War may still be the world’s most popular team sport, but soccer does better in the TV ratings. In 1986, the global TV audience for the culminating match of the quadrennial World Cup was half a billion people. That’s five times the audience for a Super Bowl, and many times the live audience that watched our invasion of Panama (which resembled the World Cup in many ways).
Only a handful of those millions watched from the U.S. Soccer remains an alien game to most of us, mystifying and tedious, something like foreign policy with a ball. That its mystery endures despite the some 15 years it’s been televised here says things about us, the sport, and TV that in some ways are more interesting than the outcome of any game. Because when you watch a World Cup match on TV, you can see a lot more than soccer.
On June 8 the 1990 World Cup finals will get under way in Italy. Teams representing 24 nations will play 52 matches over 30 days in a dozen cities to determine a successor to the current champion, Argentina. No sporting event in which U.S. athletes take part is quite like it. Tribune editorial writers mistakenly compared it to the Super Bowl, which insults it; among other differences, the Super Bowl is a club competition while the World Cup is open to all national all-star teams. The World Cup may be understood as an NCAA basketball tourney on an intercontinental scale, or an Olympics open to pros.
Curious Chicagoans will be able to see nearly three dozen of the games from Italy on TV, via WCIU (Channel 26) and cable’s TNT, Turner Network Television. The fact that the world’s most popular sporting event is being covered by a Spanish-language UHF station and a cable service whose programming consists mostly of colorized musicals, Bugs Bunny, and NBA games says everything about the status of soccer in the U.S. The FCC has its list of dirty words, and U.S. sports producers have theirs, and at the top of the latter is “soccer.” In the mid-1970s CBS tried coverage of the now-defunct North American Soccer League, but dropped it before the 1977-’78 season. ABC and NBC televised parts of the 1982 and 1986 Cups, respectively, and ESPN also carried a card of games in 1986; none was eager to repeat the experiment. In 1982 even PBS stations, those havens of the esoteric, got into the act with a series of nightly one-hour wrap-ups from Spain; in some cities they’re probably still holding bake sales to make back the money they lost.
Why have all attempts to build a mass TV audience for the world’s game failed in the U.S.? Partly because of TV. Television does not do a good job of translating the game of soccer for U.S. audiences—at least according to Joan Chandler, a British-born anthropologist who teaches at the University of Texas. Her study of the ways sports cultures are reflected on TV in the U.S. and Britain resulted in the 1988 book Television and National Sport, published by the University of Illinois Press as part of its “Sport and Society” series.
With only a handful of rules, soccer is at once the most simple and the most complicated of games. Soccer’s lack of structure deprives it of the predictable points of tension that mark our native games. Apart from penalty kicks (which occur rarely if at all in most games) there is no soccer equivalent of the three-and-two count or fourth down and long. Chandler argues that this makes for lousy theater, but in fact it makes for unpredictable theater, since the drama in a soccer game is supplied by the situation rather than mandated by the rules. Thus an exciting soccer match can be more exciting than any other kind of game, but an average soccer match is duller than an average game of baseball, basketball, or gridiron football—duller even than golf. Students of soccer hooliganism have offered several explanations for the rowdy crowds found at soccer matches—booze, unemployment, political agitation, lax policing—but none has wondered whether fans might riot because they are just plain bored.
At any rate, the fact remains that the U.S. sports fan—more accurately, the fan of U.S. sports—not only has not seen many soccer games, he has not seen many games that are like soccer. For example, the action in this country’s team games is episodic rather than continuous, so much so that the games themselves are more stop than start. It takes three hours to telecast a football game that is officially 60 minutes long, of which only about 12 or 15 minutes consists of actual football; soccer’s rules mandate 45 minutes of continuous play per half, and are so insistent on the point that the referee is charged to add time to each half to compensate for any stoppages that might occur through injury or time wasting by the players. (The ball is frequently blown dead during a match, of course, but play does not stop so much as get redirected.)
