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June 21, 2002

by Bill Hogan



Remember the 1981 World War II action film "Victory" starring Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine and Pele (the greatest soccer player of all time)?

A German commander (played by Max Von Sydow) challenges a group of Allied Prisoners of War to a soccer match against his elite 'football' team.


Michael Caine, a British officer and ex-soccer star, organizes the Allied squad and recruits Stallone (an American football player) to play in goal and Pele to do what Pele does best.

The Allies have no chance of winning the match and everybody knows it – even Caine. So the prisoners concoct an elaborate escape plan to take place at halftime of the event. They tediously arrange their mid-match departure down to the smallest detail.

At the intermission, just as the players were readying themselves for the daring escape, somebody came up with the sparkling revelation that they can beat those Nazi bastards. The rest of the team agreed, they aborted the escape and headed back on to the field.

That soccer match became the most important thing in the lives of those prisoners. More important than their freedom, more important than their personal welfare.

If you've been keeping up with the World Cup action, that scenario may sound eerily familiar. The United States aside, the world is fanatical about soccer – excuse me - football. I'm not talking face-paint and big foam finger fanatical, I mean life and death fanatical.

Two people died in Moscow after a riot broke out during Russia's 1-0 loss to Japan.

A South Korean man, covered with paint thinner, lit himself on fire. He wanted to die and become his team's spiritual twelfth man. (Makes setting a stadium seat ablaze seem so insignificant, doesn't it?)

At the moment South Korea scored in its match with Italy, a spectator (in his twenties) dropped dead of a heart attack. And that goal only tied the match! In an unrelated incident, a man in Calcutta – mesmerized by the action in the USA-Mexico game – slipped off a platform and was struck by an oncoming train.

A guy in Bangkok killed his wife over control of the television remote. She wanted to watch a Soap Opera – during the World Cup!

The cumulative absurdity of these events would be amusing if they weren't so individually tragic.

When the World Cup was last played on U.S. soil in 1994, the American team beat a heavily favored Columbia squad 2-1 thanks in large part to Columbian defender Andres Escobar kicking the ball into his own goal.

American sports history is filled with 'goats'. Men whose on-field flops were both legendary and villainous (depending on what team you root for).

Bill Buckner is a hated man in Boston for letting a routine ground ball roll between his legs causing the Sox to lose the World Series.

Scott Norwood's last second, game winning field goal attempt in Super Bowl XXV sailed six inches wide of the right upright. Norwood is still not well received in the Buffalo area.

But Buckner and Norwood are still alive.

Ten days after the U.S. victory in 1994, Andres Escobar was killed in Medellin, Columbia. Shot twelve times by a soccer fan.

No soccer match is complete without a heavy dose of hooliganism, rioting and bloodshed.

If soccer isn't as big in this country as some would like. If the world scoffs at the level of American competition. If the game remains a lesser-known niche sport. Maybe it's for good reason.

Maybe American sportsfans just don't have the stomach for making such a life and death commitment to - a game.

Every four years, when the World Cup rolls around, the death toll rises. I think it's obvious that we'd rather stick to tossing the occasional snowball or plastic beer bottle. And here in America "Kill the Umpire" is just an expression.

I will be rooting hard for our boys in the quarterfinals. Any time I get to shout U-S-A, U-S-A at a sporting event, I'm there. And if a group of undernourished Prisoners of War can beat the best that Germany has to offer (oops I gave away the ending), so can our American World Cup team.

I'll have to catch the match on tape-delay, though, because there's no way I'm getting up in the middle of the night. After all, it's just a soccer game – isn't it?


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