Are we the world?

Despite our uneasy place on Planet Soccer, the United States will be vying for glory as the globe's most passionately watched sporting event begins.


Andrew O'Hehir
May 30, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Almost four years ago, on a hot summer afternoon in Pasadena, Calif., an Italian Buddhist watched a white leather sphere sail into the sky and covered his face in despair. Thousands of miles to the south, an entire nation began its riotous celebration, and the 1994 World Cup -- international soccer's blind date with the United States -- had reached its ambiguous conclusion.

You might say it was the kind of date that ends with a lingering kiss on the doorstep rather than a passionate, long-term coupling: Although the '94 tournament was a great success on its own terms, drawing more fans than any previous World Cup, it did not catapult soccer to the forefront of American pop culture, or suddenly turn the U.S. into an international soccer superpower. Even for the beleaguered minority of American soccer snobs -- in whose number I count myself -- that was too much to hope. To labor the metaphor just a little further, it was also the kind of date that subtly changes the two parties' perceptions of who they are, and leaves them increasingly curious about each other. Staging its crowning spectacle in an essentially neutral country made soccer stronger in its time of crisis, and gave Americans the chance to experience the obsessive, carnivalesque and even deranged passions that attend this often bewildering game. Americans always appreciate scale even if they don't understand it, and the sheer color and bigness of the World Cup surely accelerated a process that was happening anyway: The planet's favorite sport, smuggled past the Border Patrol by immigrants and adopted en masse by 11-year-old suburbanites, was insinuating itself into a permanent niche in our sports landscape.

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It isn't realistic to suggest that soccer will soon, if ever, be as big in the American spectator-sports pantheon as baseball, basketball or football. (Supplanting hockey, another imported niche sport that may be wearing out its welcome, is another matter.) But "America's soccer nation," to borrow a phrase from George Vecsey of the New York Times, has grown extraordinarily broad and diverse, stretching from immigrant-rich urban hotbeds like East Los Angeles and Newark, N.J., to middle-class strongholds around Portland, Ore., and Dallas-Fort Worth. As the planet's attention turns to France this week for the opening of the 1998 World Cup -- where the hot topics are striking airline workers, Algerian terrorists, English hooligans and a gap-toothed kid named Ronaldo from the slums outside Rio -- it's worth recognizing how far American soccer has come.

Major League Soccer, the 12-team U.S. pro league that arose in the wake of World Cup '94, is a weird, low-rent affair in many ways. It has made several lamentable rule changes in an effort to make the game more comprehensible to non-fans, and its team names (the Dallas Burn? the San Jose Clash?) seem lifted from some marketing student's MBA thesis. But MLS continues to draw respectable crowds in near-total media obscurity (the league-wide attendance average is about 14,000 per game). More importantly, its level of play has improved dramatically. If you're one of the soccer snobs who spurned the league for its Madison Avenue cheese factor, or who gave up during its often-laughable first season, I strongly advise you not to miss this year's edition of the Los Angeles Galaxy -- a slashing, high-scoring team of speed burners who combine South American flair with North American grit. Professional competition at this improved level has in turn toughened and sharpened the U.S. national team, previously an unstable mix of foreign-based players and near-amateurs.

The American team that will play Germany in Paris on Monday is by far the best ever to represent this country, a tirelessly athletic side that plays sound positional and tactical soccer and doesn't surrender goals easily. Its accomplishments over the last year have been impressive: The Americans held Mexico to a goalless draw in a crucial qualifying match before an enormous, enraged crowd at the high altitude of Mexico City; rode red-hot goalkeeper Kasey Keller to an astonishing 1-0 win over world champion Brazil; and thoroughly dominated Austria in a 3-0 victory in Vienna. Unfortunately for them, expectations were unfairly raised by the far less talented and interesting '94 squad, which snuck into the round of 16 on a fluke, after a Colombian defender put the ball into his own net. (He was later murdered, perhaps by drug lords, in apparent retribution for his mistake.) In addition, this year's team must play two of the most talented sides in Europe, Germany and Yugoslavia (the name still officially used by Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian government), and two of its games may be drowned in political hype: When the U.S. plays Iran on June 21, it will mark the first significant athletic competition between the two since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and the Yugoslavia game on June 25 will undoubtedly be tinged by tensions over the Serbs' latest round of atrocities in the Kosovo region. In short, for all the team's improvement, it will take a bigger miracle than '94's to get them out of the first round. Soccer, like life, is full of injustice.

