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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 all underdog-lovers. There were the Nigerians, who clearly loved to play the game, and the well-coached Saudis. And there were stars and high moments enough for FIFA’s archives.

But although the World Cup may seem like a month-long holiday from reality, reality has quite often intruded itself. The World Cup in Spain in 1982 fell at the tail-end of the British campaign to recapture the Malvinas, and England and Argentina were both playing, although they never met on the field. The 1978 finals in Argentina were played in the wake of the “dirty war,” and Argentina’s victory gave its citizens something to cheer about for the first time in years. This year, however, reality broke in the ugliest possible way. Colombia’s team was much touted as a possible winner, but inexplicably, its members played miserably in their first two games. In the game against the United States, Andrés Escobar, the Colombian defender, was racing back toward his goal when a swift side-pass cannoned off his foot into his own net, giving the US a goal. It was a piece of horrendous bad luck, but forgotten in footballing memory five minutes later. Not in Colombia, however. After the team had flown home, eliminated, Escobar was viciously shot to death in his home town of Medellín. The news brought everyone who heard it to a horrified stop. It abruptly made those Americans who were taking a passing interest in the proceedings feel like outsiders to the deeper passions invested in the game elsewhere, and wonder at their ferocity. The killing of Escobar left an ugly scar on the face of the whole tournament.

I have to declare an interest. I grew up playing the game in Scotland, at every opportunity—in school playgrounds and other available spaces—and with great pleasure, for it is the simplest of all games to start up anywhere, with any size ball, and there were always senior heroes to imitate. I also, inevitably, became a fan, which is to say, I took on the game as an Alternative Reality; and since the laws of the game were codified in England in 1863, there was a whole history to devour. I still take an intense pleasure in kicking a ball about, and I have watched the game with intermittent regularity in a number of soccer-playing countries, but always with curiosity, for it has been changing all the time, in substance and in circumstance, and, as distinct from a true fan of the game, I have generally watched with more interest in the game itself than in the fate of the teams.

True fans forfeit such choice, and throw in their destiny with a club or national team, for better or for worse. Fandom means total commitment, through whatever goal-less wastes and fleeting glories, and fans have kept the game going and growing to its present global sprawl. Most fans have played themselves at some point; not only do they know the game well but they are able to feel the occasional empathetic twitch from the bleachers.

At the bottom of the vast pyramid of power and money that soccer has turned into are the small boys playing scratch games in parks and vacant lots, for the sheer pleasure of it. At the top of the pyramid, however, FIFA’s empire has become an enormous and lucrative business worldwide, and the World Cup is its profit. For professional players, the zenith of their brief career nowadays means being bought by either a wealthy Italian or Spanish club, or by German, French, or British teams, to play the ten-month European season, where the rewards are rich but the expectations high. Even the superstars playing in South America are likely, sooner or later, to wind up with European clubs. The World Cup, in fact, serves as a kind of market place—players who shine are almost certain to be found playing in Europe next season, which, as I write, has already begun.

But while the business of soccer has prospered, the professional game has been suffering from a kind of stasis, a lack of imagination. Over the past two decades it has fallen into a mold, a mode of play that the Italians are generally blamed for, since they started it, and have proved its most expert practitioners: it is a defensive strategy that consists in maintaining a kind of cup of defenders who will snuff out any sudden attack, recover the ball, and feed a long, swift pass to either of a couple of players, strikers, who lie well upfield, and who count on sudden surprise to score. It is, unfortunately, a much repeated pattern of play, for it gets results, although mainly negative ones.

This year’s final, between Brazil and Italy, alas, exemplified it: neither side took chances; it was a killjoy game, 120 minutes of strenuous stalemate, with no score. Italy and Brazil had previously met in a World Cup final, in Mexico in 1970, a game I attended and will never forget. Brazil won then by 4 goals to 1, but they won by playing a game dedicated to all-out attack, and they had ballplayers of brilliant skill like Pelé, then at his peak. That victory gave rise to the soccer myth that Latin Americans play the game with imaginative brio, whereas European teams concentrate on thuggish defense; yet this year’s Brazilian team played a solidly defensive game, a game in which each of the two teams nullified the other by using the same strategy.

With novice American soccer-watchers in mind, FIFA made some changes to the rules prior to this year’s finals: in the early rounds, where teams qualify on a points basis, they increased the number of points for a win from 2 to 3, to encourage goal-scoring. But principally, FIFA had clearly instructed the referees, its representatives on the field, to let no foul go unpunished. While they took the advice, they were hardly consistent in their decisions. Nor is it an easy matter. If a player has possession of the ball, he is likely to be “tackled” by an opponent, to take the ball away from him. Since such a tackle blocks his forward direction, the player with the ball is quite likely, unless he is extremely agile, to trip and fall over the feet of his attacker, who may or may not have tried to trip him in going for the ball. Now, players who perform weekly in the major European leagues are well schooled in the histrionics of pain, and often simulate agony in the eyes of a referee, hoping to gain a free kick for their performance. It requires referees with the legal perspicacity of chief justices to ascribe blame, and it can result, as it did this time, in unfair expulsions, ill-judged punishments, and downright miscarriages of justice, as when Belgium was deprived of a crucial penalty kick, an error that, later, the referee unwisely confessed to the world at large.

