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Planet turns its focus to Asia

Super Bowl? It pales when compared with the worldwide audience of the World Cup.

By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 26, 2002


Once the glut of hyperbole has been filtered, the mass of numbers crunched, the gobs of statistics processed and the countless anecdotes reported -- once all of the information has been laid on the table -- a solitary, foreboding question remains.

Can the world possibly be big enough to handle the World Cup?

The World Cup, the 32-nation quad-rennial soccer extravaganza that commences Friday in South Korea, is the world's communal party.

One-third of the Earth follows soccer. An estimated 36-billion people will watch the World Cup's 64 games, or everyone in the world nearly six times over. The 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, by comparison, drew 19.6-billion viewers.

World Carnival might be a more appropriate name. It's Mardi Gras stretched over a month and spread liberally across the globe.

It's so big, two nations (Japan and South Korea) are co-hosting this year.

And here is the scary part: Soccer is just gaining a foothold in the world's most populated country. China qualified for the first time this year.

For legions of fanatics worldwide, the World Cup is the ultimate indulgence.

Take Ireland, for example. There was a campaign this spring to persuade the government to move the clocks forward by nine hours during the World Cup.

The "Give Us Back Our World Cup" campaign, backed in part by a beer company, wanted Ireland to switch to Japanese time so fans could view the action in the pubs at the end of the day. The games, otherwise, will be in the morning or early afternoon in Ireland. In March, there was a small demonstration outside the Irish parliament.

Seriously.

And Ireland has nothing on a few dozen others.

Take Germany, for example. U.S. national player Frankie Hejduk has been immersed in the madness during the past few years while playing professionally in Germany. "The people go nuts. They can't wait for four years," Hejduk said. "It's weird to see them so serious about their sport, from the normal citizen to the president of the country. It's incredible. (Right) now, over there, it's just abuzz. It's every day in the paper. For the players, it's really cool.

"They put a lot of money into the team to make sure it's successful. They take pride in that, and their country takes pride in that."

Ireland and Germany are two of the 32 (out of 203 member nations) to qualify, but World Cup mayhem hardly is restricted to the populace of qualifying nations.

Take Thailand, for example. It never has qualified for the World Cup, going 0-for-17.

Locals hope to have better success gambling on the event, though. Thai wagering on the World Cup is expected to exceed $140-million even though gambling is illegal in the nation. Comparable American events might include the NCAA basketball tournament (the World Cup is inundated with pools and fantasy leagues), Super Bowl or Florida-Florida State football games. The fanaticism of Gator and Seminole fans (labeled "runaway rancor" by one newspaper columnist) compares with World Cup fever.

Except the passion (or irrationality, depending on your perspective) is cloaked in national pride instead of school spirit.

Take England, for example. Before the 1998 World Cup in France, a survey in Britain revealed 95 percent of English men ages 20 to 34 would rather watch World Cup soccer on television than have sex with the woman of their dreams.

Maybe the UF-FSU rivalry doesn't measure up.

Often, when two countries really don't like each other, the game is like war without bloodshed. After Iran upset the United States 2-1 in 1998, a nationwide victory celebration ensued.

England and Argentina have a long-simmering rivalry.

In 1966, when host England defeated Argentina in a quarterfinal, English coach Alf Ramsey dashed onto the field afterward to disrupt the traditional jersey exchange, reportedly blurting, "We don't swap shirts with animals."

They met again in 1986, just four years after the Falkland Islands War, and Argentine legend Diego Maradona scored two goals in a heated quarterfinal.

The first was knocked in by, as the not-so-humble Maradona put it, "the hand of God," i.e. his hand. The second came on a brilliant weaving run and is considered among the greatest goals in World Cup history.

Maradona recently talked about the unforgettable goal (the second one), saying the "noble" nature of the English allowed it to happen.

It seemed to be a compliment but maybe not. Any other team would have committed a foul to stop him, Maradona said.

"Thanks to England, I scored the best goal of my life, in a World Cup, a dream goal, a beautiful, precious goal," he said.

The Stanley Cup, the ubiquitous symbol of hockey, often is referred to by North American sportscasters as the most revered and recognizable trophy in sports.

Silly North Americans. Like Thailand, India (population about 1-billion) never has qualified for a World Cup, but 120,000 (more than the capacity of the largest U.S. football venue) turned out in April to see the gold and malachite World Cup trophy, about 14 inches tall and 12 pounds, carried on an elephant's back at a stadium in Calcutta.

Frequently, World Cup zealotry goes too far.

Take Colombia, for example. It usually has a very good team. But this year, it failed to qualify. That might be a good thing for its players.

In 1994, Colombia was considered a favorite to win the World Cup, but it lost to the United States in the opening round and did not advance to the second round. Defender Andres Escobar's own goal led to the U.S. defeat.

Less than a week later, some men taunted Escobar about the own goal outside of a nightclub. Their bodyguard burst from a parked car and shot Escobar. "The popularity of our game has two faces," Sepp Blatter, then-general secretary of the sport's world governing body (FIFA), said after Escobar's death. "The first face produces joy and enthusiasm and brings people together. On the other face, the game mirrors our life. It has violence, tears and corruption."

The inaugural World Cup was contested in 1930 in Uruguay. The 1942 and '46 events were canceled because of World War II, and it resumed in 1950 in Brazil.

The other U.S. World Cup highlight, aside from advancing to the second round in 1994, came in 1950, when the Americans upset England 1-0.

The Big Four in World Cup annals -- Brazil (four titles), Italy (three), Germany (three) and Argentina (two) -- again are the favorites this year along with defending champion France.

England, Spain and Portugal are the major threats from a second tier. The gradually improving United States is virtually no threat to win but hopes for an upgrade from its dismal 0-3 showing in 1998.

While soccer has a moderate following in the United States, at least relative to baseball, football and basketball, its worldwide allure is unparalleled. And every four years, those global passions are crystalized in the World Cup.

Earnie Stewart, a longtime stalwart of the U.S. team, has played professionally in the Netherlands since 1998. The Dutch, a consistent power, were World Cup runners-up in 1974 and '78. Shockingly, they did not make it through qualifying this time.

"When Holland didn't qualify," Stewart said, "it was like the Queen died."

The Dutch, no doubt, look forward to her resurrection in four years. In the meantime, they will join most of the rest of the planet in following the world's biggest sporting event.

-- Times staff writer Brian Landman contributed to this story, which used information from other news organizations.

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