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Thursday, August 1, 2002
Updated: August 5, 12:26 PM ET
Thanks, soccer, see you in four years

By David Halberstam
Page 2 columnist

This is something of a confession. It has taken me some 36 years to realize it, but I am a fan of World Cup soccer, but not of soccer itself. For a long time I was loathe to admit this. I realized that I was hooked on the World Cup one morning this year when I got up a little early first to walk the dogs and then to watch the early games, even though the U.S. team had already been eliminated -- thus it was not pure Yankee chauvinism. But truth be told, I do it for the pleasure of the nationalism involved, not for the love of soccer. Nor do I think, as things currently stand, I can be cured. I like, within reason -- no assassinations and really rough stuff -- the nationalism at play at moments like this in World Cup years and Olympiad years, this time all those wacky Koreans cheering like mad, and trying to get even for what happened to one of their skaters during the Winter Olympics.

Bobby Charlton
Bobby Charlton, since knighted, will be remembered for sobbing tears of joy when England eventually lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy as 1966 World Cup champs.
My erratic relationship with the game -- it is not love-hate, it is not love-love, and it is most surely not hate-hate, started some 36 years ago when I was working for The New York Times in Europe, I had just been expelled from Poland for writing articles that displeased the Warsaw regime (whose representatives had often complained to me about my referring to the government as a regime, which I, despite the frequent warnings continued to do, and in fact still enjoy doing today) Since I had also been asked by the Prague regime -- there it is again, that word, but they really were regimes -- not to come back, that left of the three principal countries assigned to me, only Hungary where I was now welcome. And it was obviously time for me to go. Departing Warsaw (or deported from), I was stationed temporarily in Paris.

That was 1966, a World Cup year. I was, after more than a decade of covering civil rights in the U.S. South, Vietnam and the Congo, quite underemployed in Paris, and more than a little bored. So I had a lot of time to watch soccer and I watched at a small bar near the Times bureau on Rue Caumartin. There was a small black-and-white set there, and if on occasion when the reception was poor it looked like there were about 40 or 50 players on the field, it was nonetheless good fun. There were a number of us regulars who went there for the games, and there was an easy camaraderie for an American not easily attainable in Paris -- especially because there was no U.S. team for me to root for. I could not be chauvinistic, and I don't think the French team was very good that year, so the locals could not be very chauvinistic either.

Nationalism, I assure you, mattered that year. Two games stand out in my memory from that championship run. In one, during the quarterfinals, the Hungarians played the Russians. This was still the height of the Cold War, only 10 years after the Russians had crushed the Hungarian insurgents with their tanks, in one of the cruelest instances in the era's big power suppression of a small nation. As such, the Russians were considered most properly at that moment, as much in Europe as in America, the thugs of the developed world. French intellectuals, apparently never having heard of the Gulag, might be more than a little soft on them, but in the bars and coffee houses, working-class people knew who they really were and how they held power.

Lev Yashin
Legendary Russian goalkeeper Lev Yashin makes a stop against West Germany in the semifinals of the 1966 World Cup.
The Russian team, as I recall, was favored, but the Hungarians played fearlessly and joyously, indeed exuberantly. They never thought defensively: they were aggressive, and they attacked again and again. It remains one of the best soccer games I have ever seen. Interestingly, in my memory, the Hungarians won -- they remain eternally young and full of fire. And yet when I started writing this, Mary Buckheit of ESPN kindly checked the score for me, only to find that the Russians had in fact won 2-1. Sometimes you can win but lose, and lose but win, I guess.

The other game was the championship one, Britain against West Germany. Again nationalism mattered. It was 21 years after the end of World War II, and that might seem like a long time for today's sports generations, but for those of us then, given the historic quality of two wars, and given the particular darkness of German atrocities in the second one, the shadows of the past still hung heavily. It was, after all, a time when a great many upper middle class Americans loved the idea of buying a Volkswagen bug as a second car, but still agonized over spending money on it and thus sending money to Germany -- and we are talking about a VW, not a Mercedes.

That made it very easy to root for Britain, especially, because as I recall the Germans were favored and played a tough but methodical game. The Brits were very good that day, and they won, as I recall on a disputed goal by Geoff Hurst. But I had liked the idea of the best teams from all over the world gathering to play for a soccer championship, and playing on national teams.

