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Total Utter Madness: A Story of Soccer
As Thursday brings us the the 20th installment of the World Cup, we look back on writer Michael J. Agovino’s personal history with the sport that will come to dominate global discussions for the next month.
From Issue 43, Games We Play.
I. AUGUST 7, 1982:
FIFA/UNICEF World All-Star Game, Live at Giants Stadium
The day of my first soccer game began in the Bronx, where I was from. We didn’t have a car, my father didn’t drive, nor did he make any apologies for that, so we took a city bus, the QBX 1, to the number 6 subway at Pelham Bay Station. This didn’t take us to any game or stadium, but first to 125th Street, where we, the only white people, crossed the platform for the 4/5 express, to Grand Central, then to the shuttle, and finally to the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
The steps from the subway, menacing and dark in those years, to whatever was above—a plaza, a street, light, safety in numbers—usually brought an exhale and relief, but at the Port Authority, it was the opposite. It was an ascension into still more, and diverse, rings of despair—and the pent-up energy of wants and needs. It was at once the most alive of spaces and the most terrifying, besides, that is, the number 6 train that we had just taken, a portable mural of affirmation and rage, the elevated tracks buttressed by tenement carcasses.
Weeks before, this ad had appeared in the New York Times: “For the first time in history, the world’s greatest soccer players—selected on the basis of their performance in the 1982 World Cup—will collide in an international All-Star match. Above all else, they’ll be fighting for one goal: to help the world’s children.” The game was sponsored by UNICEF; tickets were pricey at fifteen, eleven, and seven dollars. If you couldn’t make it, the ad said, be sure to make a donation to UNICEF on East Thirty-Eighth Street. It was billed as “Europe vs. The Rest of The World.”
My father, who knew little about soccer but encouraged my newfound interest in it, bought us tickets high in the upper deck. It would be hard to get to, he said, but there would be buses from the Port Authority. We’d been to Shea and Yankee stadiums together and Madison Square garden, but never to Giants Stadium and never on such a journey, across two rivers, to see a game.
The bus to Giants Stadium was crowded, unlawfully so I’m certain, not an inch of standing room to be wriggled. But the law likely didn’t care about us; we were “other.” If there were white people, and there were a few, none aside from us appeared to speak English. Mostly, though, there were non-white people, with every texture and curlicue of hair, every shade of skin, from caramel to onyx, but different, it was clear—through speech, gait, stance— from the black people I lived amongst in Co-op City or on the 6 train or at 125th.
It may have reeked of an admixture of perspiration and, with windows wide open, bus exhaust, but it may have been the most comfortable uncomfortable coach ever to depart from Forty-Second Street and Eighth Avenue, everyone giddy, full of smiles and harmonies. They couldn’t wait to see their countryman, or neighboring countryman or someone at least from their part of the world, in performance: Thomas N’Kono of Cameroon, Faisal Aldakhil of Kuwait, Julio César Arzú and Roberto Figueroa of Honduras, Lakhdar Belloumi of Algeria, Jaime Duarte of Peru, Júnior and Socrates of Brazil, and Astolfo Romero of Colombia and Hugo Sánchez of Mexico, even if they weren’t even in the World Cup. Soccer was the game of Europe—Italy, young men with names and faces and noses like mine, had just won the World Cup, beating, to the delight of everyone it seemed, the West Germans— but this was the game of the Third World, of poor people. For that, I liked it more.
Outside the stadium, soccer balls pingponged up and down, to and fro, off feet, thighs, and foreheads all over the vast parking lot, which appeared interminable, concentric circles of sterility in middle-of-nowhere New Jersey brought to life by people from every latitude. If there were “real Americans”—whatever that means— they were the minority and arrived in cars.
It was intimidating, the sheer size of the crowd and the steep incline of the upper deck. Yankee and Shea hadn’t been like this. It usually had no more than ten or twenty thousand, maybe forty if the Yankees had a key rival in town. I’d never sat so high up in those stadiums. It felt as though it was so crowded, we’d all spill out of the upper tiers.
