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Byline: BILLY WITZ Staff Writer

Just before the 1994 World Cup began, Alexi Lalas was on an airplane when an older woman seated next to him asked Lalas what he did for a living. Play soccer, he replied. That's nice, she said politely, but what did he do for a living?

A few weeks later, from Perris to Paris, nobody had to ask twice.

Lalas became the flaming-haired, goateed, amulet-wearing, guitar-strumming face of soccer in America, the Son of Uncle Sam personified.

As the embodiment of a rag-tag outfit that helped the United States, playing on its home soil, to a surprising show of respectability -- even pushing eventual champion Brazil -- Lalas found his Cup runneth over as well.

Soon, he was hitting the late-night talk show circuit.

A recording deal would follow, as would a contract to become the first American to play in Serie A, the Italian League's top division. A year later, he returned to help launch Major League Soccer.

``I lived the power of what the World Cup can do,'' said Lalas, now retired at 36 and recently appointed as general manager and president of the Galaxy.

Beginning Friday, the generator that is the World Cup cranks up again when this year's host country, Germany, kicks off against Costa Rica in Munich. While soccer may still be a curiosity in many corners of the United States, all the world really is a stage for the players from the 32 teams who have qualified for the month-long tournament.

When it concludes July 9 in Berlin, the World Cup will have been seen on television by 28 billion people, according to estimates by the British-based Football Economics Group. The final is expected to be watched by some 1.2 billion people, or 17 percent of the world's population.

For some perspective, that's more than tenfold the number of people who tuned in to watch this year's Super Bowl.

``This isn't the best choice of words,'' Lalas said with a wink. ``But the World Cup is the Olympics on steroids. The Super Bowl pales in comparison. It's kind of mind-boggling the power it yields. What happens to societies in that month -- you have all these incredible stories with the World Cup that have nothing to do with kicking a ball.''

Consider the run up to it.

In Bangladesh, a country that has never qualified in the World Cup, university students last week ransacked a dormitory and burned furniture when they were told that two broken television sets wouldn't be replaced in time for the World Cup.

In Portugal and the Ukraine, government leaders have asked businesses to follow their lead and alter work schedules so that workers can watch their teams' matches.

In England, a country that still curses the Hand of God -- a goal punched in by Argentina's Diego Maradona in the 1986 World Cup -- they are now obsessed with a deity's foot, the broken one belonging to star striker Wayne Rooney. From the tabloids to the BBC, England is treated to breathless daily updates on Rooney's recovery and whether he'll be able to save it from yet another disappointment.

``It's as if it were the queen on her death bed,'' Eric Weinberger, a professor of expository writing at Harvard, said of the attention paid to Rooney's foot of clay.

This sort of benign fanaticism isn't much different from what is found in places such as Green Bay, Fenway Park or any college football town in the South. In the end, it is entertainment, a diversion, a community endeavor.

The World Cup, though, carries the promise of more. It can be politics, religion, history, economics or sociology as much as sport. That can translate not only to the absurd, but to the profound.

A potentially tense diplomatic situation could arise if Iran president Mahmoud Ahmandinejad makes good on his pledge to travel to Germany if his team reaches the second round. As if Western governments didn't have enough to be touchy about with suspicions that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, Ahmandinejad has dismissed the Holocaust as ``a myth'' -- something that is considered a crime in Germany.

Politics are also the subtext of Ivory Coast's first trip to the World Cup. Its berth has caused both sides in an on-going civil war to lay down their weapons, at least for the moment. Many are hopeful that if the Elephants, as the team is known, can replicate the surprising tournament runs of African neighbors Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal, it can help unify the country and lead to peace.

``At the end of the day, it's still a sporting event,'' Lalas said of the World Cup. ``You don't want to hold it out as something that's going to bring world peace, but of all the things that are held out there -- the Olympics, Live Aid -- if anything can do it, this is it.''

There is, however, a dark side of such expectations -- one Lalas knows well. His team in 1994 advanced out of group play with help from a goal that Columbia's Andres Escobar inadvertently knocked into his own net against the United States. Shortly after Escobar returned home, he was shot dead outside a bar by an angry fan.

The spark that touched off the ethnic war in Yugoslavia is said to have been lit at a 1990 soccer match between the most prominent Serb and Croat clubs, Belgrade's Red Star and Zagreb's Dinamo, when a fierce riot erupted between fans of the two teams. Dinamo star Zvonomir Boban unwittingly became an icon of the Croatian push for independence when he launched a flying karate-kick at a Serb policeman who was beating a Croat.