And it has stayed that way. I like checking out national characteristics as reflected by playing styles -- the great truth about national clichés, that is the easy broad judgments we make about the national characteristics of other countries (if not our own), is that they are all unfair, and they are all generalizations, but they are also more often than not true. The Brazilian team is likely to be more expansive and athletic; the German team more stolid. The Germans are less likely to make mistakes, but they are also less likely to play with flair. The Italians will play, like well, Italians. Then there is the rise of the African teams -- an intriguing subject for someone like me who has watched the coming of black athletes in this country, and who was himself a correspondent in the Congo in 1961 and 1962. At what point will the coaching -- and the diet -- be good enough for some of the African teams to rise to their rightful place in the world's athletic order? I wonder. A few years ago -- I think it was in 1990, the Cameroon team played with great exuberance and virtuosity, and terrified a number of the more phlegmatic, European teams.

England vs. West Germany
Roger Hunt watches the ball bounce back out behind German goalie Hans Tilkowski on England's controversial second goal in its 4-2 victory in the 1966 World Cup championship.
So the World Cup is always good fun, perhaps even more so because now the U.S. team is better, and on an ascent, and the question for someone like me, with a bit of a sociological -- cultural bent, is how much our new immigration patterns, some legal, some illegal, have changed our athletic pool, and enriched our soccer feeder system. We know in addition to that source that any number of private day schools now favor soccer; in the middle class and upper middle class, it's the soccer moms (now seen by political consultants as a definable political entity, once Republican because of basic economics and the prejudices of their husbands and their parents, but now swing Democratic because of their feelings on abortion and other women's issues) who do not want their sons to play football, and want them to play soccer instead. (The price of damage on a soccer field is more likely to be a twisted knee, but not $10,000 in dental work). So there are two intriguing sources of talent -- the newest immigrants who brought the game with them, and some of the children of our more established families, who being schizophrenic, play soccer during the week, but watch football on television on Saturday and Sunday.

So here's my problem -- and this is my confessional. I like the World Cup, but when it's over, I'm gone. The game itself doesn't hold me. It should, but it doesn't. It's wonderful when two great teams are battling late in a big game and the score is tied. But that happens all too rarely. I remember some years ago when the World Cup was to be played in the United States and there was a great deal of talk about the fact this was going to do it, was going to put soccer over the top as a popular sport here. And, of course, it didn't happen. People were enthralled by the World Cup, and then very much like me, they went back to their old ways when it was over: Baseball, football, basketball, tennis, golf, and, of course, stock car racing.

Now, I know what I'm going to say is heresy to traditional soccer lovers, those who know the game well, the true aficionados, and that they will put the blame on me and others like me. They will think it's our fault for not being better fans, and perhaps they're right. But I think the problem is the game itself -- or more specifically, the rules of the game. Very simply, the rules favor the defense against the offense much too much, and they take the game's best players and limit their offensive ability. It allows mediocre players from mediocre teams to bunch up and reduce the possibilities of artistry from the game's best players. A mediocre team can lay back, keep a game close against a more exciting, more talented team, and hope for a lucky score to win. Or at least a score that implied a boring game was close. It's as if Michael Jordan arrived in basketball, and there was no 24-second clock, and opposing teams could keep the score close by simply holding the ball. I am hardly alone in this -- my colleague Tony Kornheiser wrote of, I think, Brazil early in the championship game, holding in his words, "an insurmountable 1-0 lead."

Ronaldo
Despite restrictive rules, Ronaldo flashed his artistry by scoring twice in Brazil's 2-0 victory over Germany in the 2002 World Cup title game.
It's important to understand that if in a sport like this, I'm something of a beginner as a fan, it doesn't mean I don't get it. Tennis is in many ways equally alien to me, but I understood very quickly the quality of the Connors-Borg-McEnroe matches, what their respective strengths, both physical and psychological were. The camera is a very quick teacher, and most big-time network sports have announcers who are exceptionally good at explaining the intricacies of the sport. Many of us watch with friends who fill us in on points a newcomer might otherwise miss. I don't have to be an aficionado of golf to understand what Tiger Woods represents, especially on the last round of a big tournament, when he's only a stroke or two behind the leader. After all, I've seen what Jordan does to his would-be competition in the fourth quarter of big games.

The world changes. Television changes what the potential audience is, (it already has) -- it opens up Europe and much of the rest of the world for basketball, and it potentially opened up this country for soccer. But it never really happened as a spectator sport here. Expectations for those sitting at home change too, people have less time, and want more excitement when they watch. More and more competing forms of entertainment are out there. I realize those who love the game love it the way it has always been, and I am sure they disagree with me and they probably think changing the rules to juice the offense is the first true sign of the apocalypse still to come, but the truth is, I think, without some kind of dramatic change, the game is less artistic than it should be, and less fun, and we see less of the pure talent of the best players. So until they change, I bid farewell to soccer until the next Olympiad, or World Cup.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 bestsellers, including "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made," "The Best and the Brightest," "The Powers That Be," "The Reckoning" and "Summer of '49," writes occasionally for Page 2.