You don't have to watch the World Cup. No one's going to make you, and two billion people could be wrong. For your early summer amusement there will still be those gut-over-the-belt golfers at the U.S. Open, and numbers 66 through 93 on baseball's 162-game schedule, and the final few encounters between Patrick and Hakeem.
But Mr. Olajuwon himself developed his lateral quickness as a goalkeeper in Nigeria, and he won't for the world miss soccer's quadrennial showcase, which gets under way this week on these benighted shores. And if there's the slightest bit of hot blood pumping through your heart, or a corner of your cranium in which you've stashed some trace of curiosity about this planet we inhabit, you won't want to ignore the World Cup. It will unfold over one month at nine venues. Twenty-four nations will vie to win the prize that once disappeared for a week only to be recovered from a South London garden by a dog named Pickles. And if you absolutely must have some hometown hook in order to relate to this "game for commie pansies" (as New York sportswriter Dick Young once so gracefully described it), there's even a U.S. side that could actually win once or twice.
Why should you care? Because, in a sporting world shorn of real significance by so much hype and overexposure, the World Cup still matters. Even if these weren't the most technically dazzling soccer players in creation, the visceral emotions of their followers are rarely seen stateside, at least not since free agency and scoreboard dot races killed off fan spontaneity.
To the rest of the world, the appeal of soccer is very simple: At work, man engages his hands; at play, his feet. "Even an unborn baby is kicking," says Sepp Blatter, the secretary general of FIFA, soccer's international governing body and the outfit whose show the World Cup is. Soccer is Rio at carnival time: color and movement and infectious music. It's those low, mournful horn blasts that fans sound for an hour before kickoff, suggesting some fogbound port. It's the derisory whistles—the boo in Esperanto—that sound like a flock of Hitchcockian songbirds on a Tuscan morning. It's Paraguay under General Stroessner: Argue with the ref, and he'll card you for "dissent." Soccer is as senseless as religious warfare (tensions rise in Northern Ireland whenever two Scottish clubs, Catholic Glasgow Celtic and Protestant Glasgow Rangers, play each other across the Irish Sea), yet capable of stopping religious warfare (rival factions in Beirut called a cease-fire so they could watch a match during the 1990 World Cup).
Scholars even make the case that Argentina's 1978 World Cup victory in Buenos Aires shored up a repressive military government. "Enough has been written about football hooligans," says Simon Kuper, author of Football Against the Enemy. "Other fans are much more dangerous."
So, soccer isn't innocent. But in the passion it evokes, it is pure. It is a window on a nation far more revealing than some sterile pavilion at a slicked-up world's fair. Listen to Henry Kissinger on his native Germany: "Both the national team and the generals who followed the Schlieffen Plan during World War I paid meticulous attention to detail. But there is a limit to human foresight, and both suffered when, under the pressure of events, they were forced to deal with contingencies that overwhelmed their intricate planning. If they're not ahead by the 75th minute, a certain melancholy settles in, and the Germans are shadowed by the under-lying national premonition that in the end even the most dedicated effort will go unrewarded."
The Nepalese once played soccer with skulls, and the game has always done a macabre dance with the people who play and follow it. Not that soccer is a matter of life and death; as an English coach named Bill Shankly once noted, the game is something much more serious than that. A year ago, after Iraq eliminated China to reach the final round of World Cup qualifying for Asia, celebrations in Baghdad killed nine people and injured 120, more carnage than had been inflicted in the U.S. missile attack on an Iraqi intelligence compound several weeks earlier. In 1969 a World Cup qualifier between Honduras and El Salvador touched off a five-day war—the so-called Soccer War—that left 2,000 dead and 12,000 wounded. Following Cameroon's elimination from the World Cup four years ago, a Bangladeshi woman committed suicide, telling the world in her note that with the Indomitable Lions gone, she had nothing left to live for.
But the game doesn't merely occasion death born of anger and hate and madness. Sometimes it causes death born of joy. In 1950, after their team won the World Cup in Brazil's 200,000-seat Maracana Stadium, some Uruguayan fans jumped oil" the lip of the stadium to a happy doom.
Of course no comparable passion prevails among the few Americans who follow soccer. Yet 16 million people in the U.S. do play the game, more than any other sport except basketball. There are twice as many soccer teams on American college campuses as football teams. Huge numbers of young women have come to the game, thanks largely to the Title IX revolution, and the U.S. is the women's World Cup champion, having won the inaugural tournament in 1991. Still, there are jokes: that it's the sport of the future—and always will be; that of course millions play it, because that way they don't have to watch it.
"A soccer game without goals is like an afternoon without sunshine," said Alfredo di Stefano, the Argentine great, and by that standard the World Cup in Italy four years ago was a cloudy disappointment and a gift to the sport's critics. The tournament averaged 2.2 goals per game, an alltime low. FIFA has jimmied the rules a bit for USA '94, rewarding teams with three points rather than two for a win in the first stage, a change that should encourage offensive play and increase the game's chances of penetrating the hard heads of Americans.