You don't have to watch the World Cup. No one's going to make you, and two billion people could be wrong. For your early summer amusement there will still be those gut-over-the-belt golfers at the U.S. Open, and numbers 66 through 93 on baseball's 162-game schedule, and the final few encounters between Patrick and Hakeem.
But Mr. Olajuwon himself developed his lateral quickness as a goalkeeper in Nigeria, and he won't for the world miss soccer's quadrennial showcase, which gets under way this week on these benighted shores. And if there's the slightest bit of hot blood pumping through your heart, or a corner of your cranium in which you've stashed some trace of curiosity about this planet we inhabit, you won't want to ignore the World Cup. It will unfold over one month at nine venues. Twenty-four nations will vie to win the prize that once disappeared for a week only to be recovered from a South London garden by a dog named Pickles. And if you absolutely must have some hometown hook in order to relate to this "game for commie pansies" (as New York sportswriter Dick Young once so gracefully described it), there's even a U.S. side that could actually win once or twice.
Why should you care? Because, in a sporting world shorn of real significance by so much hype and overexposure, the World Cup still matters. Even if these weren't the most technically dazzling soccer players in creation, the visceral emotions of their followers are rarely seen stateside, at least not since free agency and scoreboard dot races killed off fan spontaneity.
To the rest of the world, the appeal of soccer is very simple: At work, man engages his hands; at play, his feet. "Even an unborn baby is kicking," says Sepp Blatter, the secretary general of FIFA, soccer's international governing body and the outfit whose show the World Cup is. Soccer is Rio at carnival time: color and movement and infectious music. It's those low, mournful horn blasts that fans sound for an hour before kickoff, suggesting some fogbound port. It's the derisory whistles—the boo in Esperanto—that sound like a flock of Hitchcockian songbirds on a Tuscan morning. It's Paraguay under General Stroessner: Argue with the ref, and he'll card you for "dissent." Soccer is as senseless as religious warfare (tensions rise in Northern Ireland whenever two Scottish clubs, Catholic Glasgow Celtic and Protestant Glasgow Rangers, play each other across the Irish Sea), yet capable of stopping religious warfare (rival factions in Beirut called a cease-fire so they could watch a match during the 1990 World Cup).
Scholars even make the case that Argentina's 1978 World Cup victory in Buenos Aires shored up a repressive military government. "Enough has been written about football hooligans," says Simon Kuper, author of Football Against the Enemy. "Other fans are much more dangerous."
So, soccer isn't innocent. But in the passion it evokes, it is pure. It is a window on a nation far more revealing than some sterile pavilion at a slicked-up world's fair. Listen to Henry Kissinger on his native Germany: "Both the national team and the generals who followed the Schlieffen Plan during World War I paid meticulous attention to detail. But there is a limit to human foresight, and both suffered when, under the pressure of events, they were forced to deal with contingencies that overwhelmed their intricate planning. If they're not ahead by the 75th minute, a certain melancholy settles in, and the Germans are shadowed by the under-lying national premonition that in the end even the most dedicated effort will go unrewarded."
The Nepalese once played soccer with skulls, and the game has always done a macabre dance with the people who play and follow it. Not that soccer is a matter of life and death; as an English coach named Bill Shankly once noted, the game is something much more serious than that. A year ago, after Iraq eliminated China to reach the final round of World Cup qualifying for Asia, celebrations in Baghdad killed nine people and injured 120, more carnage than had been inflicted in the U.S. missile attack on an Iraqi intelligence compound several weeks earlier. In 1969 a World Cup qualifier between Honduras and El Salvador touched off a five-day war—the so-called Soccer War—that left 2,000 dead and 12,000 wounded. Following Cameroon's elimination from the World Cup four years ago, a Bangladeshi woman committed suicide, telling the world in her note that with the Indomitable Lions gone, she had nothing left to live for.
But the game doesn't merely occasion death born of anger and hate and madness. Sometimes it causes death born of joy. In 1950, after their team won the World Cup in Brazil's 200,000-seat Maracana Stadium, some Uruguayan fans jumped oil" the lip of the stadium to a happy doom.
Of course no comparable passion prevails among the few Americans who follow soccer. Yet 16 million people in the U.S. do play the game, more than any other sport except basketball. There are twice as many soccer teams on American college campuses as football teams. Huge numbers of young women have come to the game, thanks largely to the Title IX revolution, and the U.S. is the women's World Cup champion, having won the inaugural tournament in 1991. Still, there are jokes: that it's the sport of the future—and always will be; that of course millions play it, because that way they don't have to watch it.
