Monday, July 12, 2010

The World Cup and Me: 2002

In May of 2000 I moved to Italy, the magical land of soccer. Through a strange twist of fate I ended up living in a little town outside the city of Vicenza named Caldogno where I find myself living to this day. My first week there I visited the sports bar down the street and was amazed to see the walls covered with newspaper clippings, photos, paintings, jerseys, trophies and all kinds of other memorabilia all dedicated to one man: Roberto Baggio. It turns out that Baggio was born and raised in my little town of Caldogno, about a two minute walk from my little apartment! It was unfathomable to me that one of my favorite players of all time, the man I had personally witnessed beat Spain in the Quarterfinals of WC 1994, was from the little town I found myself living in. My 5 favorite players in the world at that time were Francesco Totti, Zinedane Zidane. Paulo Maldini, Eric Cantona and Baggio, 3 of whom were Italian. Although I still admired the French team, my affections quickly shifted to the Azurri. I'd been a fan pretty much since the time I heard that they had beaten Germany to win it all in 1982 and now that I was actually living in Italy, it was impossible to resist. I immersed myself in all things Azurri (for those who don't know, 'The Azurri" is the nickname of Italy's soccer team, taken from the blue shirts that they wear). I already knew most of their players and had watched them in every tournament since WC 1994 so it was easy to follow them. And follow them I did, watching every friendly and qualifying match they played in the 2 years leading up to World Cup 2002.

The Cup was co-hosted by South Korea and Japan that year, first time ever it was held in Asia. This sucked right away because the time difference meant that many of the matches would take place during the day here in Italy while I was at work. It was a strange tournament to be sure. For one thing, France failed to make it through the first round which was quite shocking as they were defending champions - and had also won the European Championship 2 years prior. I still had a soft spot for France at that time but I quickly realized that the team I admired so much in WC 1998 was long gone, replaced by a bunch of overpaid egos and attitude (Zidane being the exception). I would never cheer for them again after that tournament although Zidane does remain one of my favorite players ever and probably the best I've watched in my lifetime.

World Cup 2002 was memorable for several reasons. For one thing it was my first World Cup in Italy which was a dream come true in itself. The building I worked in had almost as many Italian workers as Americans so every TV in the building had the game on when the Azurri played. I remember watching Italy-Mexico in the small office of one of the Italians, Mexico had the lead and Italy needed a tie to go through to the next round. In the second half I repeatedly called for Del Piero to come into the match, that he would score for sure and after about the 10th time, I got the feeling that the Italian guy was starting to get annoyed with me. however, Del Piero DID come into the match and wouldn't you know it, he scored the tying goal that sent Italy through to the next round. I'll never forget the look on the guy's face when Del Piero scored too, he looked at me in astonishment and then started laughing as I gave him the "I told you so" look.

Perhaps most memorable for me was that 2002 was the best ever showing for the US team in my lifetime. They reached the Quarterfinals before losing to Germany although they outplayed Germany that day and even had a valid goal disallowed.

Plenty of great goals stand out to me as well: Robbie Keane's dramatic last minute goal against Germany giving them an improbable tie and sending them to the second round...Ronaldinho's long distance goal against England that looked suspiciously like a cross that just happened to find the back of the net...Garcia-Aspe's sublime header against Italy, just to name a few. A few matches stand out, most notably the Brazil-Turkey semifinal, The US-Mexico Quarterfinal and Germany's 8-0 drubbing of Saudi Arabia and there were also a handful of teams who came out of nowhere such as Turkey and Senegal.

Sadly, this was the first world Cup I can remember where the refs made headlines with their poor performance. It was at this tournament that I became convinced that FIFA are corrupt. South Korea were a team that had never even advanced to the second round of a World Cup before and yet some very shady refereeing ensured that they made it all the way to the semifinal of World Cup 2002 which they just happened to be hosting. It certainly left a bad taste in my mouth but overall this was a very entertaining tournament with a lot of surprises. Interestingly, when Germany met Brazil in the final, it was the first time the two countries had ever played each other in a World Cup. I didn't like the fact that I had to miss so many matches due to the time difference but I had high hopes for 2006 which was being hosted by Germany.