``Sports as a mass activity is something which you can get excited about, and particularly if you have a history, you can devote yourselves to almost any extent to being out of your mind,'' said Paul Gardner, an author and commentator who will be covering his eighth World Cup. ``Everything that applies to religion applies equally to soccer.''

When Gardner first wrote ``The Simplest Game: An Intelligent Fans' Guide to Soccer'' in 1976 -- still a relevant primer on the game's history, tactics and aesthetics that has been updated many times since -- he was among few voices to expound on the sport. Now, he is among a chorus.

In the past dozen or so years, a cottage industry has emerged examining the link between soccer and the way we -- as societies and individuals -- live. Among them have been Simon Kuper's ``Soccer Against the Enemy: How the World's Most Popular Sport Stars and Fuels Revolutions and Keeps Dictators in Power'' and Franklin Foer's ``How Soccer Explains the World: An (Unlikely) Theory of Globalization.''

As Weinberger, the Harvard professor, wryly observed in an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe two years ago, despite the modern game being no older than other contemporary sports, ``Soccer-as-sociology is by now a well-established discipline, lacking only its endowed professorships and annual conferences, but undoubtedly these will come.''

And indeed they have. Andrei Markovits, a comparative politics professor at the University of Michigan, will be the visiting professor of soccer this summer at Germany's University of Dortmund.

While there is debate whether soccer suffers from a sort of over-intellectualization, the book that is oft-credited with kick-starting the genre, ``Fever Pitch'' by Nick Hornby, unwittingly demonstrates how Americans view the game.

In it, Hornby examines his relationship with London soccer club Arsenal, and during his college days at Cambridge United, and how it explains his life -- his teams' fortunes so closely tied to his own, from childhood through adolescence and on into adulthood.

An interesting and incisive read -- so much so that when the story was brought to American movie audiences the lead character was ... a Red Sox fan.

No matter how much is lost in translation, soccer is no longer the foreign game it was in 1986, when Gardner wrote that if the United States wanted to take over the world, there would be no better day to do so than that of the World Cup final -- everyone else on the globe would be glued to the television.

That change is because of two still-burgeoning populations: immigrants and AYSO. Yet while both play soccer, they are as analogous as orange peels and Pele -- one capable of providing a sense of community for a nation, the other for providing a way to occupy Saturday mornings.

Television, along with other technologies that shrink the globe, have helped build a bridge between America's two soccer cultures.

Whereas today's soccer moms and dads grew up with a single English, German or Mexican League game of the week somewhere at the end of the TV dial (usually tape-delayed) and had to go to closed circuit to see the World Cup final, the sport is now available nearly 24-7. Thanks to FOX Sports Espanol, FOX Soccer Channel, Gol TV, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, TeleFutura, Azteca America, Telemundo, Univision and, it's now possible to show Little Johnny and Jeanette how to bend it like Beckham -- or not, for those who choose to view MLS.

On the other hand, in a recent poll by Global Market Insite, Inc., 56 percent of American respondents identifying themselves as World Cup fans didn't know the event was being played in Germany. Only 11 percent said they planned to watch it on TV.

``You don't see American kids wearing soccer jerseys with an English, Italian or Brazilian's name the way they would a Shaquille O'Neal jersey,'' said Weinberger, who was raised in Holland. ``There's a one-way flow of pop culture in America. Soccer is like one of those foreign art-house movies -- it's popular but it's not mainstream.''

Soccer was born in England -- the word was derived from Association Football -- and introduced to the world in the latter part of the 19th century by English missionaries. A simple game -- one ball, two goals, 17 ``laws'' by which to be abide and 11 players a side -- soccer stuck in many places, with the local culture putting its own stamp on the style of play.

The sport never spread in the United States because the country developed its own hegemonic sports culture with baseball, football and basketball, according to Markovits.

To whatever degree the World Cup is followed in the United States, he expects the NBA playoffs, interleague baseball and golf's U.S. Open to garner more American media attention this month.

Soccer will have arrived in the United States not when it wins the World Cup, Markovits said, but ``when people call up an L.A. radio station complaining that the Galaxy coach is playing so and so too much to the right against the New England Revolution.''

That, indeed, would require a revolution -- one that, if it begins in the next month in Germany, will at least be televised.

(818) 713-3621


2 photos


(1) Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, right, and Ivory Coast rebel leader Guillaume Soro meet. The country's World Cup berth has caused a temporary cease-fire in the country's ongoing civil war.

Kambou Sia/AFP/Getty Images

(2) Diego Maradona of Argentina handles the ball past Peter Shilton of England to score the opening goal of the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal in Mexico City. Argentina won 2-1.

Getty Images
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 8, 2006
Next Article:WORLD CUP 101.

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