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Analysis: Sampson may be most fortunate World Cup coach.

By Paul Oberjuerge
Gannett News Service

ST. JEAN D'ARDIERES, France (Tuesday, June 9, 1998) -- United States soccer coach Steve Sampson knows he's a lucky man. He's not a marked man.

Not every World Cup coach can say that.

Most are pilloried in the media back home for the slightest misstep by the national team. Many are dissed and dismissed with frequency. A few fear for the safety of themselves and their loved ones.

"I know the lives of Bora's wife and children have been threatened," Sampson said, referring to Bora Milutinovic, his predecessor as U.S. national coach. He made clear the threats came in one of his other national team stints. That narrows the field to Mexico, Costa Rica and (now) Nigeria.

Sampson said he and his staff were talking about the subject one night this week -- how the American public usually doesn't place all blame on a coach for a team's failings. Whether it is basketball, football, baseball or soccer. "In a lot of the world the coach is held personally responsible," he said. "But in America, the coach is still the coach, even if he fails. Bobby Knight could lose a bunch of games, but every time he walks across the Indiana campus he's still a hero. Every time he goes into Assemby Hall, they're going to cheer him."

Then there is the volatile world of international soccer. Brazil coach Mario Zagallo will be branded as a feckless failure unless he comes home a champion. France coach Aime Jacquet regularly is mocked on French television. Glenn Hoddle is under siege in England for leaving controversial midfielder Paul Gascoigne off the squad.

Iran has had three coaches this year. Milutinovic was fired by Mexico because it wasn't impressive enough in finishing first in World Cup qualifying, and current coach Manuel Lapuente is being fitted for a dunce cap.

"In Brazil, they're calling for Zagallo's head," Sampson said. "In Mexico, they called for Bora's head and got it -- twice."

So far, the situation is not the same in the United States, where moats and barbed wire between playing field and fans -- and death threats -- are still a rarity.

Sampson may well lose his job if the United States goes home after the first round, particularly if his team does not play well. But he doesn't face public humiliation, never mind violence.

Observers from soccer-mad nations would suggest the lack of passion is consistent with the U.S.'s second-rate status as a soccer power. Apparently, hair-trigger vilification of the coach proves the populace truly cares about the national team.

If that is the case, we're better off as soccer novices.

Consider Colombia, admittedly the worst-case scenario. This is the nation where defender Andres Escobar was killed within days of giving up a decisive own goal against the United States in 1994. Where a referee was killed by a mob a few years earlier, and where 20 fans died in 1994 during celebration of a 5-0 victory against Argentina.

The threat of violence continues to hang heavy over the head of Colombian coach and players alike. Said forward Faustino Asprilla: "What kind of country do we live in?"

The broader question is, what kind of soccer world do we live in?

One where guys who pick and training teams and select starting lineups -- then otherwise have remarkably little impact on a game -- can become the focal point of something close to national loathing because of a 1-0 defeat.

Soccer is growing in the United States. More people play and understand the game than ever before. Sampson said he sometimes is recognized in public, and occasionally asked why he dropped John Harkes -- for which he received mild criticism in some quarters, mainly on the Internet. But we haven't developed to the point where many otherwise-responsible media demand the coach be axed -- or else -- after a bad result.

Better that we stay in our soccer infancy. Or our naivete. Our status as a world power does not rise or fall with the national soccer team. Steve Sampson indeed is a lucky man. Even if his team doesn't win a game at France '98.

Paul Oberjuerge writes for the San Bernardino County (Calif.) Sun.