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Almost Forgot to Mention This Hare-Brained Scheme from 1990

April 29th, 2021 · 1 Comment · Back in the Day, Football, Italy, Journalism, soccer, Sports Journalism

Been a while since I had the nerve to hold myself to a ridiculous plan to report on a sports event, to spend X-number of hours on the road — or in the air, or both.

This was back before I got old and my nerves frayed.

I have written about several of my hare-brained schemes, during my three decades in journalism, and most of those sketchy plans of mine ultimately were successful … if more than a little fraught.

In my enthusiasm during the planning stage, I often failed to take into account simple realities such as departure times, fuel stops, traffic jams, road construction, detours, parking. And, oh yeah, weather.

I was thinking about this again the other day, here in France, as we mulled future travel plans, assuming Covid-19 ever lets up.

And I remembered a hare-brained scheme from three decades back, one that I have not yet shared. Lucky you!

This one is about a soccer “friendly” played by the U.S national team, versus Switzerland, a few days before the 1990 World Cup in Italy, which I was covering for Gannett News Service.

The Yanks had spent most of a week training at a resort spa in the village of Bad Ragaz, Swizerland. I caught up to them there.

The game against the Swiss went about as we would have expected, back then, given that the U.S. team was made up mostly of amateurs and college kids.

They had won a 1-0 cliffhanger over Trinidad & Tobago in Port of Spain, back in November of 1989, to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. Looking back, it was a very big deal for soccer in the States. (Had the Yanks not won, in Trinidad, ending that World Cup drought, the U.S. may have been stripped of the 1994 World Cup, and who knows how many years that would have set back the game of soccer in the U.S. of A.)

The Yanks lost 2-1, in Saint Gallen, with Bruce Murray (remember him?) scoring the U.S. goal. I filed to the office back in Washington D.C., and that ended the easy portion of my day.

Coming up next was the hare-brained bit — a 400-mile drive south, in-the-dark, across the Alps and on into Italy, ending at Florence. God-willing.

My constant urge to cut costs — so that my corporate overseer would continue to fund my trips — led to my renting the cheapest car available — a Fiat Panda, which was about as close to walking as a person could get, in 1990. What it was was functional. Or as one reviewer put it: “Inexpensive, easily maintained, utilitarian, and robustly simple.”

My plan for the rest of the evening was to push that rattle-trap of a car through and over the Alps to Italy, and then to Florence, where I had booked a room not far from the U.S. training camp in the beach town of Tirrenia.

So, I’m off. My recollection is that the main road (two lanes in each direction), went right through Lichtenstein as it headed south. Even that far north in early June, the sun disappeared before my first hundred miles, and I was driving in the dark in a tuna can.

The Alps are a significant geographical formation, which you know if you have visited or seen “The Sound of Music”.

Not many long stretches of road in that country which do not include climbs or descents or sharp curves. You do not want to nod off up while crossing Switzerland.

I was fine for quite some time, till I had a look at my gas gauge and decided I would have to buy some fuel fairly soon, certainly before Milan.

I realize that a drive of 400 miles doesn’t sound like all that much — in daylight and on a straight road. I had neither.

So, why was I in such a hurry to get down to Florence? Because I knew the U.S. team would practice the next day, and I knew players would be available for interviews. I wanted to begin the day in Florence, and go to the west coast of the country, where coach Bob Gansler and his lads were bunking.

Back to the drive. Looking at a map, it appears that the route I took went through four major tunnels, including the San Bernardino Tunnel, which was completed in 1967 and extends for four miles as it burrows below San Bernardino Pass, 6,775 feet above.

The tunnel’s end marks the end of the German-speaking Swiss and the start of their Italian-speaking countrymen. I found the whole of it interesting because I was living in San Bernardino, California, and I had no idea there was another San Bernardino, halfway around the world.

So, back and forth on switchbacks, descending steadily to the north Italian plains, the Piedmont.

By now, I was deeply concerned about fuel. I didn’t have much left, and I had not seen a gas station since Saint Gallen — which I ignored, back then, because certainly, on a Saturday night, and with 400 miles to go, I would see a petrol stop. A dozen of them. Or at least one.

But no.

Out of Switzerland, finally.

Still no gas.

Surely …

It was dead dark out there, and I had my eyes in the rearview mirrors because Italians with big cars, in 1990, liked to pass tin cans like mine at about 100 miles per hour.

Finally, I decided good mileage in a tiny car … maybe I had a chance? Florence was maybe 30 miles to go.

I fretted and fretted as I continued south … no gas? On a major route? Impossible! But no. Quite possible. How would I explain this to my assignment editor in Washington? How much mockery would co-workers dump on me?

I fantasized how it would go … the car missing a few beats. Maybe a few revs as the last of the fuel went into the carburetor. Then a coast to a stop on the shoulder of the national route, where maybe the carabinieri would find me before dawn. No cell phones, back then. Couldn’t call for help.

Then I saw the Florence exit. I had the address for my hotel. The Mediterraneo, next to the Arno River. If I could find it in the dark. No GPS, either, back then.

I decided to ask for directions from one of the few people still out on the streets. I saw a youngish guy walking toward me and he wasn’t reeling too badly. I said, “Scusa, signore! Per favore, Hotel Mediterraneo?”

He had been drinking, yes, but he figured out what I was trying to say. Pointing down the street he said, due semaphora, destra! Tre semaphora sinistra! Capiche?”

“Semaphora” means traffic lights and due was two and tre three, and destra means right and sinistra means left.

The directions were perfect. Five minutes later I pulled up at the Mediterraneo, found the one clerk still awake and in a few minutes I was in my room. In Florence.

I was dead tired, and my nerves were shot, but in the morning I would be ready for my first full day in Italy, hosts of the 1990 World Cup. Thanks to that Fiat Panda and its plentiful mileage, and the friendly drunk guy who gave me directions.


1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Nate Ryan // Apr 30, 2021 at 5:19 AM

    Maybe the best PaulO crazy travel story yet, which is saying a lot given the standards.

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