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World Cup Suckers

[whitespace] soccer Despite raging youth leagues, a soccer-loving Latino population and Clash player Eric Wynalda chosen for the World Cup playing field, soccer still struggles for a fan base in the valley. What is it with Americans, anyway?

By Michael Learmonth

REALITY HIT AT 9:09pm as my taxi sped along the right bank of the Seine. At my request, the cabby had tuned in the United States' opening World Cup match on the car radio. This was much safer, I thought, than my last cab driver, who was actually watching the game on a tiny television plugged into his cigarette lighter. This driver politely switched the radio from classical to soccer, taking pity on me since he picked me up in front of the stadium. "No tickets?" he asked sympathetically. I nodded, straining to comprehend the game in a foreign language. I don't know a word of French, but as long as the intonation in the play-by-play remained constant, I knew we had a chance. Then, the crowd roared and the announcer went berserk. His awkward annunciation of "An-dre-as Moeller!" told me all I needed to know. The U.S. was down a goal just nine minutes into their first match against Germany. The slaughter had begun.

Twenty minutes earlier, I had been patrolling the grounds of Paris' Parc des Princes, the stadium where the U.S.-Germany match was about to take place. "Tickets? tickets?" I asked unshaven French scalpers, the ones with no paint on their faces who seemed to be going nowhere. Six hours before this match, the freelance ticket brokers on the Champs Elysees had been asking 5,000 francs, or about $900. Now, just minutes before kickoff, the scalpers still weren't budging. They really didn't have to. There were thousands of ticketless Germans arriving by the busload, along with well-heeled Asian tourists inflating the black market for tickets all over Paris. Besides, as an Italian friend of mine noted, "That's just like the French to eat a ticket rather than take less than 3,000 francs." I was willing to pay $200, but only if I could see the whole game.

When the national anthems started playing inside the stadium, I panicked and gave up on the scalpers for plan B. I took a cab to the real World Cup party, five miles up the Seine at the Place del Hôtel de Ville. There, in front of a huge outdoor screen, thousands of ticketless Germans, Parisians and a small contingent of American exchange-student types were downing Kronenbourgs, climbing the ornate lampposts and hamming for the television crews.

The Hôtel de Ville, Paris' city hall, has for centuries been the center of Parisian civic life, the scene of celebrations, book-burnings, strikes and public executions. By the time I arrived, the U.S. was getting the equivalent of the guillotine on a giant color screen. The German scoring tandem of Oliver Bierhoff and Jurgen Klinsmann consistently dominated in front of the U.S. goal, winning head balls over U.S. defenders. How could this be? The country that produced great jumpers like Michael Jordan and Carl Lewis could not win a head ball in front of the goal.

At halftime the score was 1-0, and as the Paris sky darkened the Germans had broken into song. The U.S. fans remained enthusiastic in spite of what was taking place in the game, but even in cheering the U.S. was wholly inadequate. While the Germans belted out drinking songs, all the disjointed students could muster was a pathetic "U-S-A, U-S-A."

The U.S. was getting its ass kicked both athletically and culturally, and I just stood there, too sober to start chanting and too pissed off to join the fun, anyway.

I had allowed myself to indulge in thoughts that the United States' youth and athleticism could take the Germans by suprise, put them back on their heels. Perhaps we could steal a goal early and then pack the defense hoping to come out with at least a tie.

But in the 64th minute, 33-year-old veteran Jurgen Klinsmann chested a ball in the penalty box and deposited it professionally, almost casually, in the back of the U.S. net. Hope drained from my heart as Klinsmann tore around the stadium flapping his arms like a flightless bird in a panic. There was nothing I wanted to do but walk over to the German fans and remind them who won the war. That would be stupid. But it had been stupid to once again set myself up for this, to listen to the prognostigators who inflated the stock of this team. What was I thinking, coming all the way over here to see this, anyway?

soccer Tango in Paris: Soccer diplomacy between rivals.

Allsport Photography

I BECAME A TRUE FAN of international soccer in 1990 as an exchange student in Spain. That year, a team of U.S. college all-stars qualified for the Cup for the first time in 40 years, largely because Mexico had been disqualified.

The U.S. team was outclassed and quickly dismissed from the 1990 World Cup. I watched from the bars of Valencia, praying that each U.S. pass actually connected with another U.S. player and explaining to Spaniards and even Americans that there were a lot of kids playing soccer in the U.S., and soon we would have a World Cup contender.