Soccer’s continuous play imposes two burderns on the novice fan. Having to pay close attention is one. “Americans don’t really like to concentrate for long periods of time,” Chandler explains from her Dallas office, “and that sort of attention is required by a game like soccer that depends on movement.” One of the reasons a soccer game can seem interminable to a nonfan is that it contains about six times more play to look at than does a gridiron game.
Also, soccer subverts talk. It offers no interludes during which the fan may pause to anticipate, analyze, or argue. This makes watching soccer a radically different experience from watching football, baseball, or basketball. Our experience of those games consists largely of our experience between the action. Chandler was struck during her research by the fact that what American sports fans really like is not to watch athletes perform but to talk about athletes performing. TV caters to this appetite for chat with two- and even three-man commentary teams that function as more-informed versions of the guys sitting next to you at the stadium. Indulged to extremes, televised games cease to be a context for talk and become merely the pretext for it. (How many times did you get the feeling while listening to ABC’s World Series crew of Michaels, Palmer, and McCarver that the play on the field was significant only to the extent it proved which of the three had been most prescient in his analysis?)
Seen on TV, the paucity of play is disguised. The viewer is distracted by commercials, promos, and replays. Indeed, a generation of fans that grew up with such distractions grows restless in a stadium; the aim of the giant replay screens and annoying rock music between innings at baseball games is to simulate the TV version of the game that audiences have become used to.
Televised soccer offers no such distractions, for three reasons. One is the nature of the game itself. Another is the fact that soccer fans abroad experience the game in the stadium (or from radio) and not from TV. Third, until very recently, most soccer was telecast via noncommercial, state-run networks that presented sport as news rather than entertainment. There being no corporate compulsion to boost ratings, producers are not obliged to build an audience by enticing viewers whose interest in the game itself is marginal. The role of Super Bowl announcers, Chandler reminds us, is less to call the game than to “entertain and instruct the uninitiated.” BBC announcers, on the other hand, are there, she notes, “to translate the game for the fan, not some odds and sods they want to persuade to buy beer.”
The aim of TV coverage in soccer-watching nations is to duplicate the experience of being in the stadium. The longish shot from cameras high in the stands that is the staple of match coverage preserves this illusion. Cameras and microphones are modestly deployed so that (apart from occasional close- ups and replays) the fan at home sees very little that his counterpart in the stadium cannot see.
The announcer’s role is similarly circumscribed by convention. He is there (quoting Chandler) to “provide company for the viewer who cannot, poor soul, be at the stadium,” and does not presume to explain what the fan at home is assumed to know about tactics and techniques. German and English announcers tend toward the taciturn, while Italian and South American announcers tend toward the loquacious, but none says very much, really.
TV producers in the States cannot simply duplicate the novice fan’s stadium experience of soccer because he hasn’t any. Attempts to create something like that experience at home have been frustrated because U.S. television depends for its coverage of competitions such as the World Cup on the international TV feed supplied by each host nation. Foreign soccer directors do not dwell on the crowd the way their U.S. counterparts do. And because play seldom stops, there are scant opportunities to leave the action for reaction shots at the benches and similar foofaraw.
This resolute focus on the field frustrates U.S. producers eager to create—and if necessary invent—the atmosphere of a live stadium event. For instance, in 1986 an NBC producer griped to Soccer America magazine that the feed from Mexico showed too many (usually three) replays of goals. As a result, the camera stayed too long away from the hoopla of the postgoal celebrations by players and fans. To the audience in the rest of the world, the goals were what mattered. But although soccer authorities have decried the extravagant postgoal mob scenes as distracting and wasteful of time, it is precisely those qualities that would make such footage attractive to U.S. TV producers.
