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The Making of an American Soccer Guy

July 9th, 2018 · 2 Comments · Budapest, Fifa, Football, Newspapers, Russia 2018, soccer, Sports Journalism, World Cup

I never played soccer as a child. Never saw a match. Didn’t own a soccer ball. Never knew anyone who followed the game.

The extent of my pre-adult exposure to soccer probably was occasional videotape on ABC’s Wide World of Sports; presumably World Cup highlights; lots of Pele.

By the early 1980s, I was the sports editor of a newspaper, and for fun I occasionally mocked soccer and the failing North American Soccer League. I suggested the “spotted ball” game was (and always would be) for foreigners. “As American as borscht,” I wrote. “A game John Wayne would never play.”

Yet by 1989 I would be in a heaving soccer stadium in Port of Spain, Trinidad, covering The Shot Heard Round the World, a would-be expert and explainer of a game I had ridiculed only a few years before.

As we prepare this week for the semifinals of Russia 2018, for my own amusement I am going to attempt to remember how I got from soccer skeptic to (would be) soccer savant.

Two main factors appear to be at work here.

1. Soccer overran my suburban neighborhood in the 1980s. Every little kid in the town of Highland seemed to be playing soccer every Saturday in the fall. My elder daughter was born in 1980. She turned out to play in the co-ed, short-field kindergarten division. The team needed a coach. I looked around at the parents meeting … lots of quizzical looks and shrugs, and held up my hand. I hardly knew the rules, but it was a good way to get the kids out and running around.

2. In 1985, Jerry Langdon, the sports editor of Gannett News Service, a before-his-time soccer aficionado with whom I had collaborated for several years — asked if I would cover the U.S. National Team match at El Camino College, pitting the USA versus Costa Rica. The Ricky Davis-led Yanks needed only a draw to reach the final round of Concacaf (regional) qualifying for the 1986 World Cup. I said yes.

I was deeply impressed by the experience. The little junior college stadium, capacity 11,800, in Torrance, California, was overrun by Costa Rica fans. They took up the whole of the visitors side and spilled over to the home side.

The Ticos then won the game, 1-0, and their fans celebrated into the night. They were still going at it after I had filed a story and left the stadium.

The years went on, and it became clear that Fifa, soccer’s global organizing body, wanted a piece of the U.S. market, and the idea of hosting the 1994 World Cup was suggested and picked up support. However, successfully qualifying for the 1990 World Cup in Italy became a sort of litmus test for U.S. soccer. Qualify, or the 1994 World Cup goes elsewhere.

We followed the team through the final round of qualifying. (Not always remembered, now, is that America’s chance of qualifying got exponentially easier when Mexico was banned from the 1990 World Cup for using overage players in an age-group competition.)

Eventually, the top five Concacaf teams played a round-robin tournament, and with two games left Costa Rica was in but the U.S. was in decent shape for the second Italy berth.

The last U.S. home game was at St. Louis Soccer Park, and the Yanks could not break down the visitors from El Salvador, and a 0-0 draw left the U.S. a point behind Trinidad & Tobago with one match left — in Trinidad. It looked like another U.S. soccer failure, maybe one of the biggest yet, was on tap.

At this point, we were all in — my editor and me. There was no question: He would send me to Port of Spain, and I was keen to go.

T&T thought it was headed for Italy 1990; all it needed was a draw, at home, against the Yanks, whom they had held 1-1 in SoCal earlier in the year.

I flew in with the U.S. team. Out of Miami. A stop in Barbados. Early evening arrival in Port of Spain, where every media outlet, including live TV, was waiting, along with a crowd in the thousands chanting “Search and Destroy” — a “thing” that year in T&T. (Meantime, back in the U.S., few knew about the game, and its importance. It was only soccer, after all.)

One day later, I bought a straw hat with a band on it that read: Trinidad & Tobago: 1990 World Cup. Premature marketing. I hung on to that hat for 20 years, at least.

The day after that was the match.

The small (seven? eight?) band of journalists who had traveled were invited by the U.S. embassy to have brunch on a greensward inside their compound. It was located on a hill outside of town, but down below, near to the port, was a stadium we could see, and it already was teeming with people wearing red. The “sea of red” promised by the hosts was already in place. A few hours later, we reporters squeezed through the throng and into a primitive press box (a wooden bench; no TVs), on a bright fall day.

I was getting to know some of the U.S. players, and I found that they were oddly serene, before kickoff, that whole weekend. Eric Wynalda, John Harkes, Tab Ramos, Tony Meola, Mike Windischmann, Paul Caligiuri … Confidence? A lack of pressure? The expectations certainly were on the Trinidad side.

The U.S. coach, a German immigrant named Bob Gansler, seemed confident. He expected to win. I hoped he was right.

On Sunday, November 19, 1989, in the 35th minute, Caligiuri scored from distance, and the raucous crowd fell silent. All T&T needed was a goal, and it chased but never got it. If anything, the Trinidadians seemed to fall to pieces as the unthinkable came closer: The Yanks were going to win.

