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The World Cup: A Midsummer Sports Fan's Dream

Column by Daniel Wang
Associate Sports Editor

There's no doubt about it: sports fans across the nation and probably around the world have been given a real treat this summer. In June, July, and August, there was something to watch and to talk about almost every day, with much more to come as the summer of 1994 draws to a close.

Somehow many of the world's biggest events, with dramatic outcomes, all came together in the same season. There were certainly things to say about America's marquee sporting events.

Both the Stanley Cup Finals and the NBA Finals were extended to a full seven games before a champion was decided. For both sports, most of the playoff series that led up to the finals even went the distance. Give the endurance award to the New York Knicks, who played 25 out of a possible 26 games in the NBA playoffs.

In Major League Baseball, it is unfortunate that a strike has had to halt very closely contested pennant races. At least the strike did not happen before the All-Star Game, where the National League broke a six-year losing streak by making a late comeback to defeat the American League, 87. Baseball fans are lucky that minor league teams have continued play. Even with the current strike, there have been many more things to watch instead.

Extend to the world scene, and there is even more to talk about. In tennis, followers witnessed Sergi Brugera and Pete Sampras successfully defend their titles in the French Open and Wimbledon, respectively.

However, there were a few more surprises on the women's side. Steffi Graf, the defending champion in both Grand Slam events, was the heavy favorite, but fell victim to upsets in both. At Wimbledon, the spotlight shifted to nine-time singles champion Martina Navratilova, who came one match short of a tenth crown, which would have been a perfect ending to a wonderful career.

Now who can forget about the World Cup soccer tournament, which has captured the attention of the world for an entire month? The competition, the world's largest single sporting event on the planet, always provided something for many people to talk about the following day.

Held this year in a country that many did not think could successfully host the tournament - the United States - virtually all attendance records were broken. The championship game alone was witnessed globally by over two billion people, more than the viewers of a year's NBA Finals, World Series, and Super Bowl combined (that's a possible fifteen games!). Very few events in general, let alone others in the world of sports, require the use of an entire nation for such a long period of time.

I would like to focus on a few aspects of the World Cup, and the many impressions the games have left behind. Before I start, I must say that I have mentioned only a few of the many sporting events that have taken place this summer. I apologize for other major events that have been omitted.

The fascinating game of soccer

I was not able to follow all of the tournament's 52 games as closely as I followed the 1994 Winter Olympic Games, but I thought I was able to catch the highlights fairly well.

I bet that there were many others like myself who were not great followers of soccer, but decided to watch some games to see what all the hype and novelty was about. No other athletic event is notorious for causing riots thousands of miles away. Such incidents did happen, but security crews at the venues did an excellent job, as fears of bombs and violence near the games never materialized.

Even without that kind of unnecessary intensity I gained a greater understanding and appreciation of soccer through watching many games. Although the games have concluded, they have motivated me to buy myself a soccer ball. Every so often, I love to kick it around.

The rules and the sheer nature of the game make soccer a unique sport. Continuous play, 45 minutes at a time without time-outs, sometimes makes games into a battle for survival. At the World Cup, only two substitutions are allowed in an entire game, so coaches must carefully choose their starting lineups. The players make magic with their feet as creativity is rewarded by the ball finding the net. Furthermore, the final minutes are tense moments, as only one person, the referee, knows exactly how much time is left to play. That one person also has strong control over the behavior of the players. All of these things, and more, make a soccer game quite interesting.

The United States hosting the World Cup created an interesting situation with the images of the participants. This event is possibly one of the biggest gatherings of national heroes. However, players who are almost treated as immortals in their country were virtually unknown to most of the American spectators. Just who were those guys - Romario, Baggio, Campos (and many others)? I guess people like me got to know them better and admired their skills but never quite deified them like their countrymen.