Twenty-one years ago I was one of those kids. My father coached the first youth soccer team from Washington, D.C., to play in the nascent Montgomery Soccer Incorporated, a youth league with teams from all over the D.C.-Maryland area. I started playing on the team when I was 7. From MSI I graduated to a select league, then played in high school and in college.

This year, I believed, would be the breakout year; the year that homegrown players, the players of my generation, took their place among the world's top soccer nations. We're a nation of 265 million, after all, with 13 million kids playing youth soccer. The average age of the U.S. team is 28.3. I'm 28.3, dammit. After a convincing win against Austria, in which the U.S. scored three times, I believed in this group, and I wanted to be there when they made history in France.

I arrived in Paris June 9, six days before the Germany match. As is World Cup tradition, the U.S. team was in semi-seclusion. Every year, it seems, at least one World Cup coach publicly forbids his players from having sex in the buildup to the World Cup. This year it was Japanese coach Takeshi Okada. While the U.S. players were permitted to see their wives before the Germany match, they were ensconced for training in a rural medieval chateau in Beaujolais country.

CHATEAU DE PIZAY is an ivy-covered 14th-century hotel and winery about 30 miles north of the industrial city of Lyon. At the end of a tree-lined, quarter-mile drive and past an enormous iron gate guarded by gendarmes, the chateau opens into a sunny courtyard with marble-topped wrought-iron tables. White-frocked gamines flit about with a sack of laundry or a tray of cheese or wine. A peacock wanders around with geese and a goat in the gardens behind the chateau.

By the time I arrived, the U.S. team had been installed in Pizay for more than a week. An ornate dining room with a chandelier and marble fireplace on the second floor had been converted into a press room.

One of the helpful gamines directed me upstairs, where a press conference was already under way with sweeper and captain Thomas Dooley and strikers Brian McBride and Preki Radosavljevic. At least half the reporters present were from German- and Spanish-language news agencies. The son of an American serviceman, Dooley was a German citizen until 1992, and at least three players--Tab Ramos, Claudio Reyna and Marcelo Balboa--speak Spanish, as does coach Steve Sampson.

While the core group of U.S. soccer players are American-born, many of the stars naturalized as Americans to play on the team. When U.S. Soccer learned that French professional David Regis had an American wife, they got him American citizenship and a spot on the team just two weeks before leaving for France. Striker Roy Wegerle was born in South Africa but was technically eligible to play for four other countries: the U.S. (American wife), England (residency), Germany (grandfather) and Scotland (mother).

The player I had come to talk to is the greatest goal-scorer the U.S. has ever produced. A star for the San Jose Clash for the last two years and the first American-born player in the prestigious German Bundesliga, Eric Wynalda was about to play his third World Cup. He is probably the greatest American athlete to put a soccer ball at his feet.

But among the dozen or so U.S. players milling around the chateau--relaxing in sandals, shorts and floppy socks--Wynalda was nowhere to be found. "Tomorrow," U.S. Soccer press agent Jim Froslid assured me.

The next day I arrived 30 minutes late for the coach-mandated "media day." By the time my train arrived in Belleville, the little town was in the REM stage of its daily siesta, and it took me almost an hour to find a cab. By the time I got to Pizay, the players had retreated to various corners of the chateau, surrounded by reporters and cameras. Coach Sampson entertained a Spanish television station in the courtyard. Goalkeeper Kasey Keller, Dooley and Preki were in the media room. In the lobby, wing midfielder Frankie Hejduk talked about surfing with another reporter. An ESPN camera crew hung out in the lobby. Their standup guy, Jeremy Schaap, warned them not to shoot the peacock lest it be construed as an NBC mascot.

I found Wynalda pinned at the end of a small velour couch with reporters sitting next to him and all around a marble coffee table. The Merc's Ann Killion is right next to him, coquettishly cajoling him into collaborating with her on a World Cup diary.

I perched at the edge of the crowd and prepared to get a few questions in when the most unusual thing happened. The press bus to Lyon must have revved its engines because all of the sudden, everyone left. I stood there alone in front of Eric Wynalda, the best soccer player in America, who offered me the seat next to him.


ERIC IS BY NO means small, but he isn't big either. The U.S. Soccer media guide lists him at 6-foot-1 and 172 pounds, but sitting next to him, we seem to me to be about the same size.

As he talks, his watery blue eyes focus on something in midair about halfway into the room. He has a glow about him. Part of it is the soccer-field tan. He talked a lot about his health; his recovery from knee surgery, his fitness level and the work he's doing with his personal trainer.

