A Great Head for the Game

updated 06/27/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/27/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

VINCENT MEOLA, PROPRIETOR OF VINCENT's Barber Shop in East Rutherford, N.J., is giving his friend, soccer analyst Seamus Malin, a trim before providing another kind of cut free of charge. "Seamus," says Meola, whose son Tony is goalie of the United States national soccer team, "it takes a long time to cut hair like yours. You know why?"

"No," replies the bald Malin. "Because," says Meola, "it takes a long time to find it."

Perhaps. But from now until the World Cup championship match on July 17, nothing else about Malin will be scarce. As color commentator for some of ESPN's 41 and ABC's 11 World Cup telecasts, Malin will have the considerable task of explaining the planet's most popular game to soccer-challenged Americans. "The World Cup is special because it's one sport that unifies the world," Malin says. "The Olympics is a pageant that brings people together, but at the World Cup every fan you meet has a common bond of interest, despite national enmities. It's been my mission to deliver this sport to the American people, and I'd love nothing more than for a large percentage of Americans to embrace the game."

Malin, 53, has been embracing "football," as the rest of the world calls it, since his childhood in rural Ireland. Immigrating to Boston with his parents in 1958, Malin became an all-Ivy League forward on the Harvard varsity and later, after graduating in 1962 with a concentration in English literature, an assistant coach. Moonlighting from an administrative career at Harvard, he has covered all but one World Cup beginning in 1974, and in the late '70s rode the giddy crest of America's first pro soccer experiment as the TV voice of the NASL champion New York Cosmos. At the Seoul and Barcelona Olympics, it was again Malin's insightful and candid delivery that brought soccer home to Americans. Says Roger Twibell, who'll join Malin as play-by-play man in the ABC booth this summer: "Seamus has got a very dry sense of humor, a great wit and a profound knowledge of the game. If I asked him about a midfielder from Cameroon, he could probably tell me the color of the player's lucky socks."

For all his experience and easygoing erudition, Malin knows he's got a hard sell. "There are 15 million players in this country, so the game is here—especially in the suburbs, which are hugely responsible for keeping this game alive here," he says. "But it's hard for soccer to make it without a pro league. And a pro league will never succeed until there's a constant ladder to it. Pro players cannot come out of this culture unless the kids at the formative ages see examples of what's possible for them. Tony Meola, for instance, sat in Giants Stadium as a kid idolizing Cosmos goalkeeper Hubert Birkenmeier, and that's what got him going on soccer."

It's not just a lack of heroes to emulate, but the nature of the game that holds soccer back in the U.S., Malin says. "We warm to sports that are episodic: the big moment, the 3-2 pitch or third-and-10 with seconds to go. Kids here are brought up on that," he explains. "Soccer is two 45-minute halves of continuous flow. As for the low scores, I don't think it's the lack of scoring so much as the lack of scoring chances. Most people can gel into the thrill of a near miss."

When Malin isn't explaining corner kicks and the difference between yellow cards and red cards (waved by officials to signal a warning and an ejection, respectively) he returns to Harvard. He has been dean of freshmen, director of financial aid, assistant dean of admissions and, since 1987, director of the International Office, which helps more than 2,000 foreign students a year find housing, driver's licenses and visas, among other things. "My life is a mixture of the sports world and the university world, where there's a heavy degree of ego, as there is in television," says Malin, who lives in Boston with his second wife, Jan Gough, a writer whose ex-husband, Iowa congressman Fred Grandy, once starred as Gopher on The Love Boat. (Malin has three children from his previous marriage and two stepchildren by his present one.) "But I've been a fixture at Harvard for 28 years, and it's nice to be able to step back into that world. That's my rock."

Still, soccer remains his obsession. He plays weekly for a local over-50 league and is as enthralled by the game now as he was in 1958, when he saw his first World Cup on television. "Into my living room came the World Cup from Sweden, which was Pelé's first step onto the world soccer stage," Malin recalls. "I was just blown away. And then I was at the final in London in 1966 and the final in Munich in 1974, and I sat there saying, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if someday an American team could compete in this game?' Not even thinking the Cup itself would ever come to America. But now that this thing is here it's just like a total dream come true."

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