I highly praise the coverage given to all of the games by the television networks ABC, ESPN, and Univision. The first few games of commercial-free television took a little bit of getting used to for me, and also for the crowd that likes to make trips to the bathroom or refrigerator during commercials. I had trouble keeping an attention span to watch continuously for more than 45 minutes at a time, but later on, the time seemed to pass quickly, as every moment was filled with suspense and anticipation.

The commercials that I missed all would have been the same anyway. The coverage was a welcome departure from events such as basketball games, where the last five minutes of play often seem to require five hours. For people who detest commercials, this type of presentation was like a dream, with the score and time continuously shown. The sponsors still had a chance to have their logo displayed in a corner, with the announcer at times saying, "This segment is presented commercial-free by so-and-so."

For those who watched Univision, the Spanish-language channel, who could forget the commentator's cry of "Gol!" (Spanish for "goal") whenever a goal was scored? That one word lifted him to fame and appearances on numerous American, English-language channels. I must confess I was one of those who flipped to that channel immediately after seeing someone score.

Those who watch major events very closely often lose sight of the fact that a game is just a game. This also applies to the World Cup, and this year could not be more true. There are negative consequences, such as the murder of Colombian player Andres Escobar for accidentally kicking the ball into his own goal in the game against the United States.

However, such incidents, although they should not be forgotten, were overshadowed by all the wonderful things that came out of the sport. The tournament seemed to bring large parts of the whole nation, if not the world, together to cheer for their favorite team. People of various ethnicities and nationalities clearly displayed national pride everywhere.

Each game was a big event for the countries represented, and a win made it even bigger. A prime example was Bulgaria's upset over the defending champion Germany in the quarterfinals - what some called one of the biggest moments in the history of the former Eastern Bloc nation. In another hemisphere, Brazil's victory in the final helped its citizens forget its many domestic problems, at least for a while.

Can the U.S. win the World Cup?

After his team's loss to Brazil in round 16, U.S. team captain and goalkeeper Tony Meola told the press, "If we can do half as much in the next four years as we did in the last four, we can win the World Cup in 1998."

Time will tell if what he says is true. For the moment, though, it is quite believable. Bearing the responsibilities of being the host nation has provided a huge boost to America's World Cup team. After losing all three of their first-round contests in 1990, the team was determined to at least save themselves from embarrassment when the competition came to its turf. The U.S. Soccer Federation hired an experienced Bora Milutinovic, who immediately ordered the construction of a national training headquarters. Many of the top players joined European professional leagues to gain some experience.

I have a feeling that Americans sense some kind of need to be a world power in all major sports. While my statement can be disputed, it is true that in soccer, the most popular sport in the world, the United States seemed to have lacked something. The drive for improvement in this sport is possibly one of the best things done to any athletic program in the country.

All of the hard work seemed to have paid off. The team advanced to the second round for the first time ever. Along the way, it pulled off an upset against Colombia, a team many had chosen to win the whole thing. Interestingly, that single game may have set the careers of many American players, as a number of them were flooded with offers from European teams the night after the game. It is hard to believe that a team that gave up only one goal in each game did not advance any further. Even so, masses of fans that suddenly popped up clearly showed their support throughout the four games played.

With such a high amount of participation among the younger Americans, I am quite surprised that the United States is not already an international power. After all, soccer is one of the first sports many children pick up, and at least where I live, there is a sizable league in every town. Furthermore, almost every high school and college boasts a team, in addition to many other opportunities for practice and competition.

So perhaps the problem could be with providing opportunities to play at the highest levels. There was a time when I believed that this country needed a professional soccer league, which could boost the abilities of American players.

A similar situation existed with our national basketball teams. In the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. team consisting of college players, often struggled in the Olympics and World Championships. Bring in NBA players, and no one can come close, as demonstrated by the "Dream Team" of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

The situation even exists now. At this summer's Goodwill Games, the U.S. team comprised of collegians proved to be very beatable. That team marked a stark contrast to the Dream Team II that easily won the World Championship of Basketball weeks later.