In his book, Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby observes that in soccer, "small men can destroy big men in a way that they can't in other sports." Athough there are very few fat soccer players, just like there are few short basketball players or skinny football or baseball players, few are ruled out of soccer at birth by virtue of size. The gods bless high-level soccer players with more subtle gifts.

Until two years ago, Wynalda lived a life almost unheard of for an American professional soccer player. As a player for a first-division team in Bochum, Germany, Wynalda experienced 35,000 people chanting his name. He was a sports star, gathering endorsements and marriage proposals and unable to dine in public.

"I don't mind kids and autographs and stuff," Wynalda said, "but Germany's different. It was hard to get out and have dinner and a beer."

And since Wynalda was American, just about every player, coach, fan and bratwurst vendor thought they could teach him something about soccer.

"Everybody thinks they know more about soccer then you because you're American," Wynalda said. "You go to the stadium and you've got 35,000 coaches."

Eric came back to the United States from Germany two years ago to sign on for the first season of Major League Soccer, as one of the infant league's biggest stars. He was assigned to the San Jose Clash and lived up to his billing by scoring the league's first goal and avoiding the league's worst nightmare--having its first game end in a 0-0 tie.

Wynalda began working single-mindedly toward this moment when he was 6 years old and joined his first soccer team. Since then, since his first contact with the sport, he has eaten, drunk, slept and dreamed soccer. After school, he went to the fields of suburban Westlake Village outside Los Angeles and pounded a soccer ball into the net time and time again.

"After school I just liked to go play or juggle," he says. "I kind of created my own little atmosphere. When I started I was all alone, but then one day a Swedish guy rode up on a bike. He was an exchange student living up the road. He brought his shoes the next day, and we became friends."

I started playing soccer about the same time, and no one I knew ever talked about playing professional soccer. The only time you could even watch soccer on TV where I grew up was on public television's English Soccer on Sunday mornings.

Even now, it's hard for Wynalda to understand why he had this soccer dream.

"It was just something I wanted to do," he said of playing pro. "I wanted to make it an option, one way or another."

The group of pickup players in Westlake Village expanded and ultimately included Cobi Jones, another National Team player. Jones was a friend, but they were different.

"He was more academic," Wynalda remembers. "He wanted to go to UCLA. For me, it was soccer or bust."

Even after being named first team All-State in high school, Wynalda was not as highly recruited as one might expect a star-in-waiting to be. His college coach, Chuck Clegg, recalls that besides San Diego State, UCLA, UConn and UNLV recruited him.

"He was single-mindedly dedicated to practicing," Clegg remembers. The goal that put the U.S. in the second round of the 1994 World Cup was a free kick Wynalda took against Switzerland. That free kick quite literally changed the course of U.S. soccer. Clegg says he'd seen Wynalda do in practice a thousand times.

As a freshman, in 1987, Wynalda carried SDS to the NCAA tournament. They came into the tournament as the last seed but fought all the way to the semifinal game against Harvard.

"He was a revelation," says Clegg. "He was 18 years old, and no one had heard of him. He single-handedly tore up Harvard."

But in victory Wynalda took a cleat to the head and was given eight stitches on the sideline. The next day, the team was beaten in the final 2-0 by Clemson, but Wynalda got an ovation.

soccer Ball Bearing: U.S. player Cobi Jones, right, got high and mighty against Yugoslavia's Slobodan Komljenovic.

Allsport Photography

In films of the game, Clegg says Wynalda had a chance to equalize when the score was 1-0, but as he headed the ball, right on the fresh stitches, he flinched ever so slightly, and the ball sailed wide.

AT 20, WYNALDA was anointed as the U.S.'s best hope for a win in Italy in the 1990 World Cup--living proof of the soccer adage, "If you're good enough, you're old enough."

He was basically just out of college when he took the field in the U.S.'s first game against Czechoslovakia and was promptly red-carded for shoving a Czech player. Four years later, in the 1994 World Cup, he started all four games and netted the free kick against Switzerland. At 26, he broke Bruce Murray's all-time international scoring record, and in the meantime became the first U.S.-born player to break into the German Bundesliga.

So how does a suburban soccer-playing kid become Eric Wynalda? What separates a promising player who goes to practice two or three times a week, like I did, from a kid who becomes a future superstar? The answer has to be: obsession. As a kid, I don't think there was anything I was single-minded about, let alone practicing soccer for hours at a time. It would never occur to me to stay after soccer practice, as Wynalda did, to perfect that free kick or do a little more ab work. I know players who did, who were astoundingly committed to the game, but none of them are Eric Wynalda, either.