Just before kickoff, Danny Kaye, the entertainer and UNICEF ambassador, told us, on behalf of all the world’s children, to scream. he said to us, “Make the loudest noise ever heard!” And we did, the 76,891 of us, the second largest crowd in the history of U.S. soccer, and Giants Stadium shook. The game program, like everything from that night, was different in the best ways. It was sophisticated, worldly, informative, not merely photos of Mr. Met juxtaposed with Schaefer Beer ads. The first page had a letter from President Ronald Reagan. When my father saw his picture, he said, in his East Harlem Italian inflection, “disgrazia,” disgrace. It had a letter from João Havelange, as stately as any U.N. Secretary General, who was the president of the world governing body known as Fédération Internationale de Football Association in Zurich, Switzerland, FIFA for short. It had a profile of UNICEF, of its mission, and photos of handicapped kids, about my age, fourteenish, in Rwanda, at the Gatagara Mission Center, trying their best to kick the ball on a dusty patch. Another photo showed starving children in Somalia’s Sabaad Refugee Camp. Rwanda, Somalia, now I’d have to find them in the Britannica Atlas, my favorite book, just the way I’d had to find Cameroon, its capital Yaoundé, Kuwait, Honduras (and Tegucigalpa, but Daddy, how do you pronounce Tegucigalpa?), Vigo, Gijón, La Coruña, and Zaragoza in the previous weeks when I came across this game I knew little of that now obsessed me.
Someone named Brian Glanville, “a soccer correspondent for the London Sunday Times,” wrote about the different national styles of soccer. What a thought. I never heard of this in baseball. There was no Brazilian way of playing baseball or English way, we couldn’t blame the Scots for ruining baseball, as Glanville was blaming them now for screwing up soccer. Glanville wrote that the Czechoslovaks were known for their “Danubian deliberation and pattern weaving.” There was a byline from someone named Juvenal, just Juvenal, who wrote for the Argentinian magazine El Grafico, and Rob Hughes, another “correspondent” for the London Mail on Sunday. I loved how they used that word, “correspondent,” and how these pieces read like serious, global concerns. It made sense that there were soccer correspondents. Could I be a soccer correspondent? It had profiles and a photo of each player: Rossi, the hero; Keegan; Rummenigge; Platini; Camacho; Antognoni, like the director, almost, who scored the winner past the great N’Kono in the final minutes. They played for wonderful-sounding teams, not the London lions or Paris Panthers but Tottenham Hotspur, Juventus, Alianza Lima, Canon Yaoundé, Corinthians. Zico, who shared my birthday, played for a team called Flamengo. There was a World Cup quiz and primers of all the great players from days past. It was all there, in this Baedeker of the game, its past, present, future. Another headline read, and this was a delight: “U.S. Soccer: The Time Is Now.” There was a photo of an American player for the Portland Timbers of the NASl who represented U.S. soccer’s future. his name was Glenn Myernick.
I read the game articles the next day in the New York Times. One claimed that Belloumi, the Algerian who helped shock West Germany a few weeks earlier, left his honeymoon early to be there. Falcão, the lanky Brazilian, attended despite his father having just suffered a heart attack. I clipped these articles and attached them, with the ticket stubs, to the program. I’d keep them forever, even if it turned out to be worth something, no matter how much I might need the money.
We made the loudest sound ever—you should’ve heard us—just like Danny Kaye wanted. And then, over the PA system, they played John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
II. MAY 29, 1985:
European Cup Final, Juventus-Liverpool, Live (and Tape Delay) on the Spanish International Network
I learned what I could, wherever I could, in those lazy summer days in 1982, the last of youth. Toby Charles, the British announcer for the Soccer Made in Germany telecasts on PBS, was both hilariously daft and learned. I discovered more history and tactics from Seamus Malin, a Harvard man, who did commentary for Cosmos games. Tony Tirardo on SIN taught me Spanish for beginners—derecha; izquierda; muy circa; directo; libre; peligroso; penal, penal, si señor!—but he taught me about the ebb and flow of the game simply through the pitch of his voice and his cadences.
