On Point

World Cup Soccer a Reflection of Global Affairs

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 isolationism."

"Do not call it soccer," Herr Saller insisted.

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 required concrete.

"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 world sport."

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 predict. Prosit."

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.

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