Up Next: 2006

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The World Cup and Me: 1998

In the years immediately following World Cup 1994 it is no exaggeration to say that I was completely obsessed with the world of international soccer. A couple different things helped me considerably with my passion; first, a couple channels on our cable system started showing highlight programs of the English Premier League and Italy's Serie A. Cripes I was in heaven, I was finally getting to see the best players in the world on a regular basis. Second, somewhere around this time we got our first Barnes and Noble in Nashua and with it came a great selection of soccer books and magazines. "World Soccer", the fantastic magazine from England became a monthly buy and I tore it apart, devouring every article and every little tidbit from all the European leagues, the US, South America...hell, even some of the Asian leagues. I also bought a handful of books including one called the Soccer Encyclopedia which I spent hours reading, learning as much as I could about the history of the big leagues and players. I was particularly interested in the history of the World Cup itself and I read as much as I could about every tournament starting with 1930 and commited tons of stats to memory. The Slav and I also developed another hobby - collecting soccer jerseys. They weren't as easy to find back then as they are today but we bought em when we could. At one point I even remember calling all the way to a shop in England that advertised in the back of "World Soccer" to order a Newcastle United jersey. If you added up the cost of the call, the exchange rate and the shipping charges I probably paid 3 times the cost of the shirt but I didn't care.

In the spring of 1998 I enlisted in the US Army. For those new to this blog, I did this for two main reasons: to get money for my Masters Degree and to see Europe. I was guaranteed an assignment in Germany and the fact that the World Cup was being held that summer in neighboring France was certainly not lost on me. I arrived in Germany about a month before the tournament began and the first thing I did was go downtown to find a sports bar that would be showing the matches. I found one right away called, appropriately, "The Sports Bar" and it was on.

Now, at this time I didn't really have a particular country that I supported. I was more interested in watching all the teams and comparing the styles of play. I cheered mostly for certain players (my two favorite players back then were Roberto Baggio and Zinedane Zidane) and for teams that played well. I rooted for the US of course but they were still nowhere near the level of the big teams in terms of quality of play and they were usually painful to watch. I had a lot of friends back home who followed teams of their ancestry (Ireland, Italy, etc) and though this sounded like a good idea, my immediate ancestry was Canadian and they were even worse than the US at soccer. My brother had once sent me a copy of our family Coat of Arms going all the way back to France and I really liked the French team back then since Zinedane Zidane was at his peak so I adopted them as my team. I did actually speak a little French back then so it seemed a natural fit.

Every day, as soon as final formation was over, I would rush back to the barracks, change clothes, and get down to the Sports Bar as fast as I could to catch the first match of the day. Those were some very special times for me sitting in the Sports Bar watching all the matches with the locals, drinking German beer and going out between matches to grab a doner kebab. The owner was a young German guy named Miguel and he used to do a "tip" before every match where you put in 2 Deutschmarks and predicted the score of each match and if you won, you won the pot. I'm proud to say that I won my share of tips which gave me instant credibility with the Germans. They all spoke English and we would sit there talking "Football" during the matches and they were quite surprised at how well I knew the teams and players, especially the smaller teams that they knew nothing about.

The US were drawn in Germany's group in WC 1998 so a friend and I went down to support the American team. The sports Bar was completely packed and there were only a few of us there to witness Germany just completely dismantle an overmatched US team who would go on to finish dead last in the entire tournament. The German fans were great though, they were almost apologetic that Germany had embarrassed the US so bad.