It was a pass into a worldwide brotherhood, sure—taxi drivers, hot dog vendors, foreign students, expats, maintenance workers, teachers—but here, now, where I was from, it was an entryway into solitude. I began teaching myself to play that summer, alone for the most part, as there was no league, no team, no coach. I’d climb a forty-foot chain-link fence to Truman High School’s athletic field, juggle the ball, dribble up and down the poorly maintained field, fearful I’d turn an ankle on the clumps of dandelions, and fire shots into the bleacher seating. I often preferred to play on the baseball infield dirt; at least it was flat, unlike the grass. And if they played on dirt patches in Rwanda, like in the photo, why not me? Maybe it would make me better.
Me, alone with my ball, in hundreds of yards of empty space, the anti-architecture of a tower-in-the-park utopia hovering over me. This was not the New York City of new soccer-loving immigrants, but of day-and-night (and midnight!) basketball, of asphalt handball courts enveloped with the wafting smell of herb, and touch football in the street, boom boxes atop car hoods, blaring Kurtis Blow, who would soon live here among us.
Still, despite the solitude, soccer gave me things in return. It encouraged and rewarded curiosity with knowledge: the sectarian animosities in Glasgow; that Edinburgh does not sound like Pittsburgh; that Londonderry was Derry to an Irishman; that Ireland was in fact Eire; that the green in that cool Algeria uniform had deep significance in Islam.
Soccer led me to Kapuscinski and Peter Handke, who brought me to Wim Wenders. It taught me the word quadrennial. Quadrennial taught me patience. Will the next World Cup ever get here?
In the spring of 1985, there was a new hit song. Not just a hit, there was always a hit song, but a worldwide sensation of goodwill and charity, that had DEEP MEANING. The song was “We Are the World.” It was produced by Quincy Jones, whom I liked from his album The Dude and his production credit on Michael Jackson’s “off The Wall” from 1979. The more recent MJ/Q collaboration, 1983’s “Thriller,” was, for me, overproduced, overplayed, overexposed, and overly marketed—pop made too perfect. I was no longer the audience. The great soul and R&B of the seventies and eighties had withered. I’d stick to this new thing hip-hop, more African and Brazilian, 1970s Miles Davis, and reggae, which had me hooked since 1982 with a record I heard on WBAI called, Yes, Scientist Wins the World Cup.
“We Are The World” was Hollywood do-gooderism at its worst, patronizing and laden with white guilt. yet who could argue with it? To help the starving of Ethiopia? The children? We, too, are the children, right? Who can’t get on board? What’s wrong with you?
Sure, it was for a good cause, but it was banal and out of touch. If anything could spread goodwill and charity to the Third World, to any and all worlds, it was soccer. Had these recording stars been to the FIFA/UNICEF World All Star game? Could they find Cameroon on a map? did they know Yaoundé was the capital? Soccer could heal, sustain, or help sustain, a village, a town, a culture, like that photo of Rwanda in the game program. Soccer was the everything “We Are the World” was supposed to represent. It could bring people together. Imagine all the people, living life in peace, woo-hoo. . .”
But then soccer let me down, not for the last time.
What happened, happened at Heysel Stadium, in Brussels, Belgium, at the European Cup Final, Juventus versus Liverpool. The match was shown live, on SIN at 2 p.m. I didn’t get home from school until 3 or 3:30, so I would watch it on tape delay at 11 p.m. As long as I didn’t find out the score—which was virtually impossible; who was going to tell me?—it would be like watching it live. God bless the Spanish channel. But the news came through by late afternoon: forty-one people dead, at least 250 injured in a riot. A wall collapsed when Liverpool fans charged into a Juventus section. I’d read, here and there, about the problem of hooliganism, one that seemed particularly English. A few weeks earlier, there was a fire at a game in Bradford, England, that killed fifty-three. That made the local eleven o’clock news here. Friends at school teased me: “Mike, what’s up with soccer, anyway?” But a fire was different from a riot. And this was more than a riot. This was sick, part surreal, part hyperreal, part unreal.