To return to our agonized Buddhist for a moment, any honest soccer fan will admit that the finale of USA '94 was a prodigious anticlimax. After 120 minutes of scoreless, tentative play in the championship (a 90-minute game plus a half-hour of overtime), the phlegmatic Italian star Roberto Baggio -- yes, a Zen practitioner -- missed the last penalty kick in the tie-breaking shootout, giving the trophy to Brazil. A potentially classic matchup between the two most skillful soccer teams in the world had fizzled out in a grotesque blunder.

But perhaps even that was instructive. More than most sports, this one traffics in heartbreak and disappointment, and, all things considered, world soccer came back from its American vacation stronger and healthier than it had been in years. Friendly, enthusiastic crowds and modern facilities made the deadly stadium collapses and violent tribal outbreaks of European soccer's recent past fade into memory, and the style of play (aside from the championship game) was mostly freewheeling and attractive, free of the choppy, defensive slog often encountered at the sport's top levels. Indeed, the soccer establishment gathers in France secure in the knowledge that its game has, if anything, grown dramatically in exposure and popularity in the intervening four years.

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Europe and Latin America have produced an exciting new generation of star players, foremost among them Ronaldo, the 21-year-old Brazilian who has almost certainly replaced Michael Jordan as the planet's most famous athlete. The top professional leagues -- the English Premier League, Germany's Bundesliga, Italy's Serie A and the Spanish Primera Liga -- have begun to see themselves as leaders of a global industry, recruiting players from all continents and broadcasting their games by satellite around the world. A European super-league, involving such elite teams as Arsenal (London), Manchester United, A.C. Milan, Juventus (Turin), Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, is expected to emerge within a few years. And soccer fever is spreading rapidly through the densely populated nations of East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa -- the 2002 World Cup will be shared by Japan and South Korea, with the 2006 tournament probably destined for South Africa.

It's impossible to exaggerate the effect the Cup will have on daily life in most of the 32 countries represented at France '98. Ordinary business will slow to a crawl for most of the next four weeks, and stop altogether whenever the national team is actually playing. (As many as 2 billion people, or one-third of the world's population, are expected to watch the World Cup final on July 12. The National Basketball Association finals, perhaps Jordan's final showcase, should top out at around 600 million viewers.) As for the U.S., well, as I say, we're a lot more soccer-friendly than we used to be. The Disney-owned ABC/ESPN combo will broadcast every minute of every World Cup match live, a first for American TV. (Even during USA '94, some games were only available on tape-delay.) Ratings will be somewhere north of the National Hockey League, but nowhere near "Seinfeld"/Super Bowl levels. In practice, if you walk into a sports bar in a major city, the Cup will probably be on -- unless there's a baseball game opposite it on another channel.

My private theory is that there is in fact a cryptic, matter/antimatter relationship between baseball and soccer -- that the space soccer occupies in the souls of (male) Europeans and South Americans is filled, in norteamericanos, by baseball. This theory, I believe, can even account for the anomalous cases of Japan and Mexico, where both sports are widely popular: In each of those countries, American influence has ground like a tectonic plate against underlying and in some ways opposing traditions, producing a tense, peculiar cultural mélange.

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Superficially, no two sports could be more different. Soccer at least bears certain formal similarities to football (11 players a side, with each team defending a goal on a rectangular field) and basketball (which also combines positional strategy with fluid, improvisational play). But football and basketball are modern inventions, whereas baseball and soccer developed deep in the rural, pre-industrial past before being codified in the mid-19th century. An early version of baseball was played in both England and colonial America; the game is mentioned, of all places, in Jane Austen's 1796 novel "Northanger Abbey." Along with cricket, its posh English cousin, baseball presumably descends from stick-and-ball games played by medieval shepherds (the legend that Abner Doubleday invented it in 1839 in Cooperstown, N.Y., has been convincingly rejected). Soccer is older still; it can be directly traced to a game played by the Roman legions in Gaul, and similar games were played much earlier by the Assyrians, Egyptians and ancient Chinese. Amusingly, a historical article published by the National Soccer Hall of Fame explains that by the 12th century in England, "the game had become a violent mob sport with no rules and any sort of behavior condoned" -- not much has changed on the Sceptered Isle, evidently, in 800 years.

As befits such bucolic ancientness, both sports are deeply concerned with history and tradition. Both reward the obsessive, the purist, the acolyte far more than the casual observer. Both have childishly simple objectives -- touch all four bases; put this ball in that net without using your hands -- yet require almost impossible feats of athleticism and coordination, and seem to their devotees to be possessed of almost mystical depth. Both create a highly elastic sense of time, although in entirely different ways. Baseball, of course, is the only major team sport (besides cricket) that has no clock, and a single inning may take anywhere from two minutes to an hour or more. Soccer, although divided into 45-minute halves, is played in a nearly continuous flow of patterns that form, break down and reassemble, mesmerizing its fans into a kind of high-anxiety fugue state; add to this the fact that official time is kept only by the referee (except in the new and improved MLS), so players and fans never know exactly how much time remains.