With rare exceptions (ESPN’s occasional telecasts of England’s Football Association Cup final is one) the international TV feed from the last two World Cups has been augmented by voice-over commentary aimed at the U.S. audience. Univision leaves that chore to Andres Cantor, an experienced soccer journalist and host of its regular Futbol Internacional program. But the English speakers in TV land fare less well. The crews TNT has lined up to do its games from Italy are typical—a generic TV sports announcer, an Englishman who used to placekick for the Atlanta Falcons, and a trio who come to the booth from the plastic pastures of indoor soccer. Only Rick Davis, a former U.S. player, has any significant experience playing or even watching international soccer; unfortunately, he’s a lousy announcer.
The lineup is revealing. Indoor soccer is a bastard form of the game invented for TV. It derives its audience, its tactics, and its premises from ice hockey. (“I prefer the vicious tackle to the beautiful pass,” drooled Shep Messing from Mexico; he’s an indoor player who was a color commentator for ESPN in 1982.) An apologist once described the indoor game as outdoor soccer “without all the midfield stuff,” by which he meant it had been distilled to a game of all shots and saves. Indoor soccer has failed to find a mainstream audience because it is the missing midfield stuff that makes soccer absorbing; a game that consists of nothing but highlights quickly becomes boring to any viewer but the hormonal youngsters who seem to be the core of its audience.
“The commentators have been very poor,” Chandler says about U.S. soccer telecasts. “They have to explain what is going on. Overall, the movements in soccer are gross but the skills are very subtle. The new fan has to be shown exactly how clever this chap or that really is.” TNT is producing a series of segments on soccer techniques and tactics using World Cup video archives that may do just that; we can only hope they show them to their broadcast crews before play begins.
An exception to the dismal standard set by ABC, ESPN, and TNT was made in 1986 by NBC when it carelessly allowed Paul Gardner into the booth. Gardner is an English-born soccer journalist who covers the game for the New York Times, Britain’s World Soccer magazine, and the U.S. weekly Soccer America. He is informed, opinionated, and articulate, and while at large in Mexico he violated most of the canons of the color man’s trade. He quoted Shakespeare on the air. He did not conceal his disdain for the inanities of his colleagues (including Rick Davis). Worst of all, Gardner was never afraid to pronounce a game dull, which must have sent the network’s marketers staggering for their glycerin tablets. He was good, in short, which probably explains why he will not be heard on the telecasts from Italy.
Maybe U.S. coverage would improve if producers quit trying to explain what they would be better off simply showing. At a big soccer match, the real commentary is supplied by the fans anyway. It takes the form of not just boos and cheers but songs, chants (usually derisive, sometimes witty, often obscene), and noise from drums, whistles, and horns. That kind of atmosphere can be found here and there at such U.S. sporting events as college basketball games—any place in fact that admits large numbers of males who are young, drunk, and bonding. Imagine Wrigley Field on a day when two-thirds of all seats are occupied by Bleacher Bums and you have some sense of the brew of merriment and menace that soccer can cook up. You don’t have to be a Liverpudlian to be moved when thousands of home fans serenade the players of Liverpool Football Club, the perennial English league champions, with a lusty version of an unlikely anthem—“You’ll Never Walk Alone,” made popular around Merseyside in the 1960s by Gerry & the Pacemakers.
A few years ago Vin Scully and his NBC crew won kudos when they shut up and simply let their cameras and microphones tell the story at decisive moments of the World Series. European soccer producers do it routinely. But during the telecasts by NBC and ESPN of the 1986 Cup, alas, viewers in the U.S. got little sense of the crowd’s presence. The technical quality of the audio feed from Mexico was poor (for one game it had to be delivered via phone lines rather than satellite) and the commentators talked too much or (in the case of ESPN) the commentary was done from a studio in North America.
