A Host Of World Cup Problems

Italy--shaped like a foot, centrally located in the soccer universe and seething I with enthusiasm for the game of long, l scoreless stretches and short pants--seemed like the perfect place to stage a World Cup competition. Yet for all the hoopla that surrounded the final match between West Germany and Argentina last Sunday in Rome, the 1990 tournament could not be considered an unqualified success. Tourism dropped an estimated 25 percent during the World Cup, as travelers resisted costly package tours and worried about the hooliganism. Even in the late rounds, many seats remained empty, the result, partly, of corporate sponsors getting more tickets than they could distribute. If the cup had been held someplace less steeped in soccer tradition, it could have been a disaster. Which is what worries some people about the next tournament. The 1994 World Cup will be played in the United States, a country that has venues separated by 3,000 miles and four time zones--not to mention a populace that tends to thinks of soccer as something you drive the kids to on Saturday morning.

Even those involved in the effort to stage the World Cup in America admit to a huge challenge. The potential for failure on a grand scale--sparsely filled stands, scant attention from the media, broadcasts on obscure cable stations--is great. "We're on a missionary enterprise," said former secretary of State Henry Kissinger (now vice chairman of the tournament's organizing committee) last week. "We've got to make this sport as popular in the United States as it deserves to be."

Soccer is popular here, but not as a spectator sport. Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser spoke for many last week when he wrote, "I have trouble with the sentence, 'They built an insurmountable 1-0 lead'." American teams also tend to fare poorly in international play. (In Italy, the United States was eliminated in the first round.) Nor has it helped that American TV networks can't figure out how to work commercials into the nonstop 45-minute halves. The TNT network got poor ratings and lost money on the '90 cup. NBC has announced that it will not bid for the '94 cup, and ABC said it would be interested in "selected matches." Only CBS where Kissinger has a seat on the board of directors- says that it will consider a full-fledged bid.

Even if a major network signs on, other obstacles remain. America has only one facility with a field wide enough for international play: Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami. But none of these problems is insurmountable, according to World Cup USA 1994, the group that convinced soccer's governing body, FIFA, to award the games to the United States. Soccer, the organizers say, was the best-attended sport of the '84 L.A. Olympics. And facilities such as Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium can be remodeled once the organizers make their venue choices next June. "Once Americans see the game as it's meant to be, they'll get excited," says Kissinger. The spokespeople like to point out that 12 million kids play soccer in the United States and that we have more collegiate soccer than football. Those same arguments were once advanced by the north American Soccer League. The now defunct .North American Soccer League.