Soccer is hot, and so are fields, as first round winds down in US

ALAN ROTHENBERG, chairman of World Cup USA '94, popped into Foxboro, Mass., last week to complete his tour of tournament operations. The first round was going splendidly, his report card showed. Few could argue, given the big, enthusiastic, polite crowds and favorable TV ratings.

One inquisitive overseas journalist wondered if the good news could be sustained if the United States team is eliminated, as could soon occur if the Americans move into the single-elimination, second stage of competition - possibly against Sweden or powerful Brazil. Rothenberg responded that none of his expectations for the tournament were contingent on the US squad's performance.

As first-round, round-robin play neared its June 30 completion, the biggest drag on the event remained the scorching heat that was exacting a physical toll on the players in many of the nine host cities.

``It's important to score first, particularly in this heat,'' said Romanian midfielder Gheorghe Hagi after his team's 1-0 win over the US June 26. Temperatures reportedly reached 110 degrees in the Rose Bowl.

Germany wilted in 120-degree heat after building a 3-0 lead against South Korea in Dallas's Cotton Bowl June 28 but held on for a 3-2 win.

Ireland coach Jack Charlton even blamed his team's loss to Mexico on the heat in Orlando, Fla. (Rothenberg countered that the Irish had trained in Orlando for two weeks.)

Many of the games are played at midday to accommodate global TV audiences.

There is no clear pattern to the results in terms of national climates. A team that might seem a natural to thrive in the heat, Colombia, has already said adios in perhaps the most surprising development to date.

Many in the media labeled the Colombians as contenders before the 24-team tournament got under way June 17. They were jarred, however, by upset losses to Romania and the US, an ignominy made worse when the first US goal was inadvertently scored by a Colombian defender. Colombia finally beat Switzerland, 2-0, but by then it was too late to salvage anything but lost pride.

Argentina, which some predicted might be in a state of decline, has been anything but, so far. Victories over Greece and Nigeria have given Argentina hope of making it to the final for a third consecutive World Cup, following a championship in 1986 and a runner-up finish in 1990. Superstar Diego Maradona, with his artful midfield play, has dispelled rumors that he might be a shadow of his former athletic self. In Argentina's 4-0 blitz of Greece, he scored a spectacular goal and deftly fed the ball to others.

If Italy, one of six seeded teams, advances to Round 2, it will do so the hard way. The Italians were upset by Ireland, 1-0, in the their opener, then came back to beat Norway by the same score while playing a man short much of the game because of a player ejection.

Referees have not hesitated to issue yellow warning and red ejection cards this year. The Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the sport's worldwide governing body, is determined to crack down on the rough play that marked World Cup games in 1990.

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