Brief clips were shown of Heysel. The pandemonium, the rage, the fear, the extinguished lives. More unfathomable was that the game was played. How could a game go on, as if nothing had happened? As bad as the South Bronx was, no one got killed at Yankee Stadium, let alone forty-one people.
The next day, on page one, above the fold, there it was, in the New York Times: RIOT IN BRUSSELS AT SOCCER GAME LEAVES 41 DEAD—and extended coverage inside, in the international section: EXPERT CALLS SPORTS VIOLENCE PART OF A CHAIN OF AGGRESSION. More the next day: BRITISH SOCCER FAN: WHY SO WARLIKE?; A DISGUSTED THATCHER SAYS BRITAIN WILL AID THE BEREAVED; BRITISH SOCCER TEAMS BARRED BY BELGIUM; ITALIANS EXPRESS RAGE OVER DEATHS. The number of deaths was eventually lowered to thirty-nine dead, but Bettino Craxi, Italy’s socialist prime minister, wondered how the game had been allowed to go on. To prevent further violence, the officials said. “Incomprehensible absurdity,” he said.
Two days later, on a very late Friday night, the U.S. National Team was set to play Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifying match, in Torrance, California, El Camino College, a tiny stadium of 11,800, most cheering for Costa Rica or against the Americans.
The United States needed only a draw to progress to the final round of regional qualifying with Canada and Honduras. This was the same U.S. team that a year and one day ago tied Italy, the World Cup champions, 0–0 at Giants Stadium, in a deluge, the start of something big. I was there, section 128, row three.
In Torrance, the U.S. lost 1–0. The NASL was already dead; it slowly dissolved a few months before. Now the U.S. National Team was out of the next World Cup. People were literally dead in Brussels, gone. The New York Times Week in Review, on Sunday, quoted L’Equipe, the French sports newspaper: “If this is what soccer has become, let it die.” Soccer, my new friend, was all but dead.
III. AUGUST 21, 1988:
Sporting Cristal (Peru) vs. Barcelona (Ecuador); Benfica (Portugal ) vs. Nacional (Colombia), Live at Giants Stadium
Life would go on, as would the sport of soccer and all that came with it: the brotherhood, the ethnocentricity, the sportsmanship, the nationalism, the love, the regionalism, the racism, class conflict, the sublime, the nonsensical, amongst white, black, brown, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jew, everyone guilty and innocent. And soccer went on without the United States, the strongest economy in the world.
Soccer remained alive in me, against the solitude, the jokes at the sport’s expense, the jingoism, the plain dearth of it, because soccer was alive in the world. It stayed alive in my father’s barber on Twenty-Eight Street and Park Avenue South, a Sicilian, the spitting image of the actor Michele Placido, who was so silent, so melancholy—he recently became a widower— and would speak only when the subject of Napoli and Maradona would come up. I made it my business to watch the Italian game every Sunday morning, on WNYC, channel 31 in New york City, twisting the bow-tie antenna this way and that, a desperate balancing act to get any kind of watchable reception to see the greatest players in the world: Zico, Socrates, Platini, Maradona, Preben Elkjaer, Liam Brady, Boniek, Carecca, Conti. There was the highlight show, “Novantesimo Minuto,” the Ninetieth Minute, that was supposed to begin at 1:15, but this being the feed from RAI in Italy, started at about 1:15, meaning 1:13 or 1:17 or even more toward 1:25. It wasn’t listed in the New York Times TV guide; it felt like a secret.
Soccer stayed alive on the Spanish channels and offered great surprises, like the Toyota Cup, from Tokyo, midnight our time live, or rather, vivo en directo. I learned that it snowed in Tokyo, as it did on December 13, 1987, when Porto beat the mighty Peñarol of Montevideo, the great Algerian Rabah Madjer, one of the heroes of 1982, and that he scored with a yellow ball.
