A Winning World Cup

DESPITE a controversial (and to some flat) final game, the just-concluded World Cup runneth over with good results, both on and off the field.

Attendance topped 3.5 million people, a million more than at its predecessor in Italy in 1990. Television ratings in the United States for the championship game between Brazil and Italy were expected to be the highest ever for a soccer match (as football is known in the US). Hooliganism was at a minimum. And even Americans with little interest in the game on the field were amazed and entertained by the colorful and generally well-behaved fans cheering for each national team.

Some sad moments interrupted the celebratory mood. Colombian player Andres Escobar was murdered after his return home, apparently in an argument over a goal he inadvertently scored against his own team in a match with the US. Diego Maradona tested positive for illegal drug use and was disqualified, depriving Argentina of a key player and preventing spectators around the world from enjoying his considerable talents.

Our only complaint? The rule that forced the championship game, a dramatic 0-0 tie even after overtime periods, to be settled through penalty kicks. It ought to be changed. The intense effort from players on both teams didn't deserve such a capricious ending. The shootout, won by Brazil, was little more related to what had gone on in 120 minutes of grueling play than would have been the flip of a coin. Would the final game of baseball's World Series be decided by a home-run-hitting contest? Several alternatives come to mind: Declare both teams co-champions; replay the game later; or simply keep playing until a ``sudden death'' goal is scored.

Interest in soccer in the US, where it is played mostly by children and immigrants, may grow a bit as a result of hosting the World Cup. A professional league will be tried again. But it will be a long process. The US national team will do well if it can match its 1994 second-round showing next time in France in 1998.

One of the most vivid World Cup memories for Americans may be the stirring cries of ``G-o-o-o-o-o-a-l!'' uttered by Spanish-language announcer Andres Cantor. His enthusiasm showed the passion the world's game can arouse, a passion most Americans have yet to muster.

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