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The World Cup is coming!

The World Cup is coming!

The World Cup is ... here?

The world's largest sporting event-the spark that is to ignite a U.S. passion for the sport of soccer-arrived here last weekend with a mere brushfire of heraldic trumpeting on the national level, despite the best efforts of organizers and sponsors to fan the flames.

The story should be different in the nine venue cities, where World Cup banners proclaiming sponsors like Anheuser-Busch, MasterCard International and McDonald's Corp. hang from lampposts; a clever soccer-theme outdoor ad campaign from Coca-Cola Co. urges people to "Kick one back"; and nearly every Hispanic bodega, Irish pub and Italian pizzeria has posted some sort of sign showing enthusiasm for this, their Super Bowl.

But even in the nine host cities, there is a noticeable absence of World Cup fervor.

"Are we disappointed? Overall, yes," said Camille Soriano, communications director for the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C.

World Cup organizers are expecting 1.5 million people to come to the U.S. for the event, but more could have come if soccer-power England and soccer-crazy Japan had made the cut. Some cities, Dallas in particular, got a draw of lackluster teams and have been unable to sell out.

But even in cities that do boast sellouts, World Cup hype is difficult to detect.

"Overall, I don't think there is a big World Cup fervor going on in the city," said Tom Murphy, public relations manager for the Washington, D.C., Convention & Visitors Association. "A certain percentage of the population is excited about it-all the tickets to the games are sold out. But the average Joe on the street is not interested."

Added Brandon Steiner, president of Steiner Sports Marketing, New York: "You can't expect people to get caught up in the hype when they're still learning about the event and the sport through educational pull-outs in the newspaper."

Another problem could be confused expectations. Organizers have had two separate objectives-to put on the best World Cup ever and leave a legacy of soccer in this country. But experts say not only are Americans not sure as to what this means, but they have somehow concluded that one objective would cause the other.

"The World Cup will definitely be a first-class event. But there's this belief that as a result, there will be soccer euphoria ... That's not going to happen," said Gordon Kane, VP at Clarion Performance Properties, a sports marketing company in Greenwich, Conn.

A more likely scenario, experts say, is that the World Cup will gradually grow on Americans and become hot water-cooler conversation that will help give a boost to the championship game's TV ratings.

Orlando is one World Cup venue, however, where soccer fervor is palatable. The city hall has been topped with a soccer ball. First Union National Bank has sponsored an international art festival to promote the games. The American Automobile Association is publishing a map of the Citrus Bowl and surrounding area.

Local marketers in other cities are also getting in the spirit. Chicagoland Pizza Hut stores are selling soccer balls for $4.99 with any purchase. Direct mail and TV support from Jack Levy & Associates, Chicago.

In Dallas, World Cup sponsor General Motors Corp. is working closely with the local soccer association, loaning Pontiacs, sponsoring tournaments and clinics and, providing World Cup tickets for fund-raisers. Also, dealers in Detroit, Chicago and Boston have run drawings for tickets for anyone who took a test drive.

"Overall, this grass roots effort has been our biggest undertaking ever of an events sponsorship," said Stu Pierce, Pontiac's direct marketing manager.

GM's competition is tying to the soccer hype as well. The Southeast Michigan Chrysler-Plymouth Dealers thought the World Cup would be the perfect place to promote the new subcompact Neon. The organization spent about $300,000 on the package that includes the spots around the games, logo-tagged promotional spots, displays at Detroit Metro Airport and promotional items.

And the ethnic populations in each city are gearing up in different ways.

The Hellenic Museum in Chicago, for example, is hosting a special exhibit on Greek-American athletes, which was supposed to run several years from now but was moved up to coincide with the World Cup.

Written from bureau and correspondent reports.

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