World's favorite game knocks on door of the US

The United States has never quite `gone metric'; nor has it ever gone crazy for soccer. But pivotal sports events have fired Americans' enthusiasm in the past - and the World Cup is the most pivotal of them all

IN what some view as the ultimate attempt at sports crossbreeding, the United States and World Cup soccer are being joined together. Just what the result will be is a question that could launch a thousand arguments - perhaps a million. Do I hear a billion?

People associated with this mega-event, after all, like to deal in very large numbers. As in:

* 31 billion - the estimated worldwide television audience for the 52 games that begin June 17 in Chicago and end one month later in Pasadena, Calif.

* $4 billion - the estimated economic impact of this year's tournament on the US economy.

* 3.6 million - the number of game tickets (the most ever offered to the World Cup).

It was probably inevitable that the world's most grandiose championship event would come to the US eventually. Then, too, soccer people, like parents dealing with reluctant young eaters at the dinner table, have long wanted America to give soccer a fair try.

Just as the US has never made the switch to the metric standard, in sports it has failed to join the rest of the world on the soccer, or futbol, standard. Attempts to graft soccer onto the American sports-watching culture haven't taken, perhaps because the Big Four - baseball, basketball, football, and hockey - are so dominant.

But this could all begin to change, depending on what happens during the most widely scattered World Cup ever. (Visiting fans may experience geographic shock as they try to follow their teams, sometimes from sea to shining sea. The nine host cities are: Boston; Chicago; Dallas; Detroit; Los Angeles; New York; Orlando, Fla.; San Francisco; and Washington.)

The popularity of American sports has hung on pivotal events or athletes. Pro football took off after a national TV audience witnessed the thrilling 1958 championship game, in which the Baltimore Colts beat the New York Giants in overtime. Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs brought tennis into millions of new homes with their 1973 ``Battle of the Sexes'' match. And Wayne Gretzky's move from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 has been credited with popularizing NHL hockey across the Sun Belt.

``I think what soccer enthusiasts want is a niche [in US sports culture],'' says Michael Lewis, editor of Soccer Magazine. ``It doesn't have to be as big as major league baseball's. People are looking at this and asking, `Could this be soccer's last chance to make it big-time in our generation?' ''

One stipulation made six years ago in rewarding the World Cup to the US was that a major professional league be created here. Officials even now are scurrying to name 12 cities to begin play in Major League Soccer next spring.

The league's attempt to squeeze onto an already-crowded sports calendar is unlike the situation that exists in many other countries, where soccer is king. The sport's international governing body - the Fration Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) - has upwards of 170 member countries, 143 of which attempted to qualify for the 24-team World Cup finals.

A nation's sports identity often seems wrapped up in how its team fares in this tournament, says Kyle Rote Jr., a top American player during the 1970s. ``In the United States,'' he says, ``there's a different sport about every three or four months that you can attach hope to. In other countries, where a nation's self-image, self-concept, and self-confidence are based on how its team does in the World Cup, people have to wait four years to regain hope.''

Nationalism, therefore, plays a big part in the World Cup. Most observers cite it as an appealing aspect of this spectacle, one that energizes Cup matches and gives them an extra dimension. Fans often turn games into one uninterrupted noise track, with plastic trumpets bleating like hoarse geese, and air horns piercing the din.

Oddly, the nationalistic fervor that surrounds the World Cup may at times make the US team feel like it's playing on the road. Two weeks ago in Los Angeles, the Americans were actually booed by the largely Hispanic crowd that watched the ``home'' team defeat Mexico 1-0 in a tuneup game.

Greece also received stronger fan support than the US when the two teams squared off in New Haven, Conn., and played to a draw.

Greece, by the way, is making its first appearance in the finals, as are Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, England, France, and European champion Denmark failed to qualify.

World Cup organizers probably didn't lose any sleep over England's elimination, because it eased fears of disruption by British hooligans.

LAN ROTHENBERG, chairman of the US organizing committee, often reminds that the World Cup, which began in 1930, has not been marred by the violence sometimes associated with soccer.

``A lot of what happens overseas happens with club teams, not necessarily with national teams,'' Soccer editor Lewis agrees.

The national teams in the World Cup are often conglomerations of professional players fused for the glory of representing their countries.

Germany, the defending champion, and Brazil are among only six countries that have won the World Cup. The others are Uruguay, Argentina, England, and Italy.

In assessing the two favorites for Inside Sports magazine, James Krohe Jr. writes: ``Watch Germany to see how to win a soccer game -

and watch Brazil to see how to play one.''

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