June 10, 1998
The month-long World Cup of soccer began in France. Phil Ponce discusses the world's most popular game with soccer commentator, Jessi Losada, and former captain of the U.S. soccer team, Rick Davis.
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Official site of the World Cup.
PHIL PONCE: It was the kick-off to the most important event in the world's most popular game . Brazil beat Scotland two to one in Paris in the opening match of the 16th World Cup championship.
Over the next five weeks a cumulative global audience of more than 37 billion people is expected to watch 32 national teams play 64 games of soccer.
Exuberant fans of defending champion Brazil were among the first to arrive in Paris earlier this week. And, with the sound of bagpipes and the swinging of kilts, the first battalion of Scotland's so-called Tartan Army marched into Paris to show its support.
Last night, a kickoff parade along the Champs Elysses included four 60 foot inflatable giants, representing the world's different cultures.
For fans, getting to the celebration has been difficult. Air France pilots staged a nine-day strike ... flights were canceled; Air France terminals were empty. Much to the relief of French officials, the strike ended today when the pilots agreed to salary cuts in exchange for Air France stock.
The first competition for the cup was held in 1930. Since then, it's been held every four years except during World War II. Countries compete for the honor of being the host. Teams from 170 countries played in two years of preliminary games to be in this year's field of 32 finalists.
In 1990, the U.S. qualified for the first time in forty years, but the team finished second to last in the tournament. Four years later, the United States hosted the games for the first time. The American team finished in 14th place, while Brazil claimed its fourth title. This year--qualifying for the World Cup for the third straight time-the American team is ranked 11th in the world going into the tournament-an all time high. And, the U.S. Soccer Federation has a plan called Project 2010 to have the U.S. "positioned" to win the World Cup in twelve years.
But for now, defending champion, Brazil--with its superstar Ronaldo-enters as the tournament favorite. Other perennial powers such as Argentina, Germany, and Italy are also strong contenders. Fans in the United States alone will be able to watch more than 230 hours of live coverage.
PHIL PONCE: We're joined now by Rick Davis, former captain of several U.S. national teams and a former professional soccer player; and Jessi Losada, sports anchor for Univision, the largest Spanish language television network in the United States. He's now providing commentary on his fifth World Cup. Gentlemen, welcome. Mr. Davis, for those of us who don't follow soccer on a regular basis, give us an idea of just how big the World Cup is around the world.
RICK DAVIS, Former Captain, U.S. Soccer Team: I think probably the best way for people here in this country to understand it would be to say if we took the Superbowl, the NBA championship, the NHL Stanley Cup, the World Series, rolled all of those up into a little ball and tossed in a little bit of the Olympics games with it, that would be the significance of how the rest of the world perceives the World Cup.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Losada, is that how you would characterize it?
JESSI LOSADA, Soccer Commentator, Univision: Oh, most definitely. The World Cup is "the" largest sporting event in the entire world. The viewership is not in the millions, it's in the billions. And I don't think there's any country in the world that's not watching the World Cup starting today. It's in every language you can possibly imagine, and it's been in the hearts of soccer fans all over the world for the past few years during all the qualifying. It's more than just a sport for the rest of the world. It's more like a passion.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Losada, give us some inkling as to why people are so passionate about it.
JESSI LOSADA: Well, there's a lot of tradition involved. And, you know, it goes far beyond just being a sport on a local level. Once you get to the World Cup it's a matter of national pride. And these national teams basically represent their entire country. And it's a matter of getting out there, you know, doing the best they possibly can. Sometimes, you know, you will have a very small country, like today we saw a great game between Brazil and Scotland. You know, Brazil is this huge country with a tremendous history in soccer and the Scottish were there, and they gave a great game. They did their best. It's a matter of national pride for these teams, and there's a lot of pressure involved here too.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Davis, do you agree that a lot of this has to do with patriotism or nationalism even?
RICK DAVIS: I think it probably even goes beyond that. I think that in my experiences in traveling to some of the places that I've been along with the U.S. national team and playing other countries, it's more than just a passion, it's more than any pastime that I've ever known. I almost look at it more as it being a religion in that people take real offense if their national team is criticized, or if they aren't playing well.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Davis, how much interest would you-do you think there is in the World Cup in the United States?
RICK DAVIS: I think it's growing interest. I think if you look back at 1990, when the United States team participated for the first time in quite a few years, people were really kind of ambivalent to it. They didn't really understand it, didn't really want to watch it because they didn't understand it. And so from there '94 came along, we actually staged the World Cup here in the United States, and I think that opened a lot of people's eyes to not only the sport but how significant the sport is around the world. You bring it up to date this year, this time around, in '98, and I think that there is some genuine interest not at the level of say football or baseball, but certainly I think it's growing.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Losado, in some communities is there the kind of fever pitch that we see in other countries?
JESSI LOSADA: I think so, especially among Hispanics here in the United States. You get that kind of passion, that kind of World Cup fever. We've seen it here in Miami. We've seen it in Los Angeles, New York, throughout the country where you have a large Hispanic community, where you've got people cheering for their country. Of course, there's a very large population here from Mexico and the United States and the Mexican team as well, getting a tremendous amount of support throughout the country. And we've seen that type of interest throughout our broadcasts on Univision, which have a tremendous rating.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Losada, how do you assess the prospects for the U.S. team?
