"World Cup is Pomp and Consequence"

by Bruce Jenkins

Wednesday, July 7, 1998

THE GREAT Bobby Charlton walked into the World Cup press center yesterday, and for anyone with a sense of history, time stood still.

He is a balding British man of ordinary height -- distinguished in the manner of a violinist or statesman, but not particularly intimidating. Yet this is the man they still applaud in Rio de Janeiro, the man who led England to the 1966 World Cup title over Brazil, West Germany and everyone else with his powerful strikes and instinctive command. It's a face you don't forget, and to wayward soccer admirers like me, that's the essence of the World Cup.

Is there no passion whatsoever in America? You're led to believe that during the World Cup. You're liable to ignore the long-suffering Cubs fan, the festival at Dodger Stadium after Kirk Gibson's home run, the Bill Buckner agony in a thousand New England taverns. Americans have passion. When it comes to college basketball or the high school kid who fumbled away the state championship -- then spent the rest of his life pumping gas in that same town -- we have the theater of sport in its purest form.

It's just that we need a little story line. The World Cup delivers now, with a single glimpse in triumph or sorrow. The story comes rippling through the airwaves and straight into your heart.

Dismiss the tedium of Major League Soccer if you like; there simply isn't enough at stake. The World Cup is bigger than a mystifying set of rules, a lack of scoring or the curious notion of being unable to use your hands. It's a quick fast- forward to life and death. It means that much to everyone involved, and that's all you need to know.

So many of the international stars are great natural actors. Not the pathetic dive artists trying to cheat their way into a penalty, but the masters of gesture. Elegant midfielder Zinedine Zidane was first up for France in the gut- wrenching penalty shootout against Italy, and when he drove it home, he turned to the crowd with a fine Gallic shrug as if to say, ``But of course I score.'' Any more emotion would have been pure inconvenience.


Roberto Baggio, the aging Italian great, was up next. That alone was perfection. Baggio sent one high above the post in the '94 World Cup final in Pasadena, and presto -- Brazil won the title. But now he would make it right immediately, almost before anyone noticed he was there. Baggio hammered it through and put a finger of warning to his lips: ``Crowd be hushed. Wait and see.''

Holland's Patrick Kluivert has the strong, powerful face of a young Mays or Clemente. When he scored against Argentina, he raced toward a group of field-level photographers and smiled brilliantly, to make sure they got their man. Denmark's Brian Laudrup scored a huge goal against Brazil, and like Desmond Howard in his Heisman stance, Laudrup went the way of innovation. He slid artfully along the grass and came to a stop in a cool, relaxed, Pierce Brosnan pose. Celebrating is frowned upon in the States, often rightfully so. Here it is vital to the scene, truly identifying the characters we'd like to know better.

That's what separates the World Cup from American sports: Zidane isn't going anywhere. Four years from now, he'll still be French. Michael Owen isn't going to turn up on the Bulgarian team in 2002. The U.S. has athletes playing for the Red Sox and the Yankees, home-run legends switching teams in midseason and, above all, money being the deciding factor. To be fair, the big-time international soccer leagues buy and sell players like trading cards, but there's always a higher plane. At the World Cup, salaries are irrelevant. So are past reputations. It all begins and ends right here.

Nationalist arguments rage unchecked during World Cup time, particularly in Europe. Over here, there's nothing like sizing up teams as the essence of their countries. The Germans: cold and calculating, like machines. The French: stylish and beautiful but questioning the importance of it all. The Nigerians: raw, brilliant, inexperienced, disorganized. The Iranians: in a downright religious fervor over political implications. Italy: rife with politics and controversy, many people shouting over each other at the dinner table. Croatia: the new nation brimming with fresh exuberance. Brazil: pure artistic genius, to the rhythm of the samba. Argentina: cynical and petulant in the large Brazilian shadow.


Much of it is ridiculous, of course, collapsing under the weight of scrutiny. But this, too, is the essence of World Cup: the passionate, nonstop conversation over style. It's one thing to be Buckner or Mitch Williams or the Buffalo Bills. In the World Cup, entire countries go to waste. After England's horrible loss to Argentina, a British newspaper asked, ``Is Beckham What's Wrong With This Country?'' When you think about it, David Beckham is rich, handsome, talented and engaged to a celebrity. But he got the red card. England went down. In the wake of rationalization, the Brits were not beaten fair and square. They were robbed. Terrible, terrible luck.

As you follow the game with increasing interest, small revelations occur. The scoring, while scarce, is simply orgasmic at World Cup time. The final stages are played at customary pace: no endless Tony La Russa pitching changes, no sequence of three timeouts (``Whoa, we weren't ready for that!'') with the final shot of an NBA game at hand. The penalty shootout is cruel but also a penetrating vision of humanity. Every shot is Doug Collins at the Munich Olympics. Make those free throws or perish.

The play so often breaks down, but on the forays of Owen, Hadji or Ronaldo through a half-dozen defenders, there's a sense of Chuck Foreman or Walter Payton with the ball, so inspired as to defy interference. Great goals are hooked around impossible angles, like Beckham's against Colombia, or faded with the outside of the foot. Strikers like Batitusta unleash screaming, 80-mph knuckleballs, leaving goalkeepers groping for a punch. And the uniforms -- best in all the world. Shiny, distinctive, unchanging. If you pulled a Denver Broncos on the deep-blue Azzuri, there would be rioting in the streets of Rome.


If there's a lasting image of the quarterfinals, it is Ortega, the broken star of Argentina leaving the field after his inexcusable head- butt of the Dutch goalkeeper. Suddenly the teams were even, the Netherlands having had a man sent off earlier, and within minutes Dennis Bergkamp scored his unforgettable three-touch goal. In some quarters, Ortega's act was irrelevant. Bergkamp would have scored anyway. But in the deeper conversations, Ortega was crucified. He had committed the worst of World Cup sins. He had altered the course of fate.