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The statue of Christopher Columbus, at Columbus and Lake Shore Drive, seemed to be pointing the way to Soldier Field as we walked over from the CTA stop at Roosevelt Road. There was something appropriate in that. The crowd had such a distinctly international flavor that it was almost as if we were all part of an allegorical reenactment of the entire huge process of settling the United States, manifest destiny and all that, the mass of us swarming toward that great gathering place in the New World, which in this case turned out to be a match in the World Cup soccer tournament.

As a festive spectacle, the World Cup was everything we could have wanted and more for Chicago. It brought a delightful mix of tourists into town, most of them German it appeared, and they were almost uniformly pleasant without surrendering any of their native character. For instance, on our way down to the game on the train, we got off in the Loop to switch from the Ravenswood line to the Midway, to take us down to Roosevelt, but we got into a long, involved conversation with a German tourist who insisted that the proper way to get to Soldier Field was to descend the stairs and take a bus. Lady, we're from Chicago, we insisted. We know what we're doing. But she kept shaking her head and pointing to her little World Cup tourist map, and she seemed really offended that we were taking an unorthodox route to the game.

We were fortunate enough to see the game between Germany and Spain, which on paper, as we say here in the States, was the best match of the first-round games scheduled for Chicago. Our friend Mark, a soccer buff who worked for a time at Radio Free Europe in Munich, had ordered the tickets aeons ago, with plans to invite an old-time expatriate Briton RFE comrade over. (Cup games were scheduled at nine venues across the nation, but Chicago had the opening ceremonies, and as the Germans were defending champions from 1990 they were set for the opening game and were sure to be assigned Chicago as one of their playing sites.) But the buddy couldn't make it--his travel money was invested in a Budapest fixer-upper--and so Mark meted out the tickets to his local friends, both soccer aficionados and the merely curious among us.

There were Spanish fans wearing sombreros on the way over, some wearing flags knotted around their necks. There were any number of languages spoken all around, but we wondered where all the German fans were. Turns out they were already there, as we should have guessed. The Germans dominated the signs and banners that ringed the last row of the stadium, the emblems of any number of cities and clubs, from the Stuttgarter Kickers to a certain "anti-sozialist" league to fans from Schaumburg --Germany or Illinois, they left us guessing.

Yet there was also a huge concentration of Spanish fans, just behind us, at the south end zone, er, goal net. They were all dressed in red and yellow uniforms, so that Kevin, one of our seatmates for the day, said, "They look like they're from Burger King." There were Spanish fans seated right in front of us--a man took his shirt off and had his wife rub suntan lotion on his back, and she gave his love handles a playful little tweak as she performed the task--and there was a group of German fans right in front of them, so we were able to observe both factions at close quarters. The Spaniards did not sing along with their national anthem; the Germans did. Yet once the game began, neither side was quiet for long. The Germans chanted, "Deutschland, Deutschland," punctuated with a boom-boom-boom motif on a bass drum located somewhere nearby. The Spaniards chanted "Es-pan-ya" and periodically broke into refrains of "Ole! Ole! Ole-ole-ole!" What with the few German hooligans we saw sitting down under the stands singing for beer money ("Roll Out the Barrel" was a popular favorite with them), soccer fans immediately established themselves in our mind as the singingest bunch in all of sport. Fans of the Cubs and Harry Caray don't even make the international charts.

This to us was the main charm of having the World Cup here: the chance to observe the fans from abroad, all of them with their little foibles and nuances, and all of them with this really comic idea that soccer is an important sport.

To be fair, soccer must be seen in person to be understood at all. On television the ball just seems to follow a more or less haphazard course from side to side, in the manner of a pinball. In person, however, one can see the patterns of play and the attack strategies, and more important one can also recognize the skill of the players--how adroit they are at controlling the ball and at taking it away from one another, and with what finesse they feather a pass around a defender to a teammate on the other side, right down to imparting the proper spin.

The Germany-Spain game offered an educational battle of conflicting styles. The Spaniards seemed to prefer a more traditional fast-break style of play, with the ball dribbled down the middle and then passed toward players breaking to the goal from the wings. The Germans favored long passes to players breaking down the sidelines, who were then expected to control the ball and deliver it to teammates following down the middle. That was at best, on both sides. At worst, the Spaniards, with their emphasis on one-on-one creativity, tended toward what Mark called "alley ball," while the Germans sometimes descended to what any fan of the Blackhawks would recognize as dump-and-chase soccer.