I remember the celebration in the tiny changing room, the Champagne being sprayed. The giddy players. The U.S. was going to the World Cup! For the first time since 1950! A few hours later, I filed three pieces, and some U.S. newspapers might even have run some of it. Remember, it was soccer, and it was an NFL Sunday and it was 1989.

By the time I got back to the States, it was clear Gannett News Service was going to cover the World Cup, in Italy, and I would be the reporter on the scene.

In early 1990, I went with the team on a trip to play two friendlies in Europe — at Hungary (a 2-0 defeat in Budapest) and at East Germany (a 3-2 defeat to a country not yet quite closed for business.) Peter Vermes and Bruce Murray scored.

It didn’t look good for Gansler and his guys, but we were committed to covering.

Come the spring and early summer, I spent five weeks in Italy and Switzerland, covering the Yanks daily until their early exit, and then covered the world powers through the end of Italy 1990 and saw Germany defeat Argentina 1-0 in a truly dreadful championship match.

And it went from there. For the next World Cup cycle, with the colorful Bora Milutinovic running the team, I was the primary reporter at the U.S. training camp in Orange County, California, not far from where U.S. federation president Alan Rothenberg was leading the organizational side of things, in Los Angeles, and was part of a reportorial team covering the 1994 tournament. Which still holds the record for most-attended World Cup.

And, over the span of those five years (1989-94) soccer became a thing. Not a big thing, not yet, but the road to where we are now was open.

I covered France 1998, and it was wonderful, as had been Italy eight years before and did the group stage of the 2002 World Cup shared by Japan and Korea, where the U.S. reached the quarterfinals.

The Road to Italy was my Road to Damascus, and I have been a soccer guy ever since.

I wish I could change some aspects of the game — cutting out the diving and holding and the abuse of referees, for starters — but I like the World Cup because the world likes the World Cup. Watching it, covering it makes a person feel part of a global community.

Since moving overseas, in 2009, my exposure to soccer has been on a near-weekly basis. I covered the UAE national team during qualifying for South Africa 2010 and during Olympic qualifying for London 2012.

Now, I am the guy who watches three or four Premier League games on the weekend, and the Uefa Champions League during the week and nearly every match of the 2018 Russia World Cup.

As a reporter, one of the best things that ever happened to me was the national and international soccer beat.

I still prefer baseball, football and basketball, when sitting in the stands, but those are national pastimes. Soccer, and the World Cup, are global and dwarf them.

And one more thing: I pretty much now know all the rules.



2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Gene Hiigel // Jul 10, 2018 at 8:22 PM

    We were a little later to soccer than you (and of course never had any professional interest in the game), but now prefer sitting in the stands at a soccer match over the experience at any of the national pastimes. I think my patience level with game length and the commercial breaks in baseball and football have driven me away. We still have a 20-game plan for the woeful Mets and get to most of those games (and usually leave at bedtime as the game drags on, plus you know the Mets will lose). I just turned down my brother’s offer of tickets for a UCLA vs. woeful Colorado football game in Boulder this fall (and chose to head to our hometown in eastern Colorado for a high school football game). I just couldn’t take a 4-hour game with the players standing around interminably waiting for the commercials to end.

    In 1998, my wife was home with a bunch of Irish guys who were sanding our floors, but really had more interest in watching the World Cup. She let them watch in exchange for explanations of what was going on. Suddenly it was my wife saying “I can’t go out with you and the kids because Germany and Cameroon play in half an hour”.

    That led to my interest, some MLS games at dreadful Giants Stadium, Gold Cup doubleheaders in Boston, or Philly or DC between the US and El Salvador and Honduras vs. Nicaragua and similar matchups, then watching every US qualifier on TV (and travelling to Chicago or Birmingham or Columbus to see them live).

    Then for a reason I cannot fathom, my wife, my two daughters and I were on a plane to Korea for the 2002 World Cup. What a wonderful experience–US-Mexico and Italy-Korea in the round of 16 plus some group stage matches.

    Since then we never miss a Red Bulls match, love going to qualifiers, World Cups (when there is good local transportation (e.g., Korea and Germany)) and the Euros or even US friendlies in interesting places. Often it is probably as much of a organizing principle for travel as anything. Get to places we would never go otherwise.

  • 2 Eos // Oct 20, 2018 at 12:21 AM

    Given that the penultimate round of qualifying had already scheduled Mexico against Costa Rica in a two-leg knockout series, the Mexicans’ disqualification affected the Ticos’ chances far more than anyone else.

    Considering the relevant results (USA 2/4 points against Costa Rica; T&T 1/4), the Ticos’ replacement by Mexico likely wouldn’t have changed the final round that much — maybe instead of being tied on points (with T&T holding the tiebreaker) going into the last match, the USA might have been one point behind. Same difference.

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