190 Countries Can't Be Wrong

The World Cup begins this week and will be followed intently around the globe -- except by the host nation

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Everything is just about ready. in Orlando, Florida, painters have finished the massive black and white panels that have transformed the copper dome of the new city hall into a giant soccer ball. Near Detroit, agronomists from Michigan State University have covered the synthetic turf in the Pontiac Silverdome with 1,850 hexagonal chunks of specially grown, soccer-friendly grass. In Palo Alto, California, workers are nearly finished giving Stanford University's venerable stadium a $5 million face-lift.

All this activity is in preparation for World Cup USA94, which begins in Chicago on Friday. Forget the Super Bowl, World Series and Olympic Games. The World Cup is the most eagerly anticipated event on the sporting calendar for most people on earth. Held every four years, the tournament decides the world championship of football -- the kind of football actually played with the feet. Like America's Dream Team in Olympic basketball, the teams are made up of a country's best players. Some may play professionally in a league on a foreign continent, but they play for their national teams in World Cup games. In December 1991, 143 nations signed up to compete in the qualifying rounds; even Vanuatu and San Marino, plus a few curious geopolitical subdivisions like the Faroe Islands, entered. It took two years and 491 matches to whittle the field down to two dozen, and these finalists will play 52 games in nine cities in the U.S. By the time the championship is won in the Rose Bowl on July 17, more than 30 billion viewers in 190 countries will have tuned in.

The federation that runs the World Cup chose the U.S. for the 1994 tournament with the hope of attracting more American fans to soccer. It's a difficult task. A recent Harris poll found that only 25% of the 1,252 U.S. adults questioned knew what sport the World Cup involved, and only 20% were aware that the tournament would be held in the U.S. this summer. As for professional soccer in America, does anyone out there remember the Cosmos? Americans are not completely indifferent to the game, however. Fourteen million children and young people play the sport, and their parents are often avid spectators.

Americans who do follow the World Cup will be rewarded, for international soccer right now is better than ever. In recent years gifted players from small countries have increasingly gone abroad to compete in the prosperous, rigorous football leagues of Europe. If fans in their home countries are deprived of the joy of watching top talent play during the regular season, the stars are battle hardened when they return to their national teams. The result has been a closer parity among national teams that undoubtedly will lead to upsets. The most exciting squads competing in the finals fall into four broad categories.

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