By Francesca Di Meglio
The World Cup soccer tournament, the most-watched sporting event on the planet, is held every four years and features the best players from the top 32 countries -- including, in recent years, the U.S. Although the games begin in Japan and Korea on May 31, Americans hardly seem to have noticed. That includes many of the Web's top sports sites: As I write, ESPN.com has eight front-page links to a single National Basketball Assn. playoff game, but only one measly headline about the World Cup -- and that sole mention is buried in its news-roundup section.
So what's a soccer maniac to do? Go to SoccerAge.com, which is chock full of news, stats, and diversions -- in 10 different languages, no less -- suitable for either longtime enthusiasts or fans-in-training. The site includes an archive of team and game histories going back to 1897, a video library of highlights that starts with footage from 1950, goal replays, up-to-the-minute news and game coverage, fantasy leagues, trivia, even online gambling. With the right software, you can even link to the site via a mobile phone.
Co-founders Ezra Chammah, president of the investment management company Itafin, and Mauro Pili, who founded the software company that evolved into the largest Italian ISP (Telecom Italia Net), launched SoccerAge on the heels of their success with an Italian site that quickly became a cult favorite with devoted followers of the country's top soccer league. In 1999, the duo expanded the site to provide news and entertainment for futbol fans beyond Italy.
Each of the SoccerAge's languages -- from German to Japanese -- has its own site reachable via the home page, which is in English, and recently led its coverage with a story about David Beckham (husband of Victoria "Posh" Spice), whose has suffered an injury that could dash England's already slim hopes. The extensive coverage makes for a sharp contrast with the early, U.S.-focused coverage at ESPN, not least because of the wealth of information about teams that actually have a chance to win the Cup. CNNSI, capitalizing on a partnership with World Soccer magazine, is also providing more extensive coverage.
Regardless of the language you choose, the SoccerAge home pages are updated frequently, so breaking news about everything from player transfers to the day's scores gets top billing. What you read on the Italian pages is not exclusive: You may see the same story on the Portuguese site, Futebolero, or the English edition of SoccerAge.
That's because there are few national boundaries in the soccer world, where French, German, Croatian, South American, and, most recently, Asian players are recruited by foreign teams -- except in international competitions like the World Cup. The only difference, apart from language, is the order in which the stories are displayed. What's big news in England may be of only minor interest to fans in Brazil.
SoccerAge takes its job as link between fan and team very seriously. Part of its appeal is observing (and indulging in) the fanaticism that comes when team and country are one. Nothing shows off SoccerAge's ability to wax philosophical on rivalries and teams than the site's World Cup preview. The editorial writers don't hesitate to point out the countries they believe belong in the ranks of World Cup finalists -- and which do not.
This is some of what you'll learn from the 2002 coverage: Brazil is not the powerhouse it once was, Italy and Argentina are back on top, and the U.S. is barely visible. Even though SoccerAge is headquartered in the U.S. and FIFA, soccer's international governing body, ranks the U.S. team 13th, the site's contributors don't give our guys much of a chance. The U.S. came in dead last in the '98 World Cup, so Uncle Sam's boys don't command much attention.
Despite SoccerAge's second-page news coverage of the U.S. side, Americans will be drawn to the high-tech features. The mobile-phone service promises to relay the latest scores to fans, no matter where they are. (Because the Cup had yet to begin when I wrote this review, I couldn't test this feature).
Another bonus for fans-on-the-go who might not have access to a television: real-time audio feeds of game broadcasts. There are also video highlights for those of us in the U.S. who will be working or sleeping when games are in progress on the other side of the world. Soccer junkies, who are as interested in the tactical play as they are in the games' results, will appreciate the replays that provide video diagrams of goals.
OFF THE CROSSBAR.
Even SoccerAge misses the net once in a while. Sure, the features are impressive, the archive extensive, and the coverage detailed. But the videos are sometimes blurry and can take a few minutes to download, and you never get a response from the generic help/information desk (email@example.com). So far, I've been waiting almost two weeks for answers to questions about the real-time game coverage and mobile-phone service.
There's a profusion of popup advertising, almost all for casinos, which walks that fine line between the merely excessive and grounds for justifiable homicide. And my editor and I had different experiences using SoccerAge with a Netscape browser: It worked for me, but not for him. You may be better off using America Online or Microsoft Internet Explorer.
There are some other sites people can use, too, even if they want to get off the beaten track of the big U.S.-based outlets. Yahoo, for example, is making a major World Cup push in conjunction with FIFA, putting up a special site called FIFAWorldCup.com. At SoccerAge, though, devotees can get -- and give -- the news on active bulletin boards that buzz with color and passion of ardent fandom.
And, of course, SoccerAge will still be all about soccer when the World Cup is over and the newly converted fans need a fix. So pull out the red, white, and blue and practice shouting GOOOOOAAAAALLLL! The U.S. team could use the help.
Di Meglio writes on technology and Italian American life from Fort Lee, N.J.