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In U.S., Soccer Is Merely a Casual Affair

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, June 23, 1998; Page E1

PARIS — I have before me this photograph of a few boys — they might be Brazilians — playing soccer on a dirt path in what appears to be a park. One, who seems to be wearing shower shoes, is about to punch a small green ball with the back of his right foot. Another boy facing him is trying to beat him to the kick, with the back of his left foot. Two other boys cavort behind them, their eyes on the ball, while a fifth boy sits on a tree stump, his eyes also on the ball. This is how kids begin playing soccer in much of the world — informally, in twos and fours, on the dirt.

A comparable photograph of American boys likely would show them playing basketball, two-on-two or four-on-four, maybe on a slab of concrete or blacktop, perhaps in the cold as darkness falls. Basketball is America's game, and youngsters spend endless hours on courts across the country — from big-city playgrounds to small Indiana towns — learning how to play it. No one has to pack them into an minivan and take them; they want to be there and they find a way to get there.

The exquisite book "The Last Shot," by Darcey Frey, chronicles Stephon Marbury and some of his friends growing up in New York, honing their basketball skills and hoping to play in the NBA someday. Marbury has achieved that goal; he is playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Hockey is a favorite in Canada, where NHL stickhandlers learned how to keep the puck all but attached to their sticks on frozen ponds. Kids in Brazil and Mexico and Nigeria and scores of other countries instinctively kick a ball — they don't reach for it — and bounce it off their heads.

These are the individual skills World Cup-level players learn on their own. Later, when they are discovered or find their way to a team, they master the collective work. They come to understand that no matter how good they are, they need the other players. Even Maradona, egotist that he is, knew that. (They come to learn, too, that soccer success depends on moving without the ball, anticipating passes — similar to Larry Bird's brand of basketball.)

In World Cup competition, the United States faces the best players from among the countless legions in countries throughout the world, players who have mastered the game from long, solitary hours of living with a ball. To them, the game is life, the game is hope, the game is everything. This is why it will take years before Americans can beat, say, Germany on a regular basis (although it doesn't explain why they can't beat Iran).

It's a twist of circumstance that the United States, the world's military and financial superpower, is a marginal World Cup participant. The giant cannot master Macedonia. A writing colleague at the World Cup, Miami-based Keyvan Heydari, grew out of baseball and into soccer, a reverse passage for many American youths; he did so because he discovered the World Cup on television, not because his father is Iranian. Heydari said: "Excellence in this sport is not like putting a man on the moon, something that can be achieved through technological advances and sheer will. It's more like learning to play the piano, a process where maturing is reached over a period of time and in small steps. It can take a long time, and many World Cups."

Organized youth soccer has grown enormously over the past decade or more. Soccer camps teach individual skills. But no one can teach someone how to fall in love. If the United States is anywhere in soccer, it's still in the flirtation stage of what yet could be an enduring love. How it turns out, though, will not be determined by 2010, the year the U.S. Soccer Federation set as a goal to win the World Cup.

"What we have here in America are millions of kids playing soccer," said Gordon Bradley, George Mason soccer coach and former coach of the Cosmos of the old North American Soccer League. "But the situation is that maybe a kid practices with his team twice a week and plays on the weekend. The season may be 10 weeks in the spring and 10 weeks in the fall. But that's not much time compared with kids in Brazil. Soccer goes on there 24 hours a day. You can go there and see kids playing on the back streets and on the beaches. It's the sport of their lives. They dream that someday they will play for a club team.

"A lot of times we have volunteer coaches, and it's great that parents get involved. But we do need more professional coaches at each level and we certainly need more than two practices a week. Sometimes soccer can be too organized here. When I was 10" — Bradley grew up in northeastern England — "I played against 16-year-olds. And if I wasn't good enough, I dropped back. But when they found out I could play, it was an honor to play with older kids. This is going on all the time in other countries.

"Many countries have been playing the game for centuries. We've been playing it professionally [in the United States] for a quarter of a century. I'm not going to say we'll win the World Cup in 2010. I'm not going to say we'll win it in a hundred years. But I will say we'll win it — in time."

The World Cup put on by the United States in 1994 was every bit as efficient and enjoyable as Italy in 1990 and France this year. Crowds for soccer games each year — from the Rose Bowl or the L.A. Coliseum to RFK Stadium — have been sensational. The current U.S. World Cup team, despite its dreary performance so far, is far superior to the 1990 team that Czechoslovakia overwhelmed, 5-1, in Florence. But we have not yet reached the week-to-week soccer intensity in the United States that exists in Europe and South America. Montgomery Mall and Tysons Corner have yet to shut down because D.C. United is playing the Columbus Crew.

The American way is to accomplish immediately — build it, sell it, build more of it, sell more of it. But soccer can be developed only over decades or chunks of centuries. Soccer at its best is like a French meal and the way it is served. It will be sumptuous, but it arrives at the table, and is best consumed and enjoyed, over a period of time.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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