But even at best it couldn't have been much worse. It wasn't that the players weren't talented; it was that they were so talented they canceled each other out. It took an exceptional event to make anything happen. The game resembled some of the better defensive college football games we've seen, with long sequences of well-played back-and-forth interrupted by occasional brief moments of excitement.

One such moment was the first Spanish goal. The Spaniards drove down the middle and then passed out wide right to Andoni Goikoetxea, or was it Jon Goichochea, or was it Juan Antonio Goicoechea, or was it Andoni Goicoechea? Those were the various versions of the same name in the official program, the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and a Sun-Times photo caption of the following day. If he played in the U.S. for long he would almost certainly get a nickname like Go-Go. In any case his goal was a beauty, with an element of kismet. Cutting around a German defender and into the right corner, he lifted a high shot toward the goal. Or was it merely a centering pass? It went up, held its line, passed over the goalie's head, and dropped into the net, bouncing off the inside of the left goalpost--fantastic shot.

The Germans were rattled and slipped into that dump-and-chase style, and the Spaniards held a 1-0 lead at halftime. Yet the Germans were very focused in the second half, and they soon produced a goal--although it wasn't very pretty. Germany's big gun, Juergen Klinsmann (Jurgen in the program, but the Klinsmann is consistent), headed home a corner kick early in the second half. Actually it didn't look like a header so much as a facer. The pass came across, Klinsmann chopped at it with his head, knocking it straight into the ground, and the ball bounced high and over the diving Spanish goalie before trickling into the net.

There were also some exciting nongoals. Fernando Hierro (spelling consistent, but known simply as Hierro in the program) fanned on a centering pass in the 61st minute, and the ball rolled across the goal mouth and out of bounds. Some local German fans responded by singing, "One, two, three strikes you're out." But their guys weren't immune to mistakes. Klinsmann himself got the ball three minutes before time (that's end-of-the-game time, or thereabouts, as in the British publican's "Time, gentlemen," although the referee keeps track of the wasted moments during play and tacks them on at the end, so only he knows how much time is actually remaining before time). Klinsmann cut into the clear, deked the Spanish goalie, and then deflected the ball toward the corner of the net--where it rolled just wide. He kicked at the sod the way Joe DiMaggio kicked at the infield dirt after Al Gionfriddo's catch in the 1947 World Series, and that was the last exciting moment of the game.

Even so, last Monday the Cubs were playing two at Wrigley and the Sox had a night game at Comiskey--a potential triple-header of Chicago baseball--and where were we but at a Fourth of July party, plopped in front of a television, watching the United States team play Brazil. The U.S. team was completely outclassed. The Brazilians maintained a consistent two-to-one advantage in time of possession throughout the game, and generally peppered the ball all around the U.S. net. They narrowly missed on a couple of beautiful scoring chances, nailed the post on a couple of others, and basically put the ball everyplace they wanted except in the goal. The Brazilians also showed the Yanks a thing or two aside from sheer soccer ability. Leonardo (who, like most of the Brazilian team, goes by only one name, kind of like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) caught our Tab Ramos with an elbow that Bill Laimbeer would have been proud of. Leonardo was sent off the field, and the U.S. played with a man advantage--but without Ramos, who suffered a concussion--most of the rest of the way. Yet they still couldn't beat the Brazilians to the ball, nor could they get past them on the brief occasions when they had it. Finally Bebeto (yes, just Bebeto) scored a nice goal, going right and kicking left, just hooking the left post. The hosts were toast, as we say in the States.

The TV coverage did a fairly good job of conveying the game to the nation. As ever, the requisite long shots did little justice to the action, but there were frequent switches to on-field cameras, which captured brief snippets nicely. Still, the game will never be popular here. The play is continuous, and the only advertisement came from Snickers, which paid who knows how much for the right to attach its logo to the little time clock in the corner. A sport without beer ads and station breaks to run for more chips and salsa? Unthinkable.

The main question is not why soccer isn't popular here. It's how it got to be so popular everywhere else. Next to baseball, in which each player separates himself from the rest in precise order, soccer is chaos. Next to basketball, it is boring.

Yet there was one especially noteworthy detail of our afternoon at the World Cup. At halftime we lit up a cigar, and no one--that's not anyone, not in any of the seats for aisles around--even made a comment about it. The sun was shining, the day was glorious, the sport was interesting--if a mite overrated--and we were smoking a cigar outdoors, in relative peace. Here's hoping a little of that European refinement rubs off on U.S. sports fans.

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