Saturday, May 25, 2002

World Cup

Soccer fans tough it out in U.S.

        Imagine the NCAA basketball tournament without any bragging, betting pools or bars filled with fans. You and a few acquaintances are obsessed with the brackets, but nobody else seems to give a hoot.

        This is the plight of the immigrant soccer fan in Cincinnati.

        From May 31 to June 30, the biggest, most popular sporting event in the world will take place in Korea and Japan. Its 64 games will draw several million spectators. Many more people, in 200 countries, will catch the action on television. They will take time off work, gather in bars and whip themselves into a frenzy over the World Cup.

        Meanwhile, we'll be lucky if we know some sort of soccer thing is happening.

        “It's amazing,” says Ernesto Levy, a Procter & Gamble brand manager and native of Colombia. “Here, you don't feel like the World Cup is even going on.”

        No matter. Our national cluelessness hasn't stopped immigrants from debating team strategies and planning where to watch the games. Amazingly, ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 are showing them live. Then again, what else would they offer from 1:30 to 7:30 a.m.?

Redefining "fan'atic

        Typical of these soccer fans is my friend Gagik Aroutiunian, a sculptor from Armenia.

        Every Friday, he and another friend, Klaus Mladek of Germany, gather across from Spring Grove Cemetery for a pick-up game, United Nations-style.

        “The other day, I was playing with a Romanian, a Greek, and the rest were Chinese,” Gagik says.

        He also watches lots of soccer on TV. May 15, for instance, was the finals of the European Champions League. Gagik was in Baltimore suffering from a bad cold. Nevertheless, he rose at 6 a.m., drove home to Cincinnati and went straight to Uno's in Clifton, where he knew he could catch the game.

        Nobody else was there. Being sick and all, Gagik ordered hot chocolate instead of beer.

U.S. market

        This year, the United States is one of 32 countries playing in the World Cup, although you'd hardly know it.

        “I have never tried to talk to my American friends about soccer. I can talk about baseball and American football with them,” says Seiki Yukimoto, a doctoral student from Japan who is temporarily working at the Japan-America Society in Cincinnati.

        To get his soccer fix, Mr. Yukimoto reads Japanese newspapers on the Internet. Japan's head coach is a Frenchman rumored to care more about his career than Japan, Mr. Yukimoto says.

        If Americans aren't caught up in all the excitement, it's partly because the market here is already saturated with other sports, says Mr. Levy, the P&G manager. Also, today's soccer kids are still being coached by parents who didn't play themselves. In another generation, that should change and professional soccer will draw more attention, Mr. Levy says.

        In the meantime, he and about 10 P&G colleagues — from Canada, Brazil, Venezuela, Italy and the like — are making their World Cup plans. Beginning May 31, you may well find them in the office at 5 a.m., watching TV.

        Contact: (859) 578-5584 or


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