Let's be frank -- another connection between these sports is that both bore nonbelievers out of their skulls. There's no mystery to this, and it's not solely a matter of incomprehension. All sports torture their fans in various ways, and both baseball and soccer do so with extended periods of stultifying tedium. "Fever Pitch," English novelist Nick Hornby's marvelously funny memoir about his lifelong obsession with the London team Arsenal, is full of self-recriminating accounts of all the atrocious matches he's sat through. Hornby refers to soccer as a form of "entertainment as pain," and writes that "the natural state of the [soccer] fan is bitter disappointment." But boredom and irritation are part of a fan's ritual allegiance to the sport; as though bargaining with the Old Testament God, we believe we must suffer through the bad games to deserve the brilliant ones.

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This isn't the place to discuss the kind of 8-2 baseball game that suddenly stops dead around the sixth inning and devolves into the kind of timeless nothingness otherwise achieved only in Wagner's "Parsifal." But I can assure you that among the 48 first-round matches of this year's World Cup, there will be at least one or two deadly dull contests in which neither team will make any serious effort to score goals. (There is indeed such a thing as an exciting 0-0 draw in soccer, but we'll leave that for the advanced lesson.) There will be several more in which one team will score a lucky goal early, then pack eight or nine men in front of its own goal, punt the ball downfield without chasing it and ruthlessly chop down any opposing player who dares to foray forward. Fans of the teams involved will watch such games on tenterhooks, for they know that, as unlikely as it may seem, a sudden defensive miscue or a lightning strike from midfield could destabilize the whole mind-numbing equation. The souls who really deserve your pity are those who watch such games because they have no choice -- those who, for example, will get up early Friday morning to watch Paraguay play Bulgaria, and who will do so without hope, without expectation, without passion, but simply because they must. (Don't call me that morning -- I'll be, um, working.) There will also, I promise, be a game or two (or more, if we're really lucky) in France '98 that will become soccer lore. Games like the 1958 final in which a teenager named Pelé scored twice against Sweden and his astonishing Brazil team taught the world what il jogo bonito meant; or the 1986 quarterfinal in which Argentina's mercurial superstar Diego Maradona called on "la mano de Dios" to defeat England and avenge his nation's humiliation in the Falklands; or the cruel, cruel semifinal of 1982, when les bleus, the long-suffering French team, scored twice in overtime against arch rival West Germany, only to see the relentless Teutons storm back, hammer two home in the final minutes to tie, then win the penalty-kick shootout. And the thing is, there's no way to be sure, absolutely sure, that Friday's Paraguay-Bulgaria clash won't be one of those.

In brilliant and dreadful games alike, the best way to decode the apparently amorphous flow of soccer is to make sense of the alignment of players on the field. With 22 players running around trying to deceive each other, there's a certain degree of chaos theory involved in even the best-played games -- but following the action is a lot easier if you can tell the accidental patterns from the intentional ones. The most common alignment in soccer is a defensive-minded setup called the 4-4-2, meaning that there are four defenders positioned in front of the goalkeeper, four midfielders seeking to control play in the center and two forwards hanging around the opponent's goal hoping to score. If the team is leading, the four midfielders will drift backward, creating an eight-man defense; if the team needs a goal, they'll move forward to help form a six-man attack. There are many variations on this theme; the one most relevant to American fans at the moment is the unorthodox 3-6-1 formation that U.S. coach Steve Sampson has developed for the World Cup, in an effort to cover up the Americans' weaknesses and capitalize on their athletic ability and team speed.

One of the keys to this alignment is the tremendous confidence Sampson has in goalkeeper Keller, a Washington state native who has excelled for several seasons in the English Premier League. Whatever hope the Americans have for advancing in the tournament rests with the unflappable Keller, who made numerous impossible saves against Brazil in the stunning 1-0 U.S. win over the champs in February. That game alone made clear how much stronger the U.S. team has become. Playing against a 10-man Brazil team in the '94 Cup, the Americans never came close to scoring; the only element of suspense was how long it would take the Brazilians to penetrate the U.S. defense. Today, with a little luck, the U.S. has a fighting chance against any side in the world.