Somewhere after the first two rounds of matches we were scheduled to go out to the training area in Hohenfels for a week of field training. I was not happy about this as I would have to miss an entire week of matches - and the third round of matches at that, which usually decided who would be going on to the knockout stages. I was on a retrans team with two other guys and we spent most of the week camped out at the edge of a field in the middle of nowhere. After a couple days of reading the World Cup magazine I'd brought with me I could not take it anymore and begged my boss to let me try and find a town to watch the Brazil-Norway match that night. He reluctantly agreed and I put on my PT clothes and started walking in the direction of the nearest town, called Velburg, which the sign said was 3 kilometers away. I arrived in Velburg and walked around until I found a gastehaus and went in to ask if they would be showing the match that night and they said no, they were simply a restaurant. I asked if there was a place in town that would have it and they said no, the nearest place that would probably have it would be the next town which was 5 kilometers away, back in the direction that I'd just come from. Two directions I could have gone and I chose the wrong one! But Brazil-Norway was a big match so I had no choice...I had to make the trek. I walked and walked and walked and eventually got to the town, checked into 2 or 3 gastehauses and eventually found one that had a little TV and would show the match. In the dining room area where I watched I noticed a plaque on the wall, went over to see what it was and to my amazement it was plaque commemorating West Germany's 1990 World Cup victory and was signed by every member of the 1990 team! I was definitely in the right place. I drank a hefeweizen, ate a schnitzel and watched Norway upset heavily favored Brazil, thinking that all the walking I did to get there that night was well worth it.

We got back to Kitzingen by the time the knockout stages began and my nightly routine got back underway for about a week but soon the 4th of July holiday was upon us and since the main reason I'd joined the Army was to travel and see Europe, there was no way I was staying around Kitzingen with 4 days off. France was in the Quarterfinals that weeekend so I jumped on a train and took my first ever trip to the motherland, to the city of Strasbourg. Walking around Strasbourg Saturday morning was just an unbelievable experience as the match was that afternoon and the city was abuzz with excitement. I went into the news shops to get a paper or bottle of water and every newspaper in the place was screaming about the match. I did some sightseeing and then about an hour before the match, took a seat in a little bar right next to the huge cathedral. There were only a couple other people in there and I couldn't understand why it wasn't completely packed for such a big game. To my horror, France had drawn Italy in the Quarterfinals and I was not happy about having to root against Italy, but I loved this French team and I was all in. It turned out to be one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences too, one I will never forget. Looking back I think the bar was empty because most French people didn't think they had a chance. I say this because as the match went on more and more people started coming in. By the time it got to overtime the place was completely packed and when the match went into penalty kicks, not only was the place packed but there were people stacked up at the windows at least three deep trying to get a glimpse and yelling "ALLEZ FABIAN!" (The French keeper's name was Fabian Barthez). France ended up winning the match on penalty kicks and I spent the rest of the day walking around the city taking in all the celebrations before heading back to the hostel to watch Brazil squeak by Denmark. That day has always been one of my favorite World Cup moments ever. The next night I mistakenly incurred the wrath of a German high school group who were staying at the hostel. Germany took on Croatia and although I liked the German team, I was sure that Croatia would upset them that night. Croatia had a fantastic team in 1998 and I felt that Davor Suker was one of the most underrated strikers at the World Cup so I had told the German kids that I'm sorry but they were going to lose that night. They did not like my prediction and they liked the actual match even less as Croatia completely dominated them 3-0. The German kids spent the rest of the night telling me how terrible Americans are at football and how their national team is a joke. France drew Croatia in the semifinals and although France beat them (just barely), they ended up finishing 3rd in World Cup 1998.

