Daily Review-Atlas (Monmouth, IL)7-29-98

by William Urban

 My Eastern Michigan group was in Paris until the day of the opening ceremonies for the World Cup. We were just as glad to be on our way. It was already getting a bit crazy.

The serious fans had not yet arrived. Germans, Italians and Brazilians knew that their teams would not be seriously challenged for another two weeks. But the Scots, Moroccans, and fans of long-shot teams were already celebrating the fact that their national squads had gotten to Paris at all. Air France contributed its bit, striking the overseas flights, demanding that its overpaid pilots (compared to Lufthansa and British Airways, at least) get big raises. The garbage collectors were on strike, too. We didn't notice passengers piling up on the streets, but we were well aware of the trash.

Prison guards were striking, too, but a bigger problem was presented by the human trash from Britain and Germany who had come to France to see how much trouble they could create. German skinhead gangs had made appointments via internet to fight it out during the games. But it is not possible to put this type of information out on the World Wide Web without somebody else reading it, so the German anti-terrorist squads were soon busy, checking trains and buses, watching the autobahns, and loaning officers out to the French police. It's not as though the skinheads made it hard to figure out who they were: their typical costume stands out as much in real life as it does in Hollywood satire.

It was not always easy to find a good place to watch the games. Where in any strange city would you go to watch sports if your motel didn't have a TV? Probably the same places you would go in Berlin, Munich or Florence: to the local bar. If the local team was playing, seats could be hard to find. In Venice the restaurants put TVs outside, eager to collect the 2000 lira cover charge from every viewer, plus the overpriced meal or beverage. In Rome several of us sat on the floor of a seedy bar in a rundown neighborhood across the Tiber, taking turns buying the occasion beer that kept the owner happy (though he was so glued to the set that we could probably have watched the game free). Italy lost in the shootout after a scoreless tie. Fortunately, everyone acknowledged that the French had outplayed them, so there was little disappointment.

Soccer is the world sport. It's like basketball in being inexpensive, only no hoop is necessary. Kids just need a place big enough to play catch. They kick and run, kick and run. It's not particularly dangerous (no special insurance for high school teams) and though it's rough enough, injuries are rarely serious. Skill, stamina, and imagination are required of every player. No standing around in the outfield, no leisurely walks in park-like surroundings. No marching bands or cheerleaders, either. There is enough action on the field to satisfy everyone. And no breaks in the action for commercials (which goes a long way to explain the lack of television coverage).

Around the world soccer is a macho sport, the one that best separates real men from boys. Except in the USA, where it is rapidly becoming the most popular women's sport. Next year the world championship will be held in the USA, and it is very likely that the US women will win it again. At Monmouth College women's soccer is highly popular, and odds are that within a year or two the Lady Scots will be bringing home conference trophies, just like they already do in track.

Americans often say that soccer is too slow, then turn on a golf tournament or baseball. Well, I've watched them all. But more important, I've played them all, and I'll go for soccer any day. Especially world cup soccer.