JESSI LOSADA: Well, I think the U.S. team, if we're talking about this World Cup, I think they are going to have a pretty tough time. They're in a very difficult group. They made a lot of progress, definitely. I think Coach Sampson has done a great job with the talent that he has. I think it's a team that's in transition. They've got a lot of veteran players. They've got some young, upcoming players. It's going to take a while for soccer to really take root in the United States and for the United States' soccer team to become a world power. Undoubtedly, the best athletes in this country are not playing soccer. You know, Michael Jordan is in the NBA; he's not playing soccer. I think in the future you're going to see better athletes in soccer, as there's more money and as the sport develops. The MLS has a tremendous future, Major League Soccer, here in the United States. There it's going to be the cradle for the future of soccer in the United States. We're going to see a lot of great athletes participating. I don't know if 2010 might be the year that we'll win a World Cup here in the United States, but I think it's going to come pretty soon.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Davis, how do you assess the chances for the U.S. team?
RICK DAVIS: I think the practical side of me wants to say it's going to be real tough. I think Mr. Losada is accurate in that we're in a very difficult group with Germany, Yugoslavia, I think two outstanding countries, and we have our work cut out for us. But if I take off my jacket and shirt, I've got this big red, white, and blue flag, patriot as can be, and I believe in red, white, and blue, and I think that the American athlete-never underestimate what he's capable of doing. I don't want to say that we're going to win it, but I think that we're going to surprise some people and I think that, you know, with the growth of the sport, with the new league, the MLS, coming along, I think the game has a bright future ahead of it.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Davis, what is it that makes soccer appeal or so popular in countries that are so diverse, countries in Africa, countries in Europe, countries in Latin America? What is the appeal?
RICK DAVIS: For me it's a couple of things: No. 1 is that it's just a wonderful game to play. As a kid growing up in this country I had all of the different sports available to me to play, and for no reason other than just the enjoyment that I derive from soccer was soccer my favorite. And so I think that it has a natural appeal in that way. Secondly, I think it's very non-discriminatory. It's one of the few sports that I know of that you can be male, female, you can be big, you can be small, you don't have to be fast, you don't have to be exceptionally strong or whatever, and in that regard, I think, again, it has just real natural appeal to it.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Losada, how do you respond to the criticism that some people have of soccer that it's low-scoring, that it's boring? How do you respond to that?
JESSI LOSADA: Well, I think anybody who says that soccer is boring doesn't really understand the sport. It's a very complicated sport in the sense that there's a lot of strategy involved. I guess, you know, you could say the same thing about baseball. If you really didn't understand what baseball is all about, and you watch these guys sitting around there in the dugout, you'd say, well, that's a terribly boring game. But soccer, I think it's non-stop action if you know, if you understand, more or less, the concept of the sport. You find that it's a beautiful thing, and it's a very simple sport, very basic, so it requires tremendous mental skills, I think a lot of mental discipline. To me, it's a tremendous sport. I love it.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Losada, aside from the obvious fact of scoring, what is it that people should look for, if they're new soccer viewers? What kinds of things on the field should people look out for?
JESSI LOSADA: Well, I think, you know, defensively there's a lot of interesting things that are being done by the teams. There has been more scoring in the last couple of World Cups. You've seen a little bit more effort to have offense. They've changed the rules a little bit. You know, this year there's 3 points for winners, only 1 point for a tie. They're trying to stimulate the goals, and we saw it today, in the first two games of the World Cup there was a lot of scoring, a lot of going after the victory, and I think that's going to be a important part for the future of soccer. But I think strategically, when you see a battle developing in mid-field, when you see those great saves by a goal keeper--let's keep in mind this sport is played only with your feet; you can't use your hands-so it's an extremely difficult sport. It's very difficult to put one of those pinpoint kicks right into the corner of the net. That's something-a rare thing, and it's a thing of beauty. That's why when there's a goal-I'm sure you heard our announcer, Andres Cantor in Univision, that scream, that goal, because it's a celebration, and, you know, if you have six or seven, eight goals in a game, it wouldn't have that same flavor that, you know, two or three goals a game has. The goal is a very important thing. And it's very difficult to be able to make it.
PHIL PONCE: Rick Davis, what team should viewers be looking at particularly carefully in this World Cup?
RICK DAVIS: Well, for me I think that-I don't believe it's going to be a good World Cup for Brazil, despite the fact that they won their first game already. I think Germany-despite the fact that they have such a proud heritage in the sport-I don't look for them to be that strong, because too many of their players that have been playing within the club system within Germany have had sub par years. For me I like Italy. I think Italy has the strongest club program around the world, and I think that they're going to do well. Longer shots-I think that Yugoslavia is a team that I think has the capability of surprising the world. Argentina, Spain are all good teams, and of course, you've got the African nation-who knows what to expect from there.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Losado, in the very short time that we have left, tell us who Ronaldo is and why these comparisons to Michael Jordan?
JESSI LOSADA: Well, Ronaldo, I guess you should compare him more to something like-somebody like Kobe Bryant of the Lakers. He's only 21 years old. He's a big major star in Europe, but he still hasn't made it in the World Cup. This is his chance to shine. A lot of people are saying that he's the next Pele from Brazil, but he's still got to prove it. He was with a team in 1994 here in the United States but he never played because he was extremely young. Now it's his time. He's mature; he's a great player. In Europe he's an idol; people love him. In his country, well you can imagine, he's a national hero. So this is his moment to shine. He's going to have to prove it in this World Cup. In Europe, like I said, he's already established, but in the world community he still hasn't had this showcase of the World Cup to prove that he's the best player in the world. We'll have to see.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Losado, Mr. Davis, thank you both very much.