I had a strange feeling, though, when I read in the newspapers that the Major Soccer League is being formed next year. With the momentum generated among the public by the World Cup, this is an ideal time to form such a league. The league is a great idea but I wonder if it will work.

Will the league actually attract talent and spectators, and produce world-class players? A problem I see is that many American players already have lucrative contracts overseas, and would prefer to stay there. So it is possible that the league will consist of everyone except the very best, even within the American talent pool.

It will difficult to bring in players from other countries, unless there are enough people with enough money to lure them. There is a lot unknown about this league so far, so we will just have to wait and see how it turns out.

Something that might help the American cause even more is to continue exposure to international competition. The U.S. team needs to gain even more experience, which comes from playing the world's best.

The team could do so by having the opponents come over here. A few international tournaments and some exhibitions could work wonders. I am sure that teams from other countries would enjoy and would be willing to play in America.

Many players enjoyed playing and staying in the States during the World Cup. Some members of teams that played in New Jersey (Giants Stadium) even made side trips to Atlantic City and New York City during their free time.

There is one final thing I would like to discuss about soccer in America. Many of you probably know very well that Meola, one of the best-recognized members of the U.S. World Cup team, has signed to play American football with the New York Jets. I do realize that soccer players often become successful football kickers, and that this might be something that Meola really wants to do, but his decision doesn't seem to be too good for the image of soccer in the America.

This move will probably affect how soccer followers in other countries view the American interest in soccer. They may find it hard to believe that with people such as Meola, the United States is still seriously interested in becoming a world power in soccer.

They have probably acquired the impression that Americans care more about football than about soccer. Furthermore, Meola, 25 years old, departs from many good years ahead of him. He could be much better in 1998 - I noticed that the goalies of the final four teams were each either in their late 20s or early 30s.

Meola was the only goalkeeper on the U.S. team who actually saw playing time during this World Cup. Who will fill his shoes? Will he be able to match Meola's skills? We will have to wait and see.

Should penalty kicks be used?

I do not have too much more to say about the World Cup, but there is one point about the rules that I have a need to discuss. Those who watched the championship game between Brazil and Italy witnessed the first ever final tied after overtime, and hence the first decided by penalty kicks. As you may know, Brazil prevailed 32, after Roberto Baggio saw his dreams disappear in a flash, as his kick sailed over the crossbar.

Almost all of the journalists who talked about this way of deciding a winner were definitely critical of it. As for myself, I do not know enough about the nature of the sport to really make a well-founded opinion. However, I can agree with the argument that many of them use, that the method is simply not natural. They believed that the winner should be determined on the field of play, just like in the previous 120 minutes, where teamwork is an essential factor.

I guess this is like an NCAA Basketball Championship or the seventh game of the NBA Finals being decided by each player lining up, and shooting free throws. NBC morning show host Bryant Gumbel said, "It's like the Super Bowl being decided by Dan Marino and Joe Montana going up and trying to throw the football through a tire."

However, a similar use of penalty shots exists in international ice hockey. That was the case in the 1994 Winter Olympics, when Sweden defeated Canada in such fashion to win the Gold Medal.

I would like to leave this matter up to you, the reader. The question that I want to pose is: Should penalty kick shootouts be used to decide World Cup games? I am seeking your opinion, which you could send by electronic mail to: sports@the-tech.mit.edu. Perhaps you can suggest alternatives.

If there are enough respondents, I will print the results of the poll, and what some people said, in a future issue. I hope to continue asking big questions like this on a regular basis. Even if the penalty kick shootout tiebreaker is not the best way, at least those who attended the final got the most out of their money.

In closing, you can clearly see that I have had a lot to write about the World Cup alone. However, I must stress that the tournament was only a small part of all the sporting events that happened this summer. Sports fans have truly been treated by the fact that everything has coincidentally happened at virtually the same time.

There is more to come, so enjoy it while you can because next summer's program of events might not be this good!