Soccer stayed alive through my monthly subscription to the British magazine World Soccer, a magazine so hard to find that a subscription eventually had to be secured, but only through international money order, something our local bank, Amalgamated, founded by the Amalgamated Clothing Worker’s Union, didn’t have. It was delivered, two weeks late, in paper or plastic, I forget which, marked “Royal Mail.” The magazine— without gloss, black- and-white except for the front and back covers— taught me and tantalized me still more. Then there were the odd little surprises, classifieds with fans from Salavat, Poccui, USSR; Aberdeenshire, Scotland; Waremme, Belgium; Ploiesti vest, Romania; Bogoso, Ghana; Hyogo, Japan; Wuxi, Jiangsu Provence, China. They were looking to exchange team scarves and programs, pennants and stadium postcards. And pen pals, they were looking for pen pals. Milan fans from Africa, looking for other Milan fans. Notts Forest fans from Jakarta. Notts County fans from Hong Kong. how were there Notts Forest fans in Jakarta? And where was Jiangsu Provence? Where, for that matter, was Notts Forest?
And soccer stayed alive with the World Cup, Mexico 1986; the quadrennial had finally arrived. The U.S. wasn’t there, but SIN was. One of the local sportswriters wrote that it was possible to send a note to SIN and request mimeographed copies of each team’s lineups. So I did. I sent a handwritten note and days later, free of charge, they sent a neatly bundled pile of national team line-ups, with each player’s age, club, and number of caps. This was a beautiful, generous act to me, above and beyond. When I needed a friend, someone, a stranger at the Spanish International Network, was there. I’d never forget that.
I began to understand that soccer meant everything to so many people. I knew this for sure, that soccer was more than a box score, in 1988, when four teams appeared, as if by magic, at the barren Giants Stadium for a doubleheader: Sporting Cristal of Lima, Peru; Nacional of Medellin, Colombia; Barcelona of Guayaquil, Ecuador; and Benfica of Lisbon. like before— the FIFA/UNICEF All-Star game, the Cosmos games that followed, Fiorentina-Sao Paulo, U.S. vs. Italy, 1984—I took the bus from the Port Authority, still as decadent and broken down as it had been.
These were the dreariest days for soccer in the United States, but a recent improbable announcement made for a whiff of hope: The United States was selected as host of the 1994 World Cup. I was happy, of course, but I’d only believe it when the time came. Colombia was scheduled to host in 1986 before it had to withdraw. We here didn’t have the internal and financial issues Colombia grappled with, but did have to deal with the lack of fan interest and artificial turf stadiums, something FIFA would never sanction. Even Giants Stadium—formerly “Cosmos Country,” where thirty-five thousand of us were on this summer afternoon—wasn’t selected as a venue. So I’d wait and see, cautiously optimistic, and enjoy the day’s two games.
I sat next to a Portuguese family. We began chatting immediately after Nacional’s goalkeeper, who I’d never heard of, Rene “El loco” Higuita, did something so bold it was taboo: he dribbled the ball all the way to midfield. The audience gasped, cursed in Spanish and Portuguese, laughed, and bonded. They told me they lived in Newark, the Ironbound section, where so many Portuguese migrated in the fifties and sixties. Today, they came to see their beloved Benfica. The father was white but originally from Mozambique, and when Benfica’s former star Eusébio, “the black pearl,” also from Mozambique, was announced to the crowd and waved, the man beside me began to cry. he turned toward me, hand over his eyes, so his family wouldn’t see. This was a Proustian moment for him or something more traumatic, something colonial, maybe about betrayal, maybe about benevolence, maybe both. I didn’t know what to do, how not to embarrass him. So I kept talking: “he was something, Eusébio,” I said. “Nine goals in the ’66 World Cup.” he nodded, as if to say, keep talking, just keep talking, a few more seconds. So I did. “Four against North Korea, the European Cup win over Real Madrid, one of the greatest players of all time.” Then he gathered himself, smiled, and said to me quietly, “yes, yes, you know, you know. But how do you know?”
