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People Gather to Gaze at the Stars

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, June 9, 1998; Page E6




PARIS — For countless Americans, the game of soccer remains a mystery or a bore even after the 1994 World Cup in the United States that proved entertaining and profitable, and helped nurture a professional league. Soccer in the rest of the world is no mystery. Consider the passion in, say, the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Dominica, whose match in March 1996 began the long road of qualifying for the 16th World Cup finals beginning Wednesday and ending July 12. Although their teams didn't make it, their fans have. Africans are arriving in France to cheer for Nigeria and Cameroon. People from all over will gather Tuesday night to celebrate the sport in the sprawling open space of the Place de la Concorde.

People are flocking here from great distances by every means, including hitchhiking, having saved modest incomes and vacation time often for years, sometimes even sacrificing their jobs. These soccer pilgrims have overcome greater obstacles than an Air France pilots' strike, airport baggage handlers' strikes, sporadic train stoppages in the south of France, a brief Paris taxi drivers' protest and a workers' march of solidarity in the city's broad avenues. Even those French who consider the approaching games a nuisance because of congestion in many cases hold game tickets for the same reason that has caused the global influx, because they want to see the best players in the world play the world's most popular game.

The great names of the game are the attraction: Brazil's 21-year-old Ronaldo, who is expected to justify his two world player of the year awards, starting with Wednesday's opener against Scotland at Stade de France in nearby Saint-Denis; France's Zinedine Zidane, 25, his nation's best since Michel Platini; Argentina's Ariel Ortega, successor to Maradona in the treasured No. 10 jersey.

Walk into sidewalk cafes or appliance stores here and you will see the magic of Zidane on TV screens. Two sequences demonstrate soccer's improvisation and soul: one, a down-the-field charge at breakneck speed in which Zidane bounces the ball forward just far enough to prevent an interception, interspersed with sharp swerves around defenders who are left behind to watch him score into the distant reaches of the net; or a behind-the-back pass executed with his left foot while both feet tread air high off the ground — the ball, as if following a laser beam, lands on the foot of a teammate far across the field who then scores. This is why we're all here.

The great players themselves want to be here as badly as their fans do. Some major talents have failed to make it. Brazil's Romario, who tied Bulgaria's returning Hristo Stoichkov with six goals in 1994, could not overcome a nagging calf injury and was dropped from the team; he and his fans were left to regret his partying life and lack of training the past four years. The same happened to the once-indomitable Gazza, Paul Gascoigne of England, king of the London tabloids. He will be missed, and so will his 1990 teammate Gary Lineker, as elegant a soccer player as Jim Palmer was a pitcher; like Palmer, the gentlemanly Lineker, who never got a yellow card in his professional career, has retired to the TV booth.

Gascoigne was something else, lacking the grace of the South Americans and Europe's best — but a willful player built like a burly-chested NFL running back. The blond, 31-year-old midfielder helped England to the semifinals of Italia '90; opponents dissolved in front of his bull rushes. When England lost to West Germany in Turin, Gazza wept on his knees, a big man taken down by emotion.

Glenn Hoddle, England's current coach, kept warning him to get into shape. "Nothing hurts me more than seeing someone like Rod Stewart describing what Gazza did or what he drank on a night out," Hoddle told England's reporters, who seem almost to match Brazil's in number. A friend said that Gazza was "prone to the odd moment of madness." Gazza declared to one and all: "My health's perfect, mates." But it wasn't, and, finally, Hoddle cut him. In a snit, Gazza last week took his family to Orlando, the first failed star to declare that he was going to Disney World.

Two other famous players barely claimed places on their national teams. Lothar Matthaeus, the smooth sweeper who started the only scoring play in Germany's victory over Bolivia in the 1994 World Cup opener in Chicago, was a late addition because Matthias Sammer, the world's best sweeper, is injured. Berti Vogts, Germany's coach for a second finals, determined that the super egos of Matthaeus and Juergen Klinsmann would have to be blended. But Matthaeus hasn't played in almost four years, so what he can contribute to an already old team, which could turn into the Baltimore Orioles of the World Cup, is uncertain. Then there's Roberto Baggio. Oh Baggio!

At the last minute, Italy decided it needed to include its tempestuous hero of 1994, who scored five goals in the three games leading up to the Rose Bowl final against Brazil. The Italian artist had to play that game on a sore hamstring, trying but failing to inspire his teammates by dramatically discarding his leg wrappings during the action. Then, when the game was tied through 90 minutes of scoreless regulation, 30 minutes of overtime and nearly a full round of penalty kicks, Baggio booted Italy's final penalty kick over the goal, giving Brazil the title. Happily, once more, we'll hear cries of "Bag-gio, Bag-gio."

But this World Cup finals, expanded from 24 to 32 teams, will introduce newcomers Croatia, Jamaica, Japan and South Africa and likely will feature fresher faces: Ronaldo; French forward David Trezeguet, 20, possibly the answer to France's recent scoring problems; Italian striker Alessandro Del Piero, 23; Spain's Raul Gonzalez, about to turn 21; an English pair, 27-year-old captain Alan Shearer, and forward Michael Owen, 18; Argentina's Claudio Lopez, 23, who plays up front, or his playmaker, Ortega, 24. Yugoslavia's Dejan Stankovic, a 19-year-old midfielder, could be the revelation of the tournament. Japanese midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata, 21, probably has only the first round to leave an impression.

Ortega is a special player who gives Argentina the chance to win its third Cup in its 13th appearance. After Argentina scored a 1-0 upset at Brazil in April, a lead-up match that received scant coverage in the United States but altered lives in the two countries involved, Ortega declared: "We are the best two teams in the world. We should play the championship game of the World Cup."

That would be improbable and unique, two South American countries playing for the World Cup in Europe. But it's one of the many possibilities that will attract the largest television audience in the history of the planet, a combined 37 billion for all the games, and at least 800,000 visitors to France who will clear every roadblock to reach their long-awaited rendezvous.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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