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An Oral History, a Visual Memory, of the U.S. and Italia 1990

June 10th, 2015 · No Comments · Fifa, Football, France, Journalism, Rome, soccer, Travel, World Cup

A colleague let me know about this piece in The Guardian, the English newspaper: An oral history of USA at Italia ’90: the World Cup that changed US soccer.

This felt very personal, from the first few paragraphs.

I know/knew those guys. I was at Port of Spain, Trinidad, for the Shot Heard Round the World. As I was in Italy for the 1990 World Cup. I stayed in Florence and drove my rented Fiat to the coast — and the prison-like U.S. camp at Tirrenia — day after day, with my colleague Richard in the passenger seat. I saw the 5-1 blitz by Czechoslovakia in Florence’s old Fascist era stadium and the 1-0 game versus Italy in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome and the 2-1 loss to Austria back in Florence.

I was there for all of that, and I didn’t expect it would resound so powerfully, all these years later.

It is a fine piece of journalism and appears on the 25th anniversary of the first U.S. game in the 1990 World Cup, June 10.

The author tracked down seven players from the 1989-90 period as well as coach Bob Gansler and his assistant and the media officer for U.S. Soccer, back then, and he arranged their comments so that it reads as a chronological narrative, from the decisive qualifying match at Port of Spain right through the three U.S. matches in Italy.

If you want to know how things felt and how we saw them, please read it.

Some notes of my own, below, if you are interested.

–The 1-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago, Paul Caliguiri scoring in the 30th minute. “The Shot Heard …” It was so vivid it seems everyone there remembers much of it. I recall the Trinidadian crowd “welcoming” the plane carrying the U.S. team (and I was on the same flight at the team, from Miami, on the Friday before the Sunday game) while chanting “Search and Destroy” — which was a sort of song or chant associated with that Trinidad team. As several people note, it was an intimidating trip, especially at the airport, with klieg lights and people in red everywhere.

–The team (and I and the handful of other reporters there, in the last days of U.S. soccer pre-history) stayed at the Upside Down Hilton. It was a Hilton, and it was known for being upside down because it was built into the side of a hill, and you checked in at the lobby at the top of the hill, and then took elevators down to your room.

–John Polis, the media officer, mentions the view of the stadium from the U.S. embassy, and everyone who was there (journalists and some U.S. fans/VIPs), I imagine, remembers it as he describes it — on a ledge on the edge of the city, with a wonderful lawn where we had brunch and a vantage point above the stadium, which was towards the port and was already filled with a mass of people all wearing red.

–Yes, we could feel the tension in the crowd after Caligiuri’s goal — which just about none of us actually saw, at the time, because most of us were jotting down notes, and we had no TV in the primitive press box, let alone replays to watch, and we needed Caligiuri’s description of the goal, afterward, in the tiny, soggy, champagne-drenched U.S. locker room, to have a sense of where he took the shot and how it went home.

–In passing, it is mentioned the U.S. could have secured passage to the World Cup two weeks before, when the Yanks were held to a depressing 0-0 draw at St. Louis Soccer Park. I saw that one, too. The story, back then, was that the Salvadorans who managed the draw had so little money they were all jammed into a few rooms at a nearby motel. This draw is what made the Trinidad game so fraught: All Trinidad needed was a tie.

–Polis suggests the U.S. media didn’t think the American team would win. I don’t think that is the case at all. This was still at the stage in U.S. soccer (referred to by Bob Gansler) when most of us just assumed the U.S. ought to be able to beat a little island nation like Trinidad. Thinking back, I’m sure all of us were prepared to write the “another failure to qualify” piece, but I remember being positive about it. “Of course they would win, somehow.” It took another 10 years around Concacaf for me to realize how difficult it is to win on the road, even in the tiny countries of Central America and the Caribbean.

–For me, this spectrum of memories begins with the El Salvador game on November 5, 1989, and includes several friendlies in 1990. The two-match trip in March to Budapest, Hungary (a 2-0 Hungary win), and then at East Germany (yes, it was still in business, but about to be absorbed by West Germany), in East Berlin, which went 3-0 for the Ossies. (I did an opinion piece on religion in East Germany, while I was there.) As well as the friendly versus Switzerland in Saint Gallen, Switzerland, just ahead of the World Cup. I think that one was 2-0 to the Swiss, and I remember how aggressive Eric Wynalda was in that game (he would be red-carded in the Czechoslovakia game at Florence), as well as the nonstop, post-match trip, in the dark, through Switzerland and down into Italy, and on to Firenze on one tank of gas, being astonished that I could not buy gas at night on a major road in 1990, and reaching Florence on fumes, and getting directions from a drunk guy on the street to my hotel, the Mediterranio, which faced onto the Arno River. “Due semifora sinestre, tre semifora destre!” which even I could figure out.

