by Austin Bay
June 20, 2002
Fortress Pigskin and Fortress Horsehide haven't fallen. Footballand baseball are doing quite well in North America. However, the forts'moats aren't what they once were, especially after the U.S. soccer victoryover Mexico last Monday in World Cup competition. That's more than thebiggest win in American soccer history. It marks the end of "sportisolationism."
"Do not call it soccer," Herr Sallerinsisted.
1975. Lt. Bay arrived in Germany and 75-year-old Franz Sallerrented me his rooftop apartment. But when I took the place, he didn't tellme I'd get an intensive course in "world football."
"Do not call it soccer," Herr Saller said that first Saturdayevening 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 in1900, a year before Queen Victoria died. World War I ended before he put ona uniform. In World War II, he served as a sergeant in an airfieldconstruction unit -- "a formation for old men like me," he sniffed. Afterthat war, he went into the construction business, building anything thatrequired concrete.
"I have seen your American football," he assured me. "Not somuch kicking. And big up here." He put his palms over his shoulders, mimingshoulder 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, lostsomewhere between locating the striker, the midfielder, the attack from thewing, watching the paint dry and slowly sipping pure German firewater.
But as the weeks progressed -- as I marched downstairs to seethe old man plopped in his soft chair by the TV -- I began to appreciate thegame. Star power helped. The mid-'70s were the glory years of theBayern-Munchen squad, featuring midfielder "Kaiser Franz" Beckenbauer, whowould 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, raisinghis hands dramatically. "They are inventive. Perhaps you can come downtomorrow. 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, andtime tipped as well, his mind entering a merry-sad twilight zone ofnostalgia bred from an alcoholic confusion of Kaisers. I swear "Kaiser"Beckenbauer morphed into Kaiser Wilhelm. Saller's English went kaput. I didmy best to follow his descriptions of life in Germany at the turn of thecentury. ("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 anotherBayern-Munchen match, I slipped up and called the game soccer. "Ach," Sallergroused as he pushed me a schnapps glass. "You Americans are ahead of theworld in so many ways. But sometimes you are not part of the world. Youstill use miles instead of kilometers. Oceans, that is the reason. Americahas oceans. When you Americans reach the World Cup, smaller oceans, Ipredict. 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-spanningjetliners into the World Trade Center.
I last saw Herr Saller in 1976 and, given his age, well, few ofus make 10 decades and two years. Still, I'd like to tell him this: Americais 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 -- areindeed much smaller.