Several years ago NBC tried an experiment in which an NFL regional game was broadcast sans announcers. Right idea, wrong sport. (Most of the game viewers heard only the murmur of 30,000 people asking each other, “Want a beer?” “I gotta pee,” or “I wonder if they towed the car.”) Recently RAI/USA, which packages Italian TV programs for rebroadcast in the U.S., inadvertently pulled the same stunt, with better results. The program was an Italian league match involving the eventual champion, Naples, captained by the great Argentinean Diego Maradona. Their opponent was one of their top league rivals—Juventus or A.C. Milan, I don’t recall which—and the stadium was a caldron of song and fireworks and flags. Because of a technical snafu, the stateside commentary that is usually added to the live feed from Italy was not available. What we got was unadorned soccer from Naples, the way a fan might see and hear it. Sadly, the goof-up was rectified in the second half. The commentator’s voice came up, the crowd sounds went down, and it became just another soccer telecast.
The tactic of the U.S. sports producer is to add rather than subtract from coverage. Chandler notes that the TV audience for sports is actually quite modest in the U.S. The big numbers are drawn by sporting events that offer theater, spectacle, controversy. The U.S. networks that have taken a flier on World Cup coverage in years past beat the drum hard to convince viewers that this was an Event. They hoped that a World Cup would generate its own excitement the way a very large mass generates its own heat. (TNT’s promoters, I should mention, are being much more circumspect; the World Cup that NBC touted four years ago as the most exciting sporting event has now become merely the “most popular.”) But the international feed in 1982 and 1986 revealed not an Event but only a bunch of soccer games.
More fundamentally, U.S. sports programmers have misapprehended the nature of the World Cup. In 1986, NBC’s Charlie Jones dutifully promised viewers “the excitement we expect from World Cup soccer.” (A dark irony, that; the most exciting game of the tournament—the dream quarterfinal between Brazil and France—had gone into overtime, so NBC’s delayed coverage could squeeze only about half of it into the schedule.) A World Cup is only occasionally exciting, however. Dramatic, yes, usually interesting, and certainly big. But an exciting World Cup is exciting in spite of its bigness; the adventuresomeness that is essential to entertaining soccer is a little deadened by all that pressure. The Cup finals are too unwieldy and too flawed to make for tidy melodrama.
A historian writes that in 1928 soccer’s powers conceived “a tournament that would bring together the world’s finest players and, under the supervision of the most august and wise referees, pit them against each other in a spirit of international brotherhood, peace, and understanding. Instead we got the World Cup.”
I don’t believe you can build an interest in a game using TV unless there is an intrinsic interest in it,” insists Chandler. She cites pro hockey’s continuing failure to win an audience outside the northern U.S. and Canada as proof that people will not watch a game they do not play.
You can almost hear the TV executives who bet their careers on soccer coverage wailing, “But they do play the game, and they still don’t watch!” True, soccer is played by millions of youngsters in the suburbs of the U.S. Broadcasters counted on those kids to be their core audience. They’ve watched them grow up as eagerly as a farmer watches his melons swell in the field, thinking how many car batteries and six-packs they may be persuaded to buy as adults.
There are a couple of reasons why U.S. soccer players have not become a soccer audience. One, soccer is one of those games, like golf or politics, that is more fun to play than to watch. Two, millions of American kids may have soccer shoes but they don’t yet have a soccer mentality. We play a renegade version of the world’s game. Those qualities of sustained attention that soccer demands are as rare in our players as they are in our fans, and for the same reasons. Our national players can kick the ball as well now as much of the rest of the world; what they can’t yet do is think for 45 minutes at a stretch.
The frustration of our TV wise men has been woeful to behold. They can’t sell other countries’ soccer, but the rest of the world is standing in line to buy our games. Television, it appears, has created a global playing field. A Dutchman and a Brazilian finished first and third in this year’s Indy 500. Larry Bird can’t tour the art museums of Barcelona in peace because of autograph seekers. Europeans refer to the PGA the way our big-leaguers talk about Japanese baseball. And gridiron football, the quintessential American game, draws good crowds in Japan. And don’t U.S. TV viewers now watch such exotica as the Tour de France? ESPN even had a modest hit on its hands a few seasons ago with its broadcasts of Australian rules football.
