The big wheels of the Italian Soccer Federation were rambling through New Jersey a few months back, sizing up hotels where their national team could bivouac during June. One of the last places on their list was the Somerset Hills Hotel in Warren, which they subjected to the ultimate scrutiny: ordering a round of fedelini con pomodori freschi at the lobby restaurant. If the pasta was served slightly al dente and if the sauce was made from ripe tomatoes and wasn't too acidic, they figured the hotel would be a worthy Rome away from Rome. The plates arrived. Forks were raised; spoons poised; spaghetti swallowed. "Perfect," said one VIP "Now, we negotiate."
Starting on June 17 the Italians will be one of two dozen nations participating in another taste test in the U.S., this one a 31-day banquet of soccer called the World Cup. To determine the sport's champion for the next four years, teams from 24 nations will play 52 matches in nine cities, commencing in Chicago and culminating in the championship game on July 17 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. By that day this question will be answered: Having feasted on il Mondiale, the finest dish that soccer can serve, just how much of the sport can Americans stomach?
As with all matters gastronomic, it's best to know what you're eating before you dig in, and there are plenty of indications that the average Yank knows little, if anything, about the Cup. In fact, if you have digested the preceding paragraph, you have swelled the ranks of those U.S. adults who can identify the World Cup as a soccer tournament: 25%, according to a Harris poll taken in February. And by knowing that the '94 Cup will take place in this country, you add to a cognoscenti constituting 20%. A World Cup official, when confronted with these piddling percentages, will invariably say that 25% of U.S. adults represents nearly 50 million people, and that's a lot. Of course, that leaves 140 million who may be less aware of the World Cup than the Winston Cup or the Walker Cup.
Which is anomalous, since the World Cup is indisputably the most intensely anticipated and watched sports spectacle on the planet, especially by most of the 179 nations of the Fédération Internationale de Football Associations (FIFA), which governs the sport and oversees the Cup. As Dave Jensen, the Venue Executive Director (VED) in Washington, D.C., puts it, "To 178 countries it's the most important thing in the world. We happen to be the 179th." But in bringing the World Cup to its least-savored nation, FIFA acted with the knowledge that its crown jewel event is so impassioned, so impressive, so mammoth that the American press and public will have to pay it some attention.
Whether they like it is another story. Charged with cooking up interest in the sport are the organizers at the nine sites where the games will be played. Here's a sampler of what's happening around the country as the Cup draws near.
Chicago: The First City
Thanks in part to the lobbying of Mayor Richard M. Daley, Chicago secured the right to present the World Cup opening ceremonies at Soldier Field before Bolivia and Germany, the defending champion, kick off play. The mayor's "full-court press," as he calls it, was prompted by the notion of more than two billion televiewing eyeballs riveted on Chicago, and Daley doesn't worry that an outbreak of violence at the match might stain the city's image.
The pooh-bahs of World Cup USA 1994, Inc., the organizer of this year's tournament, are hardly glib when it comes to security, their biggest budget item—more than $6 million in L.A. alone—and their biggest bugaboo. Cup '94 chairman Alan Rothenberg has asked that cities not sell alcohol in and around their stadiums on game days (rankling many, including Anheuser-Busch, brewer of Budweiser, the official beer of the World Cup), and he has demanded that reporters seeking credentials sign waivers to release any police and FBI records on their personal backgrounds (rankling news organizations). This zealous caution underscores just what a tightrope the organizers are walking: They must try to avoid alarming the many Americans who associate soccer with danger, while at the same time heightening security so that they can curtail any violence that may occur. As Daley says, "They cannot have an incident."
Already, the U.S.'s vigilance for potential provocateurs has paid off. Before the World Cup draw in Las Vegas last December, 17 English hooligans were turned back from Boston's Logan Airport, and an advance man for a team of South American pickpockets was nabbed in Florida, where he was setting up for business six months before the Cup. The failure of the Iraqi team to qualify for the tournament should reduce the fear of terrorism, and the absence of the English team, notorious for its rowdy followers, should lessen the number of hooligans in attendance. "When England was eliminated [in the qualifying round], that took a huge weight off our shoulders," says Lee Flosi, the venue security manager in Chicago. "We can deal with the 10 or 15 troublemakers; it's the 500 that's hard to handle."
Crowd mayhem is far less prevalent during World Cup games than at European and South American league matches, and it should be further diminished in the U.S., where soccer passions don't run as high and to which rabid fans from abroad may find it too costly to come. Flosi, who previously supervised the FBI's organized-crime task force in Chicago, says security personnel with metal-detecting wands will pat down those entering Soldier Field, and a closed-circuit TV system can provide coverage of every seat in the stadium and every license plate in the parking lot. "They say if there's a dime on the ground," he says, "these cameras can see the date."