Attraction of ‘beautiful game’ still a mystery to most Americans

Ray Houghton scores against Italy during the  unforgettable World Cup victory at Giants Stadium in 1990. Photograph: Claudio Onorati/AFP/Getty

Ray Houghton scores against Italy during the unforgettable World Cup victory at Giants Stadium in 1990. Photograph: Claudio Onorati/AFP/Getty


“There might be more Spanish here than us,” remarked a man exiting the B train at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx just as a promised summer gust of wind and rain began to materialise on Babe Ruth Plaza. The Irish fan was middle-aged and had an accent that could give Joe Pesci a run for his money for undiluted Gotham and he wore a vintage football shirt reminiscent of the era of the late, great Tony Grealish.

And it was likely the local was among the legion of Irish fans now laying claim to having been in Giants Stadium 19 summers ago when the Republic of Ireland sent the first great tremor through USA ’94, that distant tournament when America tried and didn’t quite manage to fall in love with the beautiful game.

The 1994 World Cup was strange and fascinating. It will always be associated with the death of Andres Escobar, assassinated upon his return to Columbia for his own goal which effectively eliminated the national team from the finals and for Diego Maradona’s inglorious exit from the world stage. It was unspeakably hot and forced the teams to cover vast distances – giving Europeans some idea of the logistical scale and planning that goes into running leagues like the NFL and NBA.

Still, the Americans took to heart European assurances that it was an honour to host this month-long extravaganza to celebrate a game which many of their citizens didn’t understand. They revamped the domestic game with the Major League Soccer, the commentators gave crash courses on intricacies such as the ‘head-shot’ and the crowds turned out in record numbers: over 3.5 million and an average of 69,000 per match.

The host team were organised and combative and got to play against the world aristocrats when the second round paired them against Brazil. This might have been a chance to illustrate to the hosts what the game was all about; had the Brazilians dazzled, maybe the penny would have dropped. Instead, they struggled to a 1-0 victory which must have made most casual American observers wonder what the fuss was.

Substantial body
For the substantial body of Irish fans at the World Cup, it was the zenith of the Charlton era. Eamon Dunphy wrote a piece shortly after Ireland had secured memorable (friendly) results away to Holland and Germany which contained the headline: “We Are Talking About Medals Now Jack.”

The provocateur forwarded the notion that such was the quality in the team that they should be pushing to reach the last four of the tournament – if not to win the bloody thing. Why not? Then came that extraordinary afternoon in Giants Stadiums when, in the last great show of Tammany Hall-style chicanery, the Irish transported Lansdowne Road to the stadium. After Ray Houghton’s goal and an intoxicating win over Italy, anything seemed possible.

What do you remember about those few weeks? The name of Luis Garcia, perhaps: the wisp of a Mexican striker who undid the Irish defence with two precise goals in the swampy heat of Orlando? Or the unfeasibly huge and white baseball cap with Big Jack sported for the same occasion? Or the muted exit against Holland in the second round – and with it the realisation that a team featuring a 34-year-old Packie Bonnar, a 30-year-old John Sheridan and honourable journeymen like Terry Phelan and Tommy Coyne could actually win the World Cup was probably far-fetched?

And yet they were not far away: there was no outstanding team that summer.

Perhaps the reason USA ’94 soon paled in the memory was that it produced a dreadfully dull final match, Brazil versus Italy. It was 120 minutes of goalless football in the Pasadena Rose Bowl (before 94,000 people) and distinguished only by Roberto Baggio’s notorious miss during the penalty shoot-out. Brazil won.

I was in Boston at the time and although the game was shown on the television bars, there was zero interest on a rainy Sunday afternoon and the only sign of the World Cup in that city was when a half -dozen Brazilians came dancing and singing through an empty carriage on the T at six o’clock. None of the locals had a clue of what they were celebrating. It was an unforgettably lonely sight.

The power base in football has changed little in the long history of the World Cup. The notion that an African team will someday win it is no closer to materialising than it was when Roger Milla and Cameroon thrilled Italia ’90. Only Ghana made it to the second round when South Africa hosted the finals four years ago. And two decades on from USA ’94, it’s still doubtful as to whether the game is any closer to capturing the American imagination.

Big difference
It is true you can see the Premier League games easily here. And you can see plenty of organised ‘soccer’ in the parks around New York any evening.

But while football attained its global popularity because it was the street game- in South America, in continental Europe and in English cities, it is more of an organised ‘leisure’ pursuit here. It is not an instinctive thing. It won’t ever supplant basketball as the inner city summer game.

It won’t ever oust American football as the religion of college sports. And it hasn’t a hope of replacing baseball as the spiritual pastime which unites the Great Plains and Great Lakes and both coasts; the voice and rhythm of a laconic sport which stretches from April through October and therefore covers three distinct seasons.

Worst of all, for the Americans, scores aren’t guaranteed in football. During the dreamy three weeks that was France ’98, when a multicultural home team created the illusion of a racially harmonious country, the New Yorker magazine had one of its staff watch the whole shooting match on television to explain what the hell this fascination with football was all about. Adam Gopnik wrote about his gradual conversion from sceptic to devotee and how he gradually learned to lose his fear of the 0-0 scoreline and how the frequency of scoring in American sports seemed comparatively easy and even pointless.

“0-0 is the score of life,” he wrote.

The essay was aimed at the millions of North Americans valiantly struggling to understand why the rest of the world goes daft for this game. Most still don’t.

Last Tuesday night one of the great teams in football or any sport trotted out into a New York evening for what was an immigrant celebration of football. During their brief stay in the city, the Spanish stars had the novel experience of being able to walk down the street of a major city and be mistaken for just another tourist.

The crowd at Yankee Stadium was predominantly Irish and Spanish and probably bolstered by the few stray local cats who happen to adore football.

It was a harmless friendly match. But Spain gave the most eloquent reminder of why football continues to grip large sections of the world. And the return of the Irish team must have brought back quite a few memories of the heady night in Manhattan after which the nation entertained the idea of being world champions.

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