There were a few truly spectacular games, one in particular between Argentina and Romania, where each side appeared to have decided to play a clean and buoyant attacking game, which never let up. There was Ireland’s dramatic win over Italy, close to the beginning, achieved by sheer energy, it seemed, and a narrow Belgian win over Holland in a game of text-book correctness and considerable excitement. There was spectacular goalkeeping throughout, and there were, of course, some splendid individual players. We had what probably was a last glimpse of the aging Argentine star Diego Maradona, but a memorable one nevertheless. His astonishing control of the ball and his ability to change pace and direction have always made him exceptional, but more than that, he has an extraordinary footballing intelligence. Playing in midfield, as he has done in recent years, he will arrow a long and precise pass in the path of a teammate that suggests a way to goal. This year’s Romanian team had a similarly dominant player called Gheorghe Hagi, short and explosive, like Maradona a kind of player-director to his team, feeding them precise passes from midfield, and occasionally breaking through to score himself. What’s more, he looked as if he were enjoying every minute. So did the Nigerians. They came close to eliminating Italy, who were only saved from defeat in the very last minute by their ace, Roberto Baggio. Had the boisterous Nigerians won, that upset alone would have been enough to mark the 1994 World Cup in soccer memory, although it might have brought down the Italian government.

Nothing, however, made for more general disgruntlement than the penalty shoot-out, the means of resolving a tied game that was introduced by FIFA in 1982, since the strict timetable allows no time to replay a whole game. If the teams are still tied after the overtime period, each team is granted five shots at goal, taken alternately by a different player each time, from the penalty-spot, twelve yards from goal, with only the defending goalkeeper to beat. Should the teams still be level, the tie-breaker goes into “sudden death.” From the beginning, it was a bad idea, for it has little connection with the game that precedes it, and it means that teams can—and do—concentrate on impenetrable defense in the hope of keeping the game tied and then winning the shoot-out. FIFA fell back on it while admitting its imperfections; almost nobody liked it, and there were dire mutterings of its someday deciding a World Cup final, which would discredit it for all time.

This is precisely what happened between Italy and Brazil in this year’s final. I doubt that it will be allowed to happen again: nobody was satisfied, not even the Brazilians, although they took the cup home happily enough, and they were conceded to be the best team even if they did not always play up to their obvious potential. The final shoot-out, however, left the competition with an unresolved air to it, and the pressure is clearly on FIFA to come up with a better method of resolving tied games. In view of the global following that the game has, surely somebody can produce a better solution. Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote to The New York Times in the wake of this year’s final, suggesting a sudden-death overtime, with each team obliged to withdraw two defensive players for the first ten minutes of extra time, then four more for the following ten minutes, and so on. Much better than the shoot-out; but then, I feel that an imaginative high-school class, given the assignment, could come up with something better than the shoot-out.

It was watching games with friends who knew little or nothing of soccer, however, that set me to thinking again about the game. I would try to point out things like “running off the ball” or “running into space,” where players far from the ball keep moving into position to receive a pass, but such skills never show up well on television, and my friends would look at me blankly. If the Emperor was not entirely naked, at least he had developed some fairly sluggish habits. For me, watching a game has become over the years something like a ritual reenactment: I take it on its own terms. But when I watched the game through my friends’ eyes, I realized that much of it was indeed far from spectacular, that the defensive mode so predominates now that low scoring is more likely than not, and that it suddenly seemed very improbable that the game in its present form would be welcomed into the sporting canon in the US, in spite of the wishful assurances of Alan I. Rothenberg, president of the US Soccer Federation, that a professional league would be up and running in the US by mid-1995.

In the weeks preceding the World Cup, a number of sports writers made the point that there are already some 12 million playing soccer in the US, whether in little leagues, on high school and college teams, mens’ and womens’, or among groups of amateurs and impassioned exiles, all of whom play the game with enthusiasm, for its own sake. (It is a little-known fact, but one which may now be better appreciated, that the United States women’s soccer team are current world champions, having defeated Norway cleanly in the final of the womens’ World Cup, in China, in 1991.) This cheers me up, for it keeps the game clear of the monied interests that dominate in the professional game, and is fired instead mainly by enthusiasm. It also occurred to me at times that soccer on television began to look after a bit like a computer game, that by pressing a few buttons we should be able to make something different happen.

It was bad luck for FIFA that the final should have to be settled by penalty kicks; the dying note was one of frustration as the injured Italian star Roberto Baggio lofted a kick high over the goal. But it may have a salutary effect—it might drive the masters of the game to think more seriously about some drastic revisions, or at least try some out. Soccer does not, after all, belong to FIFA and should not be allowed to stultify into a repetitive ritual. I think the US might do a great service to the sport by suggesting and experimenting with some serious changes in the rules and the conception of the game, to open it up and restore its exuberance. Meanwhile, for the 1998 World Cup in France, FIFA has increased the number of countries who will compete in the finals from twenty-four to thirty-two; the qualifying rounds will be beginning a year or so from now. Fans of the game are given to quoting the half-whimsical observation of a British soccer sage: “[Soccer] is not a matter of life and death: it’s much more important than that.” It isn’t.

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