Friday, March 10, 2006

sprechen sie fußball?

13 weeks to the start of the World Cup Finals 2006 in Germany, and I feel duty bound to spread the word about the planet’s most popular sport’s biggest festival, so I will post every Friday until after the tournament is over.

This week I recall the one World Cup I got to see in person.


MAKING SOCCER HISTORY?

Jack’s Army had a score to settle with the Italians in ‘94


Say you get married, and embark on what is meant to be a trip around the world with your fellow newlywed by way of an extended honeymoon. What is the coolest thing they can do for you on your next birthday?

It was February 1993 at the Spartan Stadium in San Jose. The referee blew the full time whistle, and the spectators were put out of their misery after what had to be the most boring game of international football ever played, a 0-0 draw in a friendly between USA and Russia. I turned to my (now ex-) wife and said, “Happy Birthday, dear!”

Even though it was a travesty of a contest, and even though it was hardly the most romantic of occasions, she fully understood how important it was that we attend this particular game. One of the reasons we began our “world tour” in America was so that we could be there for the World Cup finals which were due to take place in the summer of 1994, and if you went to see this game between the former Cold War adversaries, you would be guaranteed tickets for whatever venue you chose.

Since it seemed that Ireland were well poised to qualify, I was certain that their games would be played in the Boston venue. Though we were both working in San Francisco at the time, the plan was to Amtrak across the country to be settled in the Massachusetts capital, where I also had family connections, so that we could be well poised to make the trip to the games in Foxborough Stadium.

The plan worked almost perfectly. We got our tickets well in advance, and at rock bottom prices. Once the draw was made for the final stages, naturally the value of the tickets soared. Not ones to be overly greedy, we sold tickets for two of the games for the value of the entire package of five to break even.

It has to be said it was quite a shrewd move by the sport’s governing body FIFA to stage the finals tournament in the land of the free. Because of the popularity of all the more traditionally American sports like baseball and gridiron football, the game of “soccer” was finding it extremely difficult to find a niche at the highest professional level.

What made this all the more paradoxical was that soccer was and indeed still is the most popular sport for America’s youth. The simple reason for that is, the game requires you to buy the minimum of equipment, just a uniform and a ball. The lack of helmets, bats, gloves or excessive padding went a long way to creating the phenomenon known as the “soccer mom”.

Despite the fact that pretty much everyone played up to the age of 9 or 10, once over that age, kids wanted to emulate the sporting heroes they saw on the TV where the world’s greatest soccer players were nowhere to be seen in America, unless you tuned into Spanish language channels. A good friend of mine who lives in California told me her son was of the impression that the sport was considered “gay”.

And so, FIFA made its decision to try and conquer this final great frontier for its pastime. Nine cities were chosen across the nation, and the one thing they could be absolutely sure of, they had the best race of people on the planet when it came to marketing.

“How to play the game of Association Football. Two teams of eleven men kick a ball around a field. At the end of ninety minutes, the Germans win.”

…is roughly how I remember one of their more amusing warm-up ads sounding. One other slogan I found particularly ironic was the one that went “USA ’94 – Making Soccer History”. The double meaning of that phrase was not lost on me – clearly they meant it in the positive nature, but since I knew so many Americans thought it was just a dumb boring European sport, I was sure there were many that would actually like to make the game history.

And so we settled in Boston, and I got a job in a sports store downtown right near the Common. I was hardly surprised that the management of the store had little knowledge of the impending tournament. They were generally more interested in how the Red Sox or the Bruins were doing. After much nagging I finally managed to persuade them to get their suppliers to send them reasonable quantities of the replica jerseys in time for the competition.

Ironically enough, the one shirt they could not acquire was that of Ireland. This was because people were selling them on the sly all over the Irish pubs around the city. I had to wonder about their authenticity, however, when on of the managers, of Irish ancestry himself, proudly proclaimed that he had bought such a shirt, and the reason the seller told him he could be sure it was genuine was the fact that it had the brand name “St Bernard” right there on the label!

Speaking of Ireland, the good news was, they qualified for the finals. The bad news was, none of their games were to be in Boston. They were drawn in a very tricky first round “group of death” with Mexico, Norway, and their conquerors from 1990, Italy, and the games were to be in New York and Orlando.

The biggest team to be involved at the Boston venue for the first round was Argentina, and it was to a couple from Buenos Aires that we sold our tickets. That left us with our first taste of live World Cup football as the group game between South Korea and Bolivia.

Once we took our seats, which were impressively close to the front row, we soon realised the cosmopolitan nature of this event. There was a drunken Argentinian chap beside us, an English couple on the other side, and what sounded like some Scandinavian men behind us. The most entertaining fellow spectators, however, were seated in front of us.