Careful examination shows that Chandler’s main point—we won’t watch what we don’t play—still holds true. The TV audience for international cycling owes much to the fact that the sport’s premier practitioner is an American, Greg LeMond. It owes even more to the fitness fetish among baby boomers, and the fact that cycling expresses the virtues (I use the term generously) that invigorate their lives—stamina, tactical caginess, and a willingness to occasionally put a stick in rivals’ spokes. The rise of the European golfer and tennis player has less to do with European TV coverage of American pros than it does the rise of a leisured middle class on the continent; the rest of the world are playing like we do because they are living like we do. Chandler notes that U.S. football has caught on in places where cultural conditions mirror those that gave rise to football in this country. The favored sport of the English and French college man, for example, is rugby, which may be considered an introduction to the gridiron game; those affluent middle-class male fans, with an appetite for violence in a corporate style, are the same type who made the game a success here.
TV has played a role in fueling foreign interest in U.S. sports, of course, but it has also distorted their natures. NFL games are seen in Europe mainly via 60-minute edited versions that convey a sense of their actual pace about as accurately as a three-second TV sound bite conveys a presidential stump speech. When the Bears played an exhibition at London’s Wembley Stadium in 1986, U.S. football was revealed to the 83,000 in attendance in all its ploddingness and left a vocal faction in the crowd chanting, “Boring! Boring!”
Soccer matches with the dull bits left out have been available on U.S. TV since the mid-1970s. My own exposure to soccer came in the form of edited English and German league and Cup games. They were powerfully addictive, being to the unexpurgated game what crack is to cocaine. Only PBS outlets or ESPN (in its pre-big-time format) carried them, however. The big networks spurned them in favor of the big, live events. They worried about building an audience for the World Cup when they should have been building an audience for soccer.
Those crack versions of soccer, produced to fit more conveniently into TV schedules, are among the lesser corruptions of the game precipitated by TV. For its part, FIFA—the world federation of soccer associations, the sport’s international governing body—demands that World Cup kickoffs coincide with prime time in Europe, its most lucrative TV market; in Mexico, that meant asking teams to play what is a winter game during the worst midday heat and pollution. (Catering to Europe also means that World Cup matches are seen live in North America at midday; all but a couple of the matches from Italy will be played at either 5 PM or 9 PM, which is 10 AM and 2 PM Chicago time.)
There has even been talk by FIFA bigwigs about changing the rules to convert soccer into a 100- minute game played in quarters in order to create more intervals when commercials might be shown. FIFA’s lust for commercial riches is unbecoming in a body so august. Money is the only reason the soccer-poor U.S. was awarded the privilege of hosting the 1994 World Cup. What our TV networks pay for rights to sporting events would set anyone’s mouth watering; ABC for example paid $309 million to the International Olympic Committee for TV rights to the 1988 winter games, compared to the $5.7 million fetched by the sale of rights to all of Western Europe.
FIFA has done all it can—maybe more than it should—to build a TV audience for the World Cup in this country. It scheduled the U.S. team to play its 1990 group games in Rome and Florence, the cities most popular among U.S. tourists, so that its cameras could beam back pictures of stands crammed with enough red, white, and blue to get the patriotic Americans back home salivating. There even is evidence to suggest that FIFA disqualified Mexico from this region’s tournament in order to guarantee the U.S. a place in Italy for that reason.
These are minor intrusions by the standards of U.S. TV. Making players play soccer at noon in June in Mexico is no worse than asking baseball players to play baseball at night in October in Boston. FIFA’s proposal to slice soccer matches into quarters may offend traditionalists, but the fact remains that once games are under way, soccer viewers abroad are spared TV commercials that intrude on play itself.
Nothing separates the U.S. sports viewer from his counterparts in other parts of the globe more than his tolerance of commercial interruptions of his favorite games. I do not refer to commercials run during the natural breaks in action, or even such travesties as the TV time-out. Rather, confronted with games like hockey or soccer that offer few regular stoppages, our TV producers do worse by simply running commercials over the game action. It is impossible to imagine TV daring such high- handedness during news broadcasts or popular dramas. The nadir of the phenomenon was ABC’s broadcast of an important Olympic hockey game between the U.S. and Czechoslovakia in 1988 during which 4 of 12 goals were scored while the audience at home was watching come-ons for beer and car tires.