Athletic excellence is obviously more than just hitting the genetic lottery. Great athletes have intuition about the sport. They simply know what to do and where to be on the field without engaging in any internal dialogue. Surely, Eric Wynalda never second-guesses a run midway or internally debates the next ball fake he'll use on a defender. It just comes naturally.

That day in Pizay, four days before the Germany match, Wynalda says he was feeling better physically than he had for years. The formation that Coach Sampson had selected for the Germany game--three defenders, six midfielders and one forward--seemed tailored to take advantage of his scoring genius. In both his health and career, he was peaking at the right time. This was to be his Cup.

But starting with the game against Germany, the U.S. was dealt the cruelest of World Cup fates. Against Germany, Wynalda was benched after struggling as the lone forward against three German defenders. Every time the camera came his way, he seemed to be getting a mugging by the German defense. After the game he criticized the performance of the team and was benched for the game against Iran. In the final, meaningless game against Yugoslavia, he was subbed in the second half when the U.S. was already down 1-0. Only Coach Sampson knows why America's greatest scorer in history spent more time on the bench in the World Cup than he did in the field.

It wasn't that the team played horribly without him; they just couldn't score without him. As shot after shot failed to find the net, the National Team showed how in soccer the team that plays the best does not always win. The door is open to underdogs in soccer like it isn't in other sports. The U.S. could not seize this ever-present possibility against Germany, but Iran took full advantage of it. The U.S. played well enough to win the Iran game, and they certainly deserved to force a draw with Yugoslavia. They did not.

The soccer optimists say that simply qualifying for the World Cup is in itself a victory. But that resonates hollow for American sports fans who find little enjoyment in moral victories. The United States flopped in the World Cup, and Wynalda was barely on the field enough to leave a mark on the tournament.

One week after a U.S. performance that included one goal, three defeats and few glimmers of hope, the president of U.S. Soccer, Alan Rothenberg, asked Coach Steve Sampson for his resignation over breakfast. No one will say how he took the news, though an Associated Press report indicated it was "amicable." In international soccer years, Sampson had enjoyed a long coaching life--three years. At the World Cup, everyone knew he would be fired, first for being an American and second because his team couldn't score. After the Germany game, a reporter even asked him if he was planning to resign. He replied, "Voluntarily? Are you kidding?"

Americans have a Constitution that guarantees egalitarianism in social systems and in governance--but we don't extend the same notion to sports. What we like about sport is the way it can quantify physical excellence with clarity in a score or a time. I think what frustrates Americans about soccer is that superiority is not always so easy to sort out, especially if it is not reflected in a score. In a tough contest, the better team can lose 1-0. If basketball were soccer, would the Bulls ever lose to the Jazz by a score of 100 to 50? In order to fully accept soccer, America will have to learn to like 1-0 and, even more difficult, learn to appreciate a tie.

But before cruel justice was meted out on the World Cup fields, I decided to fight the face-painted, regalia-wearing World Cup crowds and climb to the top of the Arc du Triomphe. Incredibly, I ran into Steve Sampson there. I was one of probably five people on the Arc who actually recognized him. Sampson, well over 6 feet tall and wearing a blue U.S.A. sweatsuit, appeared on the steps. A few people posed with him for a snapshot, but most were just trying to get out of a drizzle that had begun to fall. In most countries in the world, the national soccer coach is a public figure on par with a head of state, but Sampson just strolled to the edge and looked out over the Paris skyline, the U.S.'s opening game against Germany only hours away.

An American tourist with red hair and a green blazer, obviously not in town for the Cup, turned to him and started a conversation casually: "You must be with the team."

"Yes," he replied, "I'm the coach."

"Well, I'll be damned," the man said.

At the time, I thought the tourist was a moron. Later, after the crushing defeats, I envied his detachment. On days like today, part of me wishes soccer was just a quaint novelty, nothing to get worked up about. The day before, at a press conference at the team's Paris hotel, Sampson said something that was barely noted by reporters when the U.S. still had its whole soccer life ahead of it. They are perhaps the only words I copied into my notebook that make any sense to me now.

"Our entire national identity is not measured by the success of our soccer team," Sampson said, "and perhaps that's how it should be."

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From the July 2-8, 1998 issue of Metro.

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