Back in Kitzingen the following weekend we prepared for a France-Brazil final. Brazil were heavy, heavy favorites but once again, I had no doubt that France would win it all. I'd fallen in love with their team by that point, they played such a beautiful style and had Zinedane Zidane who I'd watched for years and was quickly becoming the best player of his generation. France hadn't won anything by that point (except for a European Championship in 1984) and were hungry. They had no egos or attitudes. They had players I admired such as Bixente Lizerazu and Emmanual Petit. Brazil were Brazil but anyone who watched France play in that tournament should have known that they would not be denied even though I seemed to be the only person who recognized it. I defiantly told everybody at the Sports Bar in Kitzingen that France would beat Brazil - I even GUARANTEED it - and everybody laughed at me. In fact, France were up 2-0 at halftime and one of the bartenders told me that Brazil would still win and even bet me a round of drinks that they would. When the final whistle sounded and France were World Champions for the first time ever, everyone at the bar congratulated me and joked that they would never doubt me again and we all drank long into the night celebrating the end of a fantastic World Cup tournament. World Cup 1998 remains to this day my favorite tournament ever.

Up Next: 2002

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The World Cup and Me: 1994

My knowledge and interest in the "World Game" increased exponentially in the years between 1990 and 1994. We had a girl in my Army Reserve unit who had been stationed in Germany during WC 1990 and I used to ask her about it all the time, what it was like to be there when they won it all. Also, due to the magic of videotapes I was able to watch old matches and finally get to see some of the players that I'd only read about in action. I remember being mesmerized by Marco Van Basten and becoming a fan of AC Milan - still my favorite club team to this day - because of him. We had a soccer store back home in Nashua and I bought a cheap replica of Germany's 1990 World Cup shirt and wore it proudly during my intramural games. My friend Dave (who we called "The Slav") shared my love of soccer and the international games in particular and since he was my only friend who cared anything about the game, he and I spent a lot of time watching highlights and reading about matches, teams and players wherever we could find information.

World Cup 1994 was being hosted by the US so by the time it started I was at a fever pitch. I had hoped to see as many matches in person as possible (Foxboro, MA was one of the host cities) but I didn't think it'd be possible as I had graduated college the year before and was still looking for a real job by the time 1994 rolled around. By the late spring of 1994 I found myself living in a house in Dover, NH with a couple guys I didn't even know and it was there that I watched the US-Switzerland match which kicked off World Cup 1994. I remember it like it was yesterday; Switzerland scored first on a free kick and I thought "Here we go again, the US is so bad...". But then something amazing happened. Not long after going down 1-0, Eric Wynalda curled a free kick perfectly in the top corner of the Swiss net to tie the match 1-1. At that one moment I started to realize that maybe the US wasn't that bad after all. That goal, which was truly world class, gave the US team instant legitimacy. With a point in their first match, I was hopeful that they might advance to the second round but they had to play Columbia next and Columbia were one of the favorites of the entire tournament. Pele himself had actually picked them to win it all. I'd actually seen Columbia play in person a few weeks earlier as they played Northern Ireland in a friendly at Foxboro Stadium and The Slav and I had gone. They were an impressive team led by colorful Carlos Valderrama famous as much for his huge red afro as his sublime playmaking ability. I had gotten a job in advertising sales at one of the big radio stations on the coast called WERZ and had to work a big functon that night so I was really upset at having to miss the match. At some point in the night one of the DJ's grabbed me and told me they had the match on at the bar. It was in the second half and the US was actually ahead 1-0! Everybody was shocked. Suddenly Stewart took a pass and scored a second goal and the US were up 2-0 on mighty Columbia. Valencia scored in the 90th minute for Columbia and there were some nervous moments but oh the joy when the ref sounded the whistle. With one match remaining, the US were actually tied at the top of their group, it was unthinkable. The expectation and drama going into their last match was unbelievable. They could win the group if they won but could still advance with a loss. One thing sticks out to me about that match and that was the goal that Romania scored. Petrescu took a shot from the corner and Tony Meola played the angle about as bad as you could possibly play it. For me personally it was a harsh reminder that despite a couple good results, the US were still nowhere near the level of the "big" soccer countries. They lost to Romania 1-0 in their last match but still advanced to the second round where they had to face Brazil. There they played the match of their lives (on the 4th of July no less) but lost 1-0. The World Cup was over for the US but their Cinderella run had sparked an interest in many Americans in the World game. For me, it was just nice to see other Americans finally starting to realize how beautiful the "World Game" was.