"A soccer game without goals is like an afternoon without sunshine," said Alfredo di Stefano, the Argentine great, and by that standard the World Cup in Italy four years ago was a cloudy disappointment and a gift to the sport's critics. The tournament averaged 2.2 goals per game, an alltime low. FIFA has jimmied the rules a bit for USA '94, rewarding teams with three points rather than two for a win in the first stage, a change that should encourage offensive play and increase the game's chances of penetrating the hard heads of Americans.
Nonetheless, soccer will be a tough sell in the host country. Is it a cultural blind spot that caused the game to finish 67th, after tractor-pulling, in a recent survey that questioned Americans about their favorite spectator sports? Or is it a national character flaw, the same deplorable thinking that recently caused the school board in Lake County, Fla., to require that children be taught that American culture is superior to all others? Or is it simply a matter of the U.S. sports fan's dance card being quite full enough with baseball, basketball and American football, thank you very much?
The footyphobes will be out in force this month, most of them arguing that it's the game's fault, not ours, that soccer has languished here. There isn't a U.S. daily without a Soccer Stinks beat guy. One of them, a basketball partisan at the Boston Globe, recently dismissed the game because you can't use your hands. What he forgets is that Cousy learned to go behind his back and Isiah invented the speed dribble because basketball has its own curious prohibition, against running with the ball. Because soccer's rules won't let you handle the ball, Leonidas, the Brazilian star of the 1930s, had to conjure up one of the game's most wondrous moves, the bicycle kick. Prohibition is the mother of invention.
At the risk of sounding like some eat-your-peas scold, we offer a few things the soccer-impaired can do to better enjoy the next four weeks:
•Treat the whole thing like the NCAA tournament. Brazil is UNLV, as concerned with stylin' as it is with scoring. Germany is Duke or Carolina, drawing confidence from its tradition and system. Argentina is Georgetown, chippy and unloved. Humdrum Sweden and Norway are the fourth and fifth Pac-10 teams to get bids—and as such, they'll be heading home early. ABC's professorial Seamus Malin and Univision's Andres (Goooooooaaal!) Cantor arc Packer and Vitale. And countries like Saudi Arabia. South Korea and Cam-croon are the East Tennessee States. Indeed, the Indomitable Lions (can there be anything wrong with a sport that produces a team called the Indomitable Lions?) were long shots to reach the quarterfinals in Italy four years ago. They beat the odds. So find this quadrennial's dark horse and give it a ride.
•Reexamine your roots. Chances are you can trace a parent, a grandparent or a great-grandparent to one of the foreign countries competing for the Cup. Unless your family has been ensconced in the Social Register for generations, you and millions of other Americans can likely claim as your own some team besides the U.S.
•Soccer is the world's simplest game. The ref doesn't carry a rule book, for there arc only 17 laws, and he has committed each to memory. So don't bother with the subtle differences between the Italian catenaccio alignment and the Swiss bolt, or the merits of the flatback four versus the lone sweeper. And don't sweat the numbers. There will never, to the game's everlasting credit, be such a thing as rotisserie soccer.
•Go. You needn't buy a ticket. (The event is all but sold out anyway.) Tens of thousands of fans will be coming to the U.S. just to mill about, to hole up in a bar, to sample the atmosphere. Find 'em. Chat 'em up. Tell 'em how Pippen is good-for-nothing and Bonilla is humorously overpaid, and they'll tell you about some blight-on-the-pitch lad with a lousy work rate who isn't worth his kit in transfer fees and should have never been capped. You may not entirely understand one another, but you'll each be airing a universal gripe.
Let's not kid ourselves: The World Cup is here simply because FIFA believes the time has come to crack the world's richest consumer market. But whether we're witnessing a birth or a burial shouldn't be the focus of the next four weeks. To dwell on that now would be a little like getting tickets to a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Romeo and Juliet and spending the whole evening wondering if Kevin is going to make it with Winnie on The Wonder Years.
When we go abroad, then we can turn into misanthropes. We can be offended at the naked lady in the pharmacy window and kvetch that the newspapers don't carry the complete major league box scores. But we aren't hitting the road this month. We're the world's host, and our visitors come bearing a cherished gift. This World Cup thing, it matters to them. As we watch them demonstrate how much, a surprising thing may happen: It may end up mattering to us.