Soccer meant everything to a Portuguese born in Mozambique living in Newark. It meant everything in Trinidad. So the following year, when the United States went to Port of Spain, a crowd completely in their national red before color coordination between players and fans became standardized and boring, how could I not feel for Trinidad? Paul Caligiuri’s goal, the only goal, the goal that put the United States in its first World Cup since 1950, was the shot heard round the world but no one here seemed to care. how could I not feel a touch of regret for Honduras and El Salvador, who fought the Soccer War, when they would lose to the United States? Americans had meddled in their region for decades—death squads, proxy wars, United Fruit Company—but they always had their futbol, and in that they were undeniably better. How could I not laugh when Guatemalan fans played tricks on the U.S. team, banging pots and pans, to keep it up the night before the game. Why was it gamesmanship when Americans did something clever, and cheating when others did it?
Iv. JUNE 25, 1994:
World Cup, First Round: Argentina-Nigeria, Live at Foxboro Stadium
In June of 1994, the World Cup arrived in the United States. I had been convinced that something would happen, either to the tournament itself or to me, before it began. But it didn’t, and this was heaven. I watched every game. I took days off from work. I attended four games, all I could afford. My first, on June 25, was the last World Cup game for the operatic Maradona, Argentina against the exiting, bold Nigerians at Foxboro Stadium. I’d seen this stadium on TV, year after year, when it was the artificial turf of Schaefer Stadium then Sullivan Stadium, with Patriots like Mike Haynes and Stanley Morgan and Russ Francis. And here I was, watching soccer on the field transformed to grass.
I saw the Bulgarians shock the Germans, united for their first World Cup since 1938. I saw a semifinal, Italy vs. Bulgaria, upper deck in Giants Stadium, like all those years before, and again by bus from Port Authority, a spiffier Port Authority with amenities and even gleam, Travis Bickle’s dream come true. When did that happen? How did it happen?
I hadn’t become a soccer correspondent but wound up in publishing and my first freelance article was about the Peter Max World Cup poster and all the posters that came before, by Annie Leibovitz, Joan Miró, Antoni Tàpies. I wrote a preview for another magazine and worked in Ceausescu and generalissimo Franco, Henry Kissinger and John Major, Rod Stewart and Elton John, the Argentine junta of 1978, scandals, conspiracies, cheating, political intrigue.
I had a party for the final, and people came—only six or seven, but that’s all my Manhattan studio apartment would hold. Suddenly, everyone cared. I wondered why. What were their reasons? To sound smart? In Don Delillo’s Mao II, out a few years before and excerpted in the magazine I worked for, there was a photo of the Hillsborough disaster from 1989, when Liverpool fans, ninety-six of them, were crushed to death.
Did the new fans just dig the wealth of subtext in soccer? I didn’t ask. Where had they been all this time?
v. MARCH 22, 2006:
Germany vs. U.S.A., Live at Westfalenstadion, Dortmund, Germany
In those wonderful run-up months to the World Cup, always my favorite, I had been sent by a magazine to the Ruhr Area for a Germany-United States friendly match. I took the train up from Zurich, where I’d been spending a lot of time. To learn about Zurich, its culture, its people, its real people, I went to the stadium, stadiums in this case: Hardturmstadion for Grasshoppers on one side of the tracks, Letzigrund for FC Zurich on the other. I was supposed to choose a side, I knew that—you can’t like the Mets and the Yankees—but I couldn’t; I just wanted to see as many games as I could.
I went to league games—against teams like Aarau and Schaffhausen—a Switzerland-Northern Ireland friendly that even the Swiss didn’t attend, and a UEFA Cup game between Grasshoppers and a team I’d never heard of: MYPA, a Finnish club from a place called Anjalankoski. People back home asked me why, why Swiss soccer, how boring, who cares.Many of them were new fans, or as I called them, “nouveau fans,” who seemed to be everywhere now, overnight, most of whom followed the English Premiership, and usually just one of four teams—or Real or Barça in Spain. They were hyper-educated—the new comic book nerds, some of them— and met every weekend and even midweek for the cash cow known as Champions League, formerly the European Cup, at bars across Manhattan or in their own living rooms. Soccer was televised, on two channels, 24/7. They didn’t get it, these nouveau fans; I didn’t go to Swiss games to impress my friends or for any affectation. I went because I loved soccer, in all its brilliance and tedium, the way I always had. Yes, it could still bring out the worst in people, their inner bigot, even among these hyper-educated ones, especially them, but it could also bring out the best.