There are ways to cater to the needs of both a game and its sponsors. Budweiser has pioneered the use of the shrink-screen technique for commercials, in which the company’s logos and slogans appear on the perimeter of the screen while the announcer reads a polite plug and the game video plays on reduced in size, in the middle.
Few companies have followed Budweiser’s lead. TNT plans to show four 60-second commercials during each half of its World Cup telecasts, purportedly at their sponsors’ insistence. Our TV people persist in such vandalism on the theory that such intrusions do no real harm to game coverage. TNT’s Susan Polakoff lamely cites studies showing that the ball is not in play for 28 minutes of a soccer match’s 90 minutes—studies that also show that the ball is not out of play for more than a few seconds at any one time. U.S. TV sports producers also argue that replay technology means that viewers will see even goals scored during a commercial. Unfortunately for the viewer, goals are not all that is important about soccer, any more than orgasm is all that matters about sex. Playing is often as interesting as scoring. Continuity is also crucial in a good soccer match—the flow of play, the ebb and flow of tension. Imagine having a broadcast of a Brahms symphony interrupted by commercials, with the missing crescendos replayed after the break (the replays of course causing their own interruptions), and you will have some idea why soccer fans get into such a lather about commercials.
Univision, interestingly, does not break into its game coverage to show commercials. It knows its fans will not accept such intrusions and so does not allow sponsors the option. (Commercials are bunched before and after the game and during halftime.) The policy hasn’t hurt the sale of commercial time during its upcoming Cup telecasts; recent reports have Univision setting sales records, while TNT still had plenty of spots unsold as of late April. Even in America, integrity doesn’t always lose money.
The core audience for soccer in the U.S. is Spanish speaking. Univision producer Mal Karowski reports that bidding for the Spanish-language rights to the 1990 Cup was spirited, because the audience is “enormous,” relatively speaking. In 1986 Cup matches drew Super Bowl-size ratings in Univision markets, giving them a 46 share among Spanish-speaking households. The fact that the 1986 Cup was held in Mexico no doubt boosted that audience share, as did the fact that Mexico’s team survived into the second round. This year’s tourney—whose finals field includes teams from Costa Rica, Colombia, Argentina, and Spain—should find an audience too.
FIFA does not make it easy to sell soccer in the U.S. As noted, schedules favor Europe’s viewers, so that many games show up on U.S. TV on weekday afternoons. That was the reason Univision decided this year to show only 33 of the 52 games it has rights to. (All the deletions are first-round group games; on days when games are not shown, Univision will offer a 30-minute prime-time highlight show instead.)
Compared to the larger U.S. audience for sports TV, of course, the Spanish-speaking soccer audience is tiny. Karowski admits that the 2.7 million households that tuned in to Univision’s top-rated games in 1986 equal only one or two ratings points nationwide; that year’s Super Bowl had already played to a national audience of well over 41 million households.
Univision’s World Cup audience is augmented by non-Spanish-speaking fans, but the size of this crossover audience isn’t known or even sampled. “We know there’s a closet Anglo audience out there,” says Karowski, “but there aren’t even unofficial guesstimates about how big it is.” The local TV listings may help keep it smaller than it otherwise might be; the Tribune’s TV section for example lists Univision’s soccer programming as “futbol,” while the same game is listed as “soccer” when it is carried by SportsChannel or TNT or ESPN.
Nationalism is a powerful compenent of the World Cup’s appeal, as is reflected by its TV audience. “I regard Chicago as one of our strongest markets,” Karowski explains. “It’s got the right mix of Spanish speakers, mainly Mexican Americans, plus Europeans of all descents who are interested in soccer.” A live match between the touring Polish national team and a top Mexican club team played at Comiskey Park drew nearly 28,000 spectators last July; it might have been billed as the Battle for Milwaukee Avenue.
