by Austin Bay
Fortress Pigskin and Fortress Horsehide haven't fallen. Football
and baseball are doing quite well in North America. However, the forts'
moats aren't what they once were, especially after the U.S. soccer victory
over Mexico last Monday in World Cup competition. That's more than the
biggest win in American soccer history. It marks the end of "sport
"Do not call it soccer," Herr Saller
1975. Lt. Bay arrived in Germany and 75-year-old Franz Saller
rented me his rooftop apartment. But when I took the place, he didn't tell
me I'd get an intensive course in "world football."
"Do not call it soccer," Herr Saller said that first Saturday
evening he had me down to watch a Bayern-Munchen game on TV.
"Soccer is an indication of American detachment. The world plays football."
Saller was a gray-haired, blue-eyed chubby elf of a man, born in
1900, a year before Queen Victoria died. World War I ended before he put on
a uniform. In World War II, he served as a sergeant in an airfield
construction unit -- "a formation for old men like me," he sniffed. After
that war, he went into the construction business, building anything that
"I have seen your American football," he assured me. "Not so
much kicking. And big up here." He put his palms over his shoulders, miming
shoulder pads. "Your football they play only in America and Canada. But this
..." and he gestured toward the game on his TV screen, "this, young man, is
Saller brought out the schnapps bottle, poured two shots.
"Prosit." He kicked his back in a gulp.
Of course I got lost trying to understand the game, lost
somewhere between locating the striker, the midfielder, the attack from the
wing, watching the paint dry and slowly sipping pure German firewater.
But as the weeks progressed -- as I marched downstairs to see
the old man plopped in his soft chair by the TV -- I began to appreciate the
game. Star power helped. The mid-'70s were the glory years of the
Bayern-Munchen squad, featuring midfielder "Kaiser Franz" Beckenbauer, who
would later star for the short-lived New York Cosmos soccer team.
Bayern-Munchen was the New York Yankees, and Beckenbauer a global Mantle,
Dimaggio and Ruth. And there was Pele. "The Latins," Saller said, raising
his hands dramatically. "They are inventive. Perhaps you can come down
tomorrow. There is a match with many Brazilians."
I also had unexpected insights. At the end of one long evening,
the schnapps-slurping elf finally hit his limit. Herr Saller got tipsy, and
time tipped as well, his mind entering a merry-sad twilight zone of
nostalgia bred from an alcoholic confusion of Kaisers. I swear "Kaiser"
Beckenbauer morphed into Kaiser Wilhelm. Saller's English went kaput. I did
my best to follow his descriptions of life in Germany at the turn of the
century. ("Die Kaiserzeit. Best time in Germany. Roses in all the parks.
Milk for all children. My parents, Baden-Baden ...")
A couple of sobering weeks later, while watching another
Bayern-Munchen match, I slipped up and called the game soccer. "Ach," Saller
groused as he pushed me a schnapps glass. "You Americans are ahead of the
world in so many ways. But sometimes you are not part of the world. You
still use miles instead of kilometers. Oceans, that is the reason. America
has oceans. When you Americans reach the World Cup, smaller oceans, I
2002. TV and satellites can create a global video-neighborhood.
Personal communications services turn continents into molehills.
Communication breeds common interest and business.
Wiring the global village with information technology, however,
has been double-edged. Rape in Bosnia affects voters in Boston.
Islamo-fascist terrorists and other rejectionists smash ocean-spanning
jetliners into the World Trade Center.
I last saw Herr Saller in 1976 and, given his age, well, few of
us make 10 decades and two years. Still, I'd like to tell him this: America
is in the quarterfinals of the World Cup. Your world football
is doing well in the United States.
And for better and worse, sir, the oceans -- those moats -- are
indeed much smaller.