And there was the game, with the ball. I loved the ball tricks these Swiss players did in pregame warm-ups. They weren’t big name players, but professional and skilled, some of whom would go on to England, Spain, and Italy. I could try these tricks by myself in the park. I loved, even more, the ball tricks during games (and there were Brazilians on these Swiss teams), the back heel, the touch pass. I loved movement without the ball, overlapping runs. I loved the tactics. I loved 3–2 games, but I loved a 0–0 draw if it was well played. And I loved how soccer still taught me things, as it had since 1982 (grasshoppers for the wealthy; FC Zurich for the proud working class I didn’t know they had, but that’s changing, the working class is disappearing).
I was sent to Dortmund, not to write a game story—I hadn’t done that since covering NYU, a Division III team, for the school paper—but just to be there in case something big happened, an unlikely win over the upcoming World Cup hosts, a spectacular American goal, or, as a colleague suggested, in case there’s a riot.
A riot? Hooliganism hadn’t exactly been expunged, but it had been quelled, especially in England and Germany, where the culture of soccer had become more and more of a business, a big one. If fan violence did flare up, and it did, it would never be instigated by, or directed at, Americans, who, I would brag to Europeans, were model traveling supporters.
But these nouveau fans were insufferable, all overnight experts, commentators, bloggers. Even media types who made fun of it or ignored it were on board. Were they under corporate directive to sell this product, soccer, to an untapped “market”? It felt that there was a buck to be made on this game.
For me, soccer wasn’t a market or marketable, it wasn’t about these nouveau fans discussing team ownership. one Arsenal fan, and so often they were Arsenal fans, tried to bamboozle me with his knowledge of David Dein, a minority owner.
I knew Arsenal, boring, boring Arsenal, and liked the Arsenal of David O’Leary, Tony Adams, George Graham, Highbury, JVC, the yellow away shirt with navy sleeves, Michael Thomas in injury time, at Anfield no less, “Fever Pitch,” my signed galley. I loved Bergkamp, how could you not. David Dein I’d never heard of, or never remembered reading about him if I had. I didn’t want to talk about boardrooms or Russian billionaires or Saudi billionaires. I didn’t want to talk about ownership. Who’s being naïve now?
I wanted to talk about Pelé and the next Pelé, the white Pelé, the desert Pelé, Abedi Pelé. I wanted to debate: Pelé or Maradona, Brazil ’70 or Brazil ’82 (or Brazil 2002). I wanted to talk about Brazil vs. the United States, July 4, 1994, the elbow to Tab Ramos. or about Belo Horizonte (capital of Minas Gerais), the Americans beating the English there in 1950, on a goal by a Haitian-American, Joe Gaetjens, who was killed by Papa Doc Duvalier’s Tonton Macoutes paramilitary in 1964. or about Alexi Lalas scoring in San Siro, pre-MlS. I wanted to talk about Lalas with Padova against Roma in Stadio Olimpico (I was there in 1995). or Lalas back in America, the birth of the MlS, and its slow, steady climb to respectability.
This was what soccer was about.
It was about free kicks, bending it, not like Beckham—Beckham?—but like Eder, the beautiful Brazilian, or Pirlo, the lugubrious little Italian. It was about style, sportsmanship, exchanging jerseys after the game. It was about chain-smoking coaches, men of ideas, Vittorio Pozzo, Valery Lobanovsky, Rinus Michels, Total Football, “Danubian deliberation and pattern weaving,” Catenaccio. It was about through balls, “perfectly weighted,” as they used to write in World Soccer, Rabah Madjer in the snow of Tokyo, the fix being in at the expense of Algeria. It’s about culