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Was Sampsonís blast of Vogts a carefully-chosen tactic?

By Paul Oberjuerge
Gannett News Service

ST. JEAN D'ARDIERES, France (Thursday, June 11, 1998) -- Steve Sampson rarely says anything by accident.

His command of the language is exquisite, particularly in the context of the cliche-ridden, obscenity-prone American sports coach. The syntax is multisyllabic and finely nuanced, the grammar impeccable.

And diplomatic? His criticisms usually are so carefully couched that he would seem to have a future as a roving goodwill ambassador for the State Department.

So it was curious, indeed, when the United States national soccer coach blasted European soccer snobs -- and German coach Berti Vogts in particular -- during a conversation with reporters today. He said Europeans hold American soccer in low esteem, when they think of it at all.

And he singled out Vogts as a specific skeptic of American soccer prowess.

The evidence? Vogts' reportedly early departure from a U.S. match against Belgium in February. Sampson has Vogts leaving 20 minutes before end time, and "that shows a lack of respect for the United States team, I believe."

Of course, Vogts may have left early to beat traffic. Perhaps he had a stomach ache. Or maybe he had seen all he needed to see of an opponent perceived to be grossly inferior to the three-time World Cup champions.

The question here is, what is Sampson up to by picking on Vogts by name? Is he trying to fire up his team, seven members of which have played in Germany, several of whom were treated fairly shabbily there?

Doubtful, because as Sampson himself has noted, if a man needs to be goaded into playing hard in the World Cup, he probably is clinically dead.

Is he trying to get under Vogts' skin? Into his head? Perhaps.

Vogts presumably will spend at least part of Friday responding to Sampson's broadside. But it's hard to believe the hard little man who has run German soccer since 1991 can be distracted by such a minor issue.

Is Sampson trying to marshall public sympathy for his team? Lumping all Europeans into the they don't respect us'' category isn't likely to win over many Frenchmen, who will make up the bulk of the crowd at Monday's game in Paris.

Last time we looked, Europe is positively rotten with Europeans who don't seem likely to suddenly overlook our 10-29-5 record on this continent against European sides -- or repent of their decades-old dissing of Yankee futbol.

Was Sampson trying to get American fans here pumped up? Well, the few who can get tickets to Monday's match (perhaps 5,000), we have to assume they already were going to be wearing red, white and blue and singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Was Sampson just blurting out a deeply held (but previously closely guarded) opinion? In front of an ESPN camera crew and reporters from a half-dozen nations? No way. He is too smart, too calculating and too experienced for that. He doesn't pop off four days before his first World Cup game without a reason.

And here it is: Sampson is trying to get this match on the radar screen of the American sports fan. Let's face it, soccer is still a foreign game to most Americans. Its TV ratings are low, and it faces stiff sports-viewer competition.

How do you grab a headline? Get a SportsCenter sound bite back home? Tell the American public, citizens of the world's last superpower, that a bunch of European twerps don't respect its team.

That'll fire 'em up in Peoria, Poughkeepsie and Plano. "Hey, did you see those pointy-headed foreigners are making fun of our team? After all we've done for them!"

Sampson senses his team, his sport, isn't getting the stateside attention it deserves. How do you fix that? In American sports, you talk trash.

He hasn't quite gotten it down yet, but Thursday he made a start. Another few blasts, and this thing with Germany is gonna be personal. Really.

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