Sudden Death

Ever since it was announced, on July 4, 1988, that the World Cup finals would be played off in the United States this year, the event assumed a curious cast in the attention of the sporting press, as if it were to be a vast sociological experiment, a study in sporting epidemiology, to see if the game of soccer would prove as contagious to the sporting public of the United States as it has been to a vast proportion of the world’s population—two out of every five inhabitants of the planet were expected to be following it on global television. This speculation made me curious enough to watch out during the proceedings for signs and symptoms of incipient addiction among friends and acquaintances as the fifty-two games unrolled. What I got mostly was a series of shrewd and somewhat irreverent observations on the game of soccer, which had after all been as much on trial in the eyes of the sports fans of this country as were the potential converts to the game.

I say “irreverent” only because the body that governs world soccer, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, FIFA for short, takes itself and the game very seriously. FIFA’s world is an Alternative Universe. One hundred and seventy-eight countries belong to it, only two short of the United Nations’ membership, and it governs and regulates the game by decree from its Zurich headquarters. Since the World Cup is FIFA’s showcase, and also the source of substantial revenues, a great deal rides on its being a success. To be staging the World Cup in the United States meant a great deal to João Havelange, the Brazilian tycoon who was recently elected president of FIFA for the fifth time, and is the professional game’s leading proselytizer. The United States had so far remained uncolonized by the forces of soccer, and there were many predictions that after a month’s exposure, it would capitulate, and join the ranks of global fandom.

The 1994 competition has already been pronounced a success by FIFA, presumably after counting the take, and it was unquestionably well-managed, richly sponsored, and smoothly organized, as indeed was the US team, which did itself credit by its positive, adventurous play; it lacked only the low cunning of the European teams. Only the wilting heat could not be controlled. In the eyes of sports writers, this year’s competition far surpassed the 1990 Italian World Cup in quality of play and entertainment value, although that occasion was the most soporific in the history of the competition. Geopolitically, this year did wonders for Ireland and Brazil, who got big national boosts from their team’s performances; but it did not go as planned for Italy, or for its prime minister, Signor Berlusconi, himself a soccer magnate. Had Italy won, he might have expected to substantially fortify his political base. The German team, perennial favorites, were eliminated and outshone in the quarter finals by Bulgaria, so satisfying …

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