SBJ/19980629/This Weeks Issue

This Cup overflows — really

To understand why Americans should take an interest in soccer’s World Cup, consider a tableau that unfolded in a small square in Bordeaux several days ago. A few blocks away at Parc de Lescure, the national sides of Belgium and Mexico were paired in a first-round confrontation. Hundreds of supporters had arrived in the city, with its white stone buildings and wine shops, looking for tickets. They were serious fans, most wearing replica jerseys or painted faces and carrying huge sombreros or inflatable red tridents, but as kickoff approached they lacked either the calling or the currency to pay the inflated $350 touts demanded for the cheapest seats.

Undeterred, they gathered to watch the match at bars and restaurants in the vicinity. Outside one take-out sandwich shop, two dozen Mexicans, nearly all outfitted in the garish green shirts of their heroes, had set up in the sunshine on benches and metal chairs within sight of a television that had been strategically placed beside the cash register on the counter. They chanted, sang, exulted at scoring opportunities and groaned in unison when Belgium seized a 1-0 lead.

Two Belgians, their faces detailed with stripes of yellow and red, wandered over and commenced good-natured taunting of the Mexican supporters. There was no language barrier because no language was necessary: When Belgium scored again late in the half, the dynamic intensified. Before long, the Belgians were sitting in the Mexicans’ midst and taking their lumps while Mexico was awarded, and then converted, a penalty kick.

Soon after, the more corpulent of the pair stepped to the counter and ordered several large packets of french fries, which he smothered in a mixture of mayonnaise and ketchup in the Belgian style. Within minutes, the fries were traveling down one row of chairs and back up the next. By the time the Mexican team scored an equalizer, their supporters were clapping and celebrating with pink-covered hands.

There was nothing particularly noteworthy about any of this, other than it being an opportunity for members of dissimilar cultures to share an experience both cared about deeply. We’re no closer to eternal peace than before the match. No lifelong friendships made nor business cards exchanged (assuming people who paint their faces have business cards). But for two hours, these fans found a fertile patch of common ground.

The fact is, nothing connects the multifarious citizens of the world as completely, and with such passion, as this one rather rudimentary sport. Americans may contemplate the phenomenon with dismay, but as fellow inhabitants of the same small planet, we ought at least to acknowledge and understand it.

I’ve covered soccer for newspapers, played it casually, paid my way into the 1994 World Cup final. My first job in sports, the summer after high school, was keeping statistics for an expansion franchise in the old American Soccer League, an underfunded competitor to the barely more stable North American Soccer League. The team was based in Bridgeport, Conn., which had a large community of Portuguese who knew good soccer when they saw it. This turned out to be a problem.

As the season progressed, attendance dwindled into the triple digits and the mini-magnate who owned the team was forced into desperate measures. He fired his two highest-salaried players, then activated himself. He was 46, a Czech immigrant with a pot belly, an ill-fitting uniform and shrinking funds, but he did manage to score a goal. Soon after, I left for college and the franchise disbanded forever.

That was 20 years ago, but professional soccer in America hasn’t advanced appreciably since. The vast hordes of youth participants across the county, whose numbers have been swelling since the late 1960s, have had no effect on the almost imperceptible adult interest in the sport.

I won’t try to convince anyone of soccer’s inherent beauty and cerebrality because I’m not so certain that the sports that fill America’s calendars and cable channels aren’t equally beautiful and cerebral in their fashion, as heretical a notion as that may be to soccer purists.

But then, the inherent entertainment value of a sport isn’t always responsible for its popularity, which is why talk-show arguments usually miss the point. For whatever reason – probably because the necessary equipment is cheap – soccer has become the competitive currency of the world’s nations, surpassed only by war. It can send Iranians and Romanians dancing in the streets, unite Spain’s Basques, Catalans and Castillians and get two dozen Mexicans eating french fries.

Those are the reasons enough for Americans to take notice. We can disparage 0-0 games all we please and count Monday nights until September, but if we choose to ignore this diversion that manages to transcend both idiom and ideology, and in some measure acts to affirm the world’s fundamental commonality, well, we’re the ones missing the party.

In the end, the Belgians and Mexicans finished in one of those inconclusive draws that soccer contras scorn, and there were multicultural hugs and backslaps all around. It seemed fitting.

Bruce Schoenfeld is a sports columnist and two-time winner of television’s Emmy Award for scriptwriting during the 1988 and 1996 Olympics.

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