I have a ton of great memories from World Cup 1994. Among them:

* So many great matches stand out in my mind such as Spain-South Korea (where the Koreans scored twice in the last 5 minutes to finish with an improbable 2-2 draw) and the amazing Quarterfinal between Romania and Sweden but believe it or not, the best match of the tournament - and still the most entertaining World Cup match I've ever seen - was, for me, Bolivia-South Korea. Drawn in a group with Germany and Spain, both teams knew they would have to win that match if they had any chance of going through to the next round and both teams just completely threw everything at each other for 90 minutes. I've never seen anything like it, just back and forth, back and forth. There must have been at least 500 shots off the crossbar and an equal number of great saves. I was on the edge of my seat the entire match, it was just breathtaking to watch. And the most amazing part? The final score was 0-0.

* WERZ had advertising accounts with one of the corporate sponsors of the WC and because of this I was able to get tickets to two first round matches (Argentina-Nigeria and Argentina-Greece). At the second match, The Slav struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to him who, as it turned out, had a bunch of tickets to the Quarterfinal match to be held at Foxboro. We had no idea who would be playing and we paid a hefty price for them ($120 a piece) but I didn't care, nothing would stop me from missing the chance to attend a World Cup Quarterfinal match. And it worked out perfectly as the match turned out to be Italy-Spain. I wore my AC Milan shirt and the Slav wore his Inter Milan shirt. The hatred between those two teams is like the Red Sox-Yankees times a thousand and sure enough, as we walked into the stadium an old Italian guy jumped in front of us and started pointing to our shirts and screaming excitedly in Italian. It was a great World Cup moment for me.

* The Quarterfinal match itself was unbelievable. 12 years after hearing the words "Italy beat Germany to win the World Cup" and developing a love affair with Italy's soccer team, I was actually getting to watch them in person...and in a World Cup match. I could have died right at that moment. With the match tied near the end, Beppe Signori intercepted a pass near midfield and fed a streaking Roberto Baggio. I'd already become a huge Baggio fan in World Cup 1994 so when he took the pass, dribbled wide past the keeper and buried a shot from a near impossible angle to win the match in the 88th minute and send Italy into the semifinals I was practically ready to name my first kid Baggio Thibodeau.

* Rudi Voeller's last hurrah. Voeller was one of the main players I remember watching on Channel 11 as a kid and I'd always loved him. Berti Vogts was not playing him in the group matches and I was mad because I knew it was probably my last chance to watch him and I thought he was better than Karl-Heinze Reidler anyway. When he finally played in the second round match against Belgium, he put on one of the greatest displays of how to play the game that I've ever seen, scoring two goals. Watching him and Klinnsman together was just like watching perfection.

* World Cup 1994 was just a great tournament but the one bad thing about it was that neither England nor France qualified. To have a World Cup without at least one of those teams, it just always felt like something was missing.

Up Next: 1998

The World Cup and Me: 1990

My memories from World Cup 1990 are even more limited than 1986 but for a very different reason: I was in Basic Training at Fort Dix, NJ during the tournament. I've always regretted missing the 1990 tournament for several reasons. For one thing, it was the first time since 1950 that the US actually qualified. Also, the tournament was being held in Italy which, if you recall from the introduction, was the magical land of soccer in my mind. I'd just finished my freshman year of college and though I didn't play on the University team, I did spend the year playing intramurals and it felt great to be back playing the sport I loved so much. We had a lot of players from other countries at my school and I became even more interested in the game outside my own country.

