subject, loves it, and wants you to love it, too. He's been a soccer ``color commentator'' on United States radio and television for almost 30 years now, and next month will co-anchor ESPN's telecast of the draw for the 15th World Cup.

Despite Americans' reservations about a 90-minute game that sometimes ends with no score at all, the ticket quota for the US has long been sold out.

Malin admits readily that the game needs some rethinking, but firmly rejects the idea that changes should be made simply to please American spectators. ``Nothing could be a greater mistake,'' he says vehemently. ``I don't think Americans should be tinkering with the sport. This is not their game!''

But not for one moment does Malin question the choice of the US as the venue for next summer's World Cup, the world's most popular single sports event with the largest TV audience.

``There are at least three good reasons for having it here,'' he said in an interview in the International Office at Harvard University. As office director, he helps support some 5,000 international students and scholars. Three good reasons

``The facilities for staging an event of this magnitude, including instant media coverage, are excellent,'' he says. ``The International Soccer Federation, FIFA, is right to be pushing into new territories to expand the game worldwide. And the United States has a huge population of immigrants who will not only fill seats but help to bring the event to life with their enthusiasm.''

Malin hopes that Americans will make a special effort to understand the game and appreciate the skills involved. ``They need to grasp the give-and-take of the game, what individual challenges are all about, and where lines should be drawn between good rough stuff and the nasty.

``They need to appreciate the stamina required of a player in a 90-minute game with no timeouts and few interruptions. The average midfield player runs nine miles while simultaneously using feet and head to control the ball.

``With closer examination,'' says Malin, ``people might find some interesting parallels with the one-on-one challenges in American football, baseball, and basketball - linebacker against running back, pitcher against batter, lanky center against smaller forward.

``In soccer, we see clever players improvising situations in which they can use their individual strengths against a perceived weakness in a particular defender, like, for example, a speedy winger against a fullback.

``I hope American spectators will eventually see a midfield struggle as something interesting, and no longer need to focus on the only thing they can [now] understand - the score sheet.''

Malin has been quick to support changes in the game such as the new back-pass rule restricting kicks back to the goalkeeper, which has been applied since the Olympics in Barcelona.

``It adds more scoring opportunities,'' he says, ``and that's a great rule change for the game at large. But we must remember that this is the world's game. That's why I get annoyed when American colleges, for example, write different rules [`laws,' in Great Britain] into the book.''

But for the moment, Malin's concentration is not on college soccer but on the World Cup.

Will US commentators have to ``talk down'' to their American audiences? ``It's a very tricky balance,'' he says, ``because a lot of the audience will be true believers who don't want to be insulted with endless explanations of, say, the offside rule. To do it subtly is the way to go.

``But the style's going to be different from what the Europeans, and especially the British, are used to. Announcers will concentrate more on the players than on the rules, and with the extra cameras and replay possibilities it'll be easy to pick up those things that will satisfy American viewers who like their sport up close and personal.'' Not an easy sell

Malin concedes that the process of selling soccer to Americans has not been easy. ``There was a time,'' he says, ``when it was regarded as a foreign, un-American thing.'' The notion that a soccer final would not be settled in one day leaves most Americans incredulous: Under the British system, a scoreless final goes into 30 minutes of overtime.

If there is still no result, the game is replayed another day. After 90 more minutes of regulation play and 30 minutes of overtime, the teams resort to taking turns making five penalty kicks on goal until there is a winner. The British were slow to adopt the penalty-kick rule, though they have been a feature of other European competitions and the World Cup for more than a decade.

Malin points out that soccer has come a long away in the United States since he first laced up his soccer shoes at Harvard.

``But if there are to be changes,'' Malin adds, ``I think the people who have the world view are the ones who should be entrusted with the task. Americans who love the game and are involved in it, have to be a part of it, but not a separate outside group tinkering with it and frightening others away.''

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