–The U.S. players suggest they were not happy with where they were staying, and it did have a locked-down feel to it. Thus, the notion that security around the U.S. team must necessarily be tighter already seemed semi-natural, in 1990. American journalists known to the team were allowed to watch training in Tirrenia, and the players were generally available after training, and I felt like I knew (well, I did) most of the key players. They were not really stars, and they grasped it, and they were not surrounded by mobs of media. It was a dozen or two guys (I don’t remember a woman being part of the media crew) talking to a couple of dozen guys. And I remember Tab Ramos, innately gloomy, constantly trying to reduce expectations. “We’re a bunch of college kids and these guys are professionals …”

–I liked Gansler, a lot. He was born in Hungary to ethnic German parents, and he had an accent, and he seemed a bit mysterious, this Central European in charge of the Jersey guys (Ramos, John Harkes, Tony Meola) as well as the Left Coast guys (Caligiuri and Wynalda and Chris Sullivan and Marcelo Balboa). He sounded like an immigrant but he felt like Gary Cooper — angular face, a man of few words, and worth listening to when he spoke. I once noted to him that he and US federation president Werner Fricker (born in Romania to German parents) shared some background. Said Gansler: “We come from the same neighborhood.”

–The day before the U.S. match with the Czechoslovaks, several of us took the train down to Rome to see the first game of the tournament, between hosts Italy and Austria. Won by Italy on a goal by breakout star Toto Schillaci. By the time it was over, it was too late to take a train back, but I was able to catch a ride with a Yank who had made the drive, and it was almost like a college road trip, the four of us in some little Fiat, driving north, back to Florence, in the warm night with the windows rolled down. I bought a fat sandwich — a sandwich made with fat — from a street vendor near the Olympic Stadium before we got going. I didn’t know anyone made (or ate) such things, but it was mostly pork fat on a bun. Also, in Italy, in 1990, there was no such thing as roadside restaurants open all night; you were well-advised to bring your own food and water.

–The U.S.-Italy game was a big deal, yes, and the players who remember the pre-game discussion, quite serious, of it ending 10-zip or thereabouts … yes, that happened. Italy was really good, and expected to win the final, at home (they finished third), and a 1-0 result against them was a moral victory for the Yanks, as the U.S. guys note in The Guardian. And I certainly remember Gansler saying, afterward, something like “if Zenga’s butt was a little smaller, Vermes scores”.

–The attention on the U.S. team was pretty intense because the U.S. had been awarded the right to stage the 1994 World Cup, and in Europe there was contempt at the idea of America staging the tournament without having played in a modern World Cup, as well asn discussion that it ought to be taken away and given to a real soccer country, and the U.S. guys made sure that didn’t happen, by winning in Trinidad and going to Italy.

–I was unaware of the money issues mentioned in the story. U.S. Soccer didn’t have any money — why would it, in 1990? And offering the players some low-ball amount of money in a take-it-or-leave-it situation, I certainly believe that. Money would be an issue in the future, too.

–I would have loved for Wynalda, especially, to have been quoted in the story because he was (and is) a guy with strong opinions, some of them kinda outta left field. I like him; always have.

Looking back, I guess for me the 1990 World Cup, which I saw from start to dreary finish, was a sort of pre-mid-life on-the-road adventure, with exotic people and situations and food, taking trains up and down the length of Italy, my pockets stuffed with lira (I remember them being 1,300 to the dollar), staying there a full month, absorbing at first-hand the excitement and passion of the event … and becoming a fairly serious international football fan.

I also covered the 1994 and 1998 World Cups from beginning to end (thank you Jerry Landon and Gannett News Service), and the 2002 World Cup through the first round, and those were great, especially France.

But I realize anew, reading the Guardian’s oral history, that I consider the 1990 World Cup, somehow, my own, when it comes to the U.S. team’s participation in it. I think nearly everyone who was around that U.S. team, in any capacity, might feel the same way.




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