JUST outside the terminals at O'Hare Airport, huge blue and white banners with a soccer-ball logo spell out a friendly message to visitors arriving for the World Cup matches: ``Welcome to Chicago 94.'' Smaller banners on light poles add to the air of hospitality, creating a cheerful first impression for foreigners.
But once these avid fans reach the city, they may find O'Hare's initial warm embrace giving way to a chillier reception in other printed messages. For several days last week, soccer-bashing became a journalistic sport as columnists in area newspapers expressed impatience with the world's most popular sport.
``The game is titanically dull,'' proclaimed Tony Snow, a syndicated columnist who regards the game as ``boring'' and ``silly.''
``A typical match is sort of like watching an ant farm or observing a parking lot at closing time when shoppers are looking for their cars,'' Mr. Snow wrote. ``It seems to have no point. Worse, it is insufferably prissy ... the ultimate low-tech, pre-industrial diversion.''
Mike Royko repeated the ``soccer-is-so-boring'' theme in the Chicago Tribune, albeit with a humorous touch. Bernie Lincicome, also writing in the Tribune, wryly dismissed the opening match as ``this thrill-an-hour stomach-knotter.'' He asked: ``How could either nation sleep last night after such a fierce and pitched struggle, the fortunate Germans, the hardy Bolivians? It doesn't get much more soccer than this.''
On one level these columns - whose themes are being echoed by other newspaper and magazine writers across the country this week -
offer an amusing counterpoint to all the straightforward coverage the World Cup is receiving. At the same time, they neatly illustrate the high threshold it takes to keep Americans from yawning, revealing an American appetite for perpetually stimulating and sensational pictures on the television screen.
Bor-ing may represent the ultimate insult for any activity, especially one that captures the attention of billions of viewers in 194 countries. ``Entertain me'' has become the insistent demand of restless Americans, who add, ``and while you're at it throw in a little violence.''
In a nation where the criterion for TV news is ``If it bleeds, it leads,'' soccer is apparently not macho enough or sufficiently warlike. Even baseball, the all-American sport, has occasionally taken its lumps in recent years for being too slow and - that dread word again - too boring. Bring on football's battering rams, viewers say, and its bruising pileups.
For those of us who could politely be described as athletically challenged - who would rather read a book or take a walk than watch most sporting events - there is something appealing about soccer. All that lush green grass. All those crisp white lines. All those unpadded, unhelmeted players whose intense faces and flamboyant hairstyles give a team individuality. And all those time clocks that just keep ticking, with no timeouts except for injury.
Even soccer players with nicknames like ``El Diablo'' (``the devil'') can display a charming side, as when Marco Etcheverry, Bolivia's most famous player, offered an apology after being yanked from the game. ``I want to say I'm sorry to the people of Bolivia,'' he said. ``That is very important. They must please excuse me.''
When was the last time an American athlete begged forgiveness for an error on the playing field?
For now, perhaps a modest apology is in order to all the billions of soccer fans around the world who fail to understand the indifference of Americans. In the words of Etcheverry, they must please forgive us - for our ignorance and our failure to appreciate the fine points of their beloved game.
The cynical saying in sports used to be, ``Nice guys finish last.'' Is it really necessary to invent a sequel: Nice sports finish last?