I left for boot camp in late May and the tournament started in early June so I missed the entire thing. My mother used to send me newspaper clippings of some of the matches and results which were like gold to me. We had a guy in my company who played ball at the University of Maryland and whenever one of us would get articles sent us, we would sit on the floor and pour over the results. Not only was it great to get World Cup news but it also provided a welcome respite from the day to day stress of boot camp. The thing I most remember was reading the clipping of Cameroon's shocking upset of defending champion Argentina. I'd never even HEARD of Cameroon before that. Such is the power of the World Cup. I also remember getting a clipping of the US getting thrashed by Czechoslovakia 5-1 and thinking "Well, at least they're IN the World Cup". Then a week or so later I received a clipping of the US-Italy match. The US had lost 1-0 to powerful Italy and the article was about how there was hope in the US that we were getting better because hey, they had only lost to Italy 1-0! How quickly the 5-1 drubbing at the hands of the Czechs was forgotten...

Germany ended up winning that year and suddenly they were on top of the soccer world again. Although I didn't get to watch any of it, I read as much as I could about World Cup 1990 and, as I would find out eventually, there were several things about that tournament that would affect me in the years to come (as you will see)...

Up Next: 1994

Saturday, July 03, 2010

The World Cup and Me: 1986

My memories of the 1986 tournament are pretty limited. It was the first one that I actually watched on TV. I was 14 going on 15 during that tournament and was probably at the apex of my playing days (such as they were). My second to last year in the Litchfield Youth Soccer League I dominated, scoring 22 goals in 6 games. The next year, my last, I played the second half of every match in goal and still scored 24 goals in 6 matches. My love of the game was at an all time high. After the school year ended I spent most of my weekends at my father's house and in his neighborhood there were 4 or 5 other kids a little younger than me who loved soccer and so we turned the backyard into a field and would spend the day playing pickup games and knocking the ball around. To be honest, I had no idea the World Cup was even being played at that time since I'd long lost touch with any "real world" soccer news and let's face it, back then nobody in the US gave a rip about the World Cup. One afternoon I came into the house and there was a soccer match on TV. I started watching it and quickly realized that it was the World Cup! The only thing I remember about the match was that France was playing and it looked so much different than the soccer I was used to. Rather than one guy taking the ball and trying to dribble around everybody before shooting (guilty) the teams looked like they were playing keep away. Every now and then, one team would push the ball forward and make a run at the goal or send one his teammates running with a nifty ball that would slice through the defense. I'd never seen the sport I loved played like this before and for the first time I had an inkling that the sport we called soccer was played much different in the rest of the world.

Unfortunately the tournament started a couple weeks earlier that year than normal and by the time I discovered that it was on, it was almost over. So I only got to see a couple matches, very few details of which I can actually remember. What I remember most was that my fascination with the World Cup was instantly rekindled. The one player who stood out at that World Cup was of course Diego Maradona and he became the first World class player that I idolized. His team, Argentina had won the Cup and it opened up a new world for me - the world of South American soccer. Where we lived we had a lot of different immigrants and many of them were Hispanic. Suddenly I had a glimpse of why they loved the game so much. I ended up playing on the JV team of my high school that fall and we had a kid named Febonio who used to try and get fancy and dribble around everyone like Maradona and the coach used to mockingly call him "Madonna". That was a rough season for me as the coach played me at left wing which was probably my worst position and most of the other kids on the teams were a bunch of prima donnas and bad attitudes who were not fun to play with. It was the first time ever that I didn't enjoy playing the game and the next year I didn't even try out. My senior year I had originally planned on playing but, as I've written about on here before, I couldn't quit my job since I needed money for various things so I didn't. For all intents and purposes, my playing days were over as I would be leaving for college soon and given that my College team was made up almost entirely of foreign players while I'd played exactly one year of JV ball in high school, I'd have no chance of making the cut. But while my playing days were drawing to a close, my days of being a fan of the World game were just beginning. As Gino commented in my last post, I would occasionally stumble across a copy of Soccer Digest and through it, started learning about players and teams from other countries. The flame continued to be fanned, slowly but surely...

Up Next: 1990