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Directly in front of Keller is 37-year-old Thomas Dooley, the German-born son of an American serviceman and veteran of nine seasons in the Bundesliga. As the sweeper, or central defender, and team captain, Dooley is supposed to take on any attacking players who break free near the goal, keep a cool head and distribute the ball out of the back. The other defenders, "marking backs" with specific assignments to guard, or "mark," opposing forwards, will almost certainly be Eddie Pope and David Regis. Pope, a rising star in MLS with two-time champions D.C. United, is one of a modest but growing contingent of African-Americans in soccer. Regis is also black, but his story is completely different -- a native of Martinique who stars for the Karlsruhe team in Germany, he became a U.S. citizen (through marriage) less than a month ago. These are two of the most talented players on the team, and will often come forward to join the attack; Pope is known for driving headers on goal, while Regis has a dangerous long-range shot.

Of Sampson's six midfielders, two are really "wingers," speedy players who dash up and down the flanks of the field from goal to goal, from defense to offense, as the action dictates. These roles will probably be filled by Cobi Jones, the lightning-quick Detroiter who has scored seemingly at will this year for the Los Angeles Galaxy, and Californian Frankie Hejduk of the Tampa Bay Mutiny, at 23 the youngest player on the team. The two most fixed slots on the field belong to the least experienced players, defensive midfielders Chad Deering and Brian Maisonneuve. Deering, a Texan who plays in Germany, and Maisonneuve, who plays for the Columbus Crew in MLS, will "stay home," in coaching parlance -- they should rarely be seen in the offensive zone (unless the team is behind in the late going), and must pick up defensive coverage if Pope or Regis go forward.

The most important offensive player on the American team is midfielder Claudio Reyna, a New Jersey native who plays with Deering at Wolfsburg in Germany. An agile ball-handler with speed and tremendous vision of the field, he plays a role similar to that of a basketball point guard -- penetrating the defensive alignment and creating scoring chances for his teammates or himself. Reyna's partner at offensive midfielder will probably be Ernie Stewart, the team's best blend of skill and experience. Another military brat, Stewart was born and raised in the Netherlands, where he plays professionally for NAC Breda. That leaves the lone forward, or "striker," who hangs around near the opponent's goal, using up defenders' energies and hoping a loose ball bounces his way. Sampson almost seems to use this position as a decoy -- to some extent, this entire alignment is an effort to adjust for the team's dearth of star strikers. Eric Wynalda, the career American scoring leader, is recovering from a knee injury and looks slow and rusty. Roy Wegerle, a 34-year-old South African immigrant who once played in England, is a hard-working journeyman who's no longer a lethal scorer. Nonetheless, Wegerle may start, since Sampson seems to lack confidence in Brian McBride, who stars alongside Maisonneuve in Columbus but has had little success in international play.

The theory behind the 3-6-1 is that eight of the 10 field players will join the attack at some point -- even Dooley is likely to come forward once or twice -- and that all of them are capable of scoring. These flexible waves of Yanks pouring forward will eventually find cracks, Sampson hopes, even in the technically superb German defense. Meanwhile, all those young, agile bodies clogging up the midfield will frustrate the ponderous, tradition-bound attackers of Germany and Yugoslavia, dispossessing them of the ball and launching devastating counterattacks. You can't fault Sampson for trying something new and ambitious; the U.S. team wasn't going to beat Germany with slow-footed defenders Marcelo Balboa and Alexi Lalas -- two World Cup vets now riding the bench -- doggedly manning the back line. In fact, after Hejduk, McBride and Reyna scored in the impressive 3-0 victory over Austria in April, Sampson had his team and the American media momentarily convinced that he had the German behemoth measured for the kill.

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Maybe he does: Sampson's reign as the first American-born coach of the U.S. team has been characterized by uncanny good fortune when it's most needed. But the fragility of his experimental alignment was exposed when Reyna missed a few games with minor injuries and the U.S. attack fired blanks against Macedonia and Scotland, while mistimed forward waves allowed dangerous scoring chances to opponents. By far the likeliest scenario is that the American team, which for all its speed and conditioning lacks basic ball-handling skills, will be dismantled by the powerhouse Germans and outgunned by the explosive Serbs. Sampson will face public displeasure and lose his job, a big-name foreign coach will be hired at great expense to build the 2002 team and American soccer will continue its slow, incremental build. But Sampson's gamble is a worthy one. A cheap goal and a few outrageous saves from Kasey Keller on Monday evening in Paris, and the team with the funny formation -- the implausible offspring, if you like, of soccer's 1994 blind date with America -- will make front-page headlines around the world.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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