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The Boston Phoenix Sidelined

The "beautiful game" is also the most democratic -- and passionate. But will the US sit out the soccer revolution?

By Jeffrey Gantz

JUNE 29, 1998:  For all that it's called the world's sport, soccer at the international level has always belonged to the aristocrats of Europe and South America. Just six countries -- Germany and Italy and England, Brazil and Argentina and Uruguay -- have accounted for all 15 World Cups (like the Olympics, this meeting of national teams is held every four years).

But as the group matches of World Cup 98 draw to a close, change is in the air. The competition's venue has traditionally rotated between Europe and the Americas (the USA in '94, France this year), but the 2002 World Cup was awarded to Japan and South Korea, and the new president of FIFA (the sport's international governing body), Sepp Blatter, has promised to try to bring the 2006 World Cup to Africa. This is more than just a financial bonanza for the host nation: teams naturally play better on, or near, their home turf, so Third World venues mean a better chance of Third World success. Already, World Cup 98 was expanded to 32 teams from 24 in '94, with most of the added places going to Asia and Africa.

Things are changing on the field, too. The scorelines don't look that different: teams from Brazil and France and Italy are still beating up on the likes of Morocco and Saudi Arabia and Cameroon. But Third World nations are playing the boots off the traditional powers -- not to mention the US. Iran outran and outfought the Americans last Sunday; prior to that it matched powerful Yugoslavia for 70 minutes before succumbing to a bit of Sinisa Mihajlovic free-kick magic. Nigeria, in just its second World Cup, powered past Spain and Bulgaria. South Africa played Denmark to a 1-1 draw; only the crossbar stopped Quinton Fortune's injury-time screamer and saved the Danes from a shock defeat. Japan gave Argentina and Croatia all they could handle before going down 1-0 in each game; South Korea led Mexico till one of its players was sent off. Only inept refereeing kept Cameroon and Morocco from joining Nigeria in the second round.

If these teams' efforts weren't always rewarded, that's because soccer, like life, is a cruel sport where games can be decided by a single flash of brilliance: Argentina's Gabriel Batistuta sliding eel-like past Japanese defenders, Colombia's Leider Preciado slipping his marker to fell Tunisia at the last minute. Even easy victories like the Netherlands' 5-0 thrashing of South Korea and Argentina's similar win over Jamaica weren't really easy till the last half-hour. The evidence may not be apparent in the statistics (which the American commentators from ESPN and ABC seem unable to do without), but on the field, it's clear that the have-nots are catching up.

It's not hard to see why, either. Soccer isn't just the world's most popular sport, it's the world's most democratic sport. Being tall (to head the ball) or quick (to run past opponents) is an asset, but the essential skills involve dribbling and passing the ball -- and that's mostly learned. No self-respecting Brazilian kid sambas down the street without a ball at his feet. (Just check the Nike TV ad where the Brazilian team dribbles through an airport.) Eventually kids in Tokyo and Baghdad and Nairobi will be doing the same. Not that a country like Iran will ever have the resources of, say, the United States, but for 90 minutes it's your best 11 against theirs.

And for 90 minutes last Sunday, Iran's best 11 actually were better than ours. Maybe the Iranian team didn't want that game more than our guys did, but certainly Iran wanted it more than America did. (As you read this, you can be sure they're still celebrating in Teheran.) Soccer isn't just the world's most democratic sport, it's the world's most passionate sport. The Olympics don't set off gang wars in Britain, international hostilities in Central America, death threats in South America, and rioting around the globe, from Mauritania to Malaysia, from Argentina to Afghanistan. In world soccer, the fans identify more closely with the team than in any other sport. Your team is composed of your countrymen (for the most part, the country in which a player is born is the country he has to play for); its style reflects the national personality (just look at the fear-eats-the-soul sides Italy sends out every four years). In no other arena, save war, do countries put themselves on the line as they do in soccer.

Had the US beaten Iran on Sunday, American TV viewers would have celebrated for maybe five minutes. Even had Steve Sampson's side done the unimaginable and won World Cup 98, it probably wouldn't have generated as much excitement and media attention as the Bulls' NBA championship did. For better or worse, Americans are too spoiled, or too sophisticated, or just too jaded (European soccer clubs stay put, but who can be sure the Revolution won't move to Jacksonville?) to live and die with soccer the way the rest of the world does. We're too sports-rich to need it.

Which is too bad, because soccer is also known as the beautiful game. And so far, World Cup 98 has lived up to that reputation. Despite the atrocious officiating (after FIFA officials had instructed referees to hand out red ejection cards like lollipops), cynical fouling has been reduced, and talented artists like Brazil's Ronaldo and Argentina's Batistuta and the Netherlands' Dennis Bergkamp have been mostly free to show off. Which will make soccer only that much more popular with the millions who'll be watching World Cup 98. The US, meanwhile, has taken a step backward with its hapless-looking losses to Germany and Iran, but what can we expect when the rest of the world sends forth its best athletes and we respond with what Italy's Gazzetta dello Sport (one of that country's three sports dailies) called "honest college kids"? The rest of the globe will be taking the World Cup train into the 21st century. It'll be too bad if we're left behind.

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