They could only be described as the “typical clean-cut all-American family”, straight out of a Disney movie. There was Dad, Mom, early teenage daughter, and a boy and another girl both under ten. They arrived just before kick-off, complete with trays of munchies. All of them were wearing the same World Cup souvenir t-shirts.

What made me laugh about them most, however, was when the elder daughter turned to her mother ten minutes into the game and asked, “Which team is which?” Remember – the teams were South Korea and Bolivia, and we were easily close enough to see the faces of the players. My amazement was doubled when the mother didn’t know, and it was tripled when she asked the father and even he didn’t have a clue.

Unfortunately, this game was an even more boring 0-0 draw than the one in San Jose a year before, though I suppose the carnival atmosphere made up for it. Next up for us was to take our place at The Kells bar on Commonwealth Avenue for the first Irish game against the Italians.

The pub was full to bursting with several having recently arrived in the States and well versed on the new breed of Irish players such as Jason McAteer. As we pounded both bottles of beer and our fists against the bar in excitement, the Boys in Green held on to their early 1-0 lead courtesy of Ray Houghton for an incredible victory over one of the tournament favourites. Once again, we had the feeling that we had won the tournament, and we were also able to banish the demons caused by those who made fun of us for not even winning a game back in 1990!

Our last two games in Foxborough both involved Nigeria. Their fans were extremely colourful, and made a carnival of the train ride there and back by forming a conga line and dancing up and down all the carriages. They were very unlucky not to get past the Italians themselves in the knockout stages, with only a Roberto Baggio penalty in extra time separating the teams.

Unfortunately, Ireland fell to the Mexicans in their second group game, 2-1 in Orlando, but John Aldridge’s late goal meant that we still had a good chance of progressing courtesy of a result from our final game with Norway.

The Irish-American manager of my store arranged to have the day off so he could come with me and MyEx to the Kells to see what all the fuss was about. He was to be amazed by the atmosphere, particularly when you consider that it was yet another 0-0 draw. The tension was created by the fact that the Mexico v Italy game was taking place at the same time, and as goals went in there, the standings in the group changed dramatically. Suffice to say, whatever way the maths worked out, the Irish had made it through yet again.

This time, we were to face Holland, and unfortunately, our bubble was to burst. A mishap by fullback Terry Phelan let them in for an opener, and with us well poised to get an equaliser, our hero of a goalie from Italia90 Packie Bonner allowed a relatively easy shot slip through his fingers for a crushing second which meant the Irish dream was over for another year.

I remember the day of the Dutch game well. It was a typical New England summer’s day, extremely hot and humid. Between that and the USA v Brazil game in the evening, I managed an hour’s sunbathing on the roof of our apartment building. With new unlikely role models like the flame-haired, goatee-sporting Alexi Lalas, the host nation were then extremely lucky to bow out only 1-0 having had an impressive first phase which included a win over Colombia, which was to provide one of the talking points of the tournament.

The Colombians were well fancied as an outside bet to go all the way, with stars such as Carlos Valderrama on their team. The defeat to the Americans, however, was to bring home the significance of this event to the general public when Andreas Escobar, who had scored an extremely fortunate own goal in the game, was shot dead outside a nightclub shortly after returning home when his team had been eliminated. Of course this had more to do with the drug culture than football, but it was still hard to believe.

Among the other surprise packages of the finals we had Bulgaria, who bravely ousted the Germans in the quarterfinals inspired by the great Hristo Stoichkov. Sweden also got to the semis with their well organized squad.

And so it came to the day of the final between Brazil and Italy, who had progressed this far despite their earlier defeat to the Irish. I watched the game in my cousin’s apartment on Comm Ave. Considering the games I had been to before, it was rather fitting that this was to be yet another 0-0 draw, but since it was a final, there had to be a winner on the day.

The World Cup final of 1994 was indeed to make soccer history in that it was the first to be decided by way of a “penalty shoot-out”. Nobody would have guessed that it would be the Italian superstar Roberto Baggio that lost his nerve first, as his kick sailed high over the bar, leaving their opponents victorious for the fourth time.

As had been the norm with every victory throughout the tournament, the Brazilian fans took to the streets for a Samba party shortly after the end of the game. They waved gigantic green and yellow flags out of their car and you would be led to believe you were actually in Rio. Bemused Americans looked on, most of them totally oblivious to the reason for their celebration.

All in all, it has to be said the USA experiment was a success. A professional soccer league was formed shortly afterwards, called Major League Soccer. Though it never professed to be able to match the home-grown sports, it successfully drew support from ethnic communities and despite a few setbacks it still exists today.

Still, I doubt the Yanks will ever fully embrace the world’s most popular game. Maybe it’s because they cannot handle seeing themselves stacked up fairly against other countries, particularly when they will have to work hard to come out on top. Sounds like a grand case of sour grapes to me. “We’re not number one? Ah, it’s a dumb boring sport anyway.”


Next week – FRANCE ’98 : ALLEZ LES BLEUS

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