But nationalism’s appeal has been overestimated by Anglo soccer programmers. It doesn’t run as deep among de-ethnicized Americans. ESPN, the SportsChannel, and TNT all showed qualifying matches and warm-up exhibitions involving the U.S. team on the assumption that U.S. sports fans would rather watch bad soccer played by countrymen than good soccer played by anybody else. (I can only hope the ratings proved them wrong.) An exception was that memorable ice hockey final from Lake Placid during the 1980 winter Olympics. A team of college upstarts from the U.S. beat the seasoned Soviets in a situation not unlike that faced by our soccer team in Italy. With such ill-matched teams, the game was as meaningless in sporting terms as Olympic team events always are, but it made a hell of a TV show, and U.S. TV networks no doubt entered negotiations for rights to the 1994 World Cup with that game in mind.
But that match had been promoted in effect for 35 years by the likes of John Foster Dulles, Nixon, and good ol’ Joe McCarthy, whose anticommunist fulminations added a note or two of good versus evil to the David and Goliath theme. However dubious its source, the passion was real. Indeed, one reason the telecast was so memorable was that the atmosphere at the rink was so like that of a soccer stadium.
This year the USSR is in Italy as a finalist, but it won’t come up against the U.S. (Theoretically they could meet in a semi in Naples on July 3; theoretically Gorbachev could resign to run off with Ivana Trump.) The U.S. does play Czechoslovakia in the first round, but the Czechs aren’t even communists anymore.
Apart from the Olympics, international competition in team sports hardly exists on U.S. TV. (I do not consider last week’s appearance on ABC’s Wide World of Sports of the Harlem Globetrotters in Bermuda to count.) Insularity begets indifference, which begets insularity. The weekly highlight show English Soccer has been preempted more often than it has been shown by SportsChannel so the audience won’t miss, in chronological order, Chicago harness highlights, a local bodybuilding how-to, and a rerun of a women’s kick-boxing match.
Internationalism is integral to Univision for the same reason that Anglo TV rejects it: audience demand. Ted Turner, as usual, is an exception. “Ted Turner’s philosophy is global,” explains TNT spokesperson Susan Polakoff. “The World Cup is our first international event, and the thinking was that covering it will establish TNT as an international network.” Polakoff adds that they don’t actually expect anybody to watch the game they will cablecast; they are in effect doing the Cup as a public service, the way the big three broadcast networks do national political conventions.
But internationalization seems to be a trend among club owners. NBA teams are becoming as ethnically diverse in their membership as the top soccer leagues in Europe. But internationalization is unlikely to increase viewer sophistication: seeing a Nigerian center playing for Houston seems as unlikely to broaden the horizons of hoops fans as seeing Venezuelan shortstops has broadened those of baseball people, who still insist on calling a championship between San Francisco and Oakland a World Series.
It is the unreconstructed chauvinists among us who thrill to the poetry of the Trib’s Bernie Lincicome, the Lyndon LaRouche of sports columnists. In a 1986 column about TV coverage of the Cup he wrote sarcastically, “Any sport in which the French are favored cannot be missed.” He puzzled over the huge TV audience for the games, arguing that there were more TV sets in a midsized condo in the U.S. than there were in the entire nation of Paraguay. He was offended too by brown-skinned people’s insistence on spelling place names in the style of their places. Brasil and Espana, he explained, are “Brazil and Spain to you and me.” Maybe he assumed that no Spanish or Portuguese speaker, indeed no one intelligent enough to know more than one language, would be reading his column.
So why bother to watch the World Cup, which is so alien to our sporting traditions, in which the U.S. team will be lucky to pull off a draw, and which TV does a lousy job of portraying? All of the above. You may not be thrilled, but you will see much to intrigue you. The White Sox can wait; the World Cup only happens every four years.
Sitting down in front of the tube to watch international soccer is, I’m afraid, much like going to a party at which you know absolutely no one. Allow me to make some introductions:
- Watch as many games as you can. Seeing individual World Cup games will give you a taste of soccer, but not of the World Cup.
- Pick one team to follow. Fourteen teams will have at least two of their three first-round games telecast locally. (Oddly, West Germany, a strong favorite, can be seen only once.) Argentina, Brazil, Ireland, and the U.S. will have all three group matches shown.
- If a U.S. football game is like a sitcom, and a baseball season like a long Victorian novel, a month-long World Cup finals is like a play.
- Play is not random. It is improvised. There is a difference.
- In soccer, a player tackles the ball, not the man; the object of the maneuver is to recover the ball, not to knock down the man who possesses it. Watch carefully; once you perceive the distinction, you can try explaining it to U.S. announcers.
- If you do not speak Spanish, do not assume that Univision’s Spanish commentary will detract from your enjoyment of the game; you may learn to see a game with your eyes again instead of your ears.
- Referees have a full repertoire of hand signals with which they can indicate which infraction they have penalized. Few use them. Players and fans saw it too, so why bother?
- Yellow cards are shown to players who receive an official caution from the ref for serious misconduct; red cards signal ejection from the game.
- Soccer refs have the authority to allow play to continue uninterrupted after a foul is committed, if in their judgment blowing play dead would deprive the offended team of the momentary advantage of play. This is morally satisfying, and it keeps play flowing. It resembles the option a football team has to accept or reject a penalty, except that the decision is made by the ref instantaneously.
- In first-round group play, top teams seldom do more than they have to to win, and often play only to avoid losing. The most attractive matches often are those in which the favorites are pitted against lesser teams eager to make a good impression on the world stage. This year I look forward to Cameroon, Egypt, South Korea, and maybe Colombia to embarrass, respectively, Argentina, Ireland, Spain, and West Germany.
- If your viewing time or curiosity is limited, pick up play with the second round (beginning June 23) when competition shifts to the “knockout” or single-elimination format.
Who to watch? The favored teams are Italy, West Germany, Brazil, and the Netherlands, all of which will meet in the later rounds. A few group games also look promising, including:
- Cameroon versus Argentina. The Africans are artful and the defending champions are world-weary.
- Any game involving Brazil is worth watching; if Fred Astaire had been born in Rio he would have been a soccer player.
- U.S. versus Italy will be seriously hyped, but it may be a dull match. The Azzuri could give our lads a soccer lesson, but they will probably be polite, eager on FIFA’s behalf not to make the next World Cup host look bad.
- England versus Netherlands. England invented the game, but this year they are coached by an idiot; the Dutch were, deservedly, the European champions in 1988. A simultaneous match will be played in the stands to determine which nation has the better hooligans.
- West Germany versus Colombia offers a fascinating contrast in continental styles; if the Colombians can survive playing conditions at home they ought to be able to survive the Germans.
Recent World Cups have been showcases for great players rather than great teams, however. I like the Dutchman Marco Van Basten, the only world-class striker who is not Brazilian. The German Lotthar Matthaeus has impressive versatility and range, the epitome of the modern European midfielder. The Italian Franco Baresi is a fluent, cagey sweeper, which is a cross between a free safety and quarterback. Brazil’s Careca still knows how to shoot the ball, a skill most of the rest of the world seems to have forgotten. England’s Peter Shilton, like all great goalkeepers, demonstrates how much athleticism owes to intelligence.
And of course there’s Maradona. This is his third World Cup. He left the first in disgrace and was hailed as a hero in the second. He’s older now, much abused by opponents, and like all top players today has been asked to play much too much soccer. He is prone to theatrics that mar his game, but is as close to a Michael Jordan as the game has had since Pele. Maradona plays professionally in the Italian league, for Naples, and I saw him play at least a dozen matches this season. Even during lackluster performances he manages to do two or three things that astonish. I recall how, on a breakaway, he . . .
Never mind. Watch some games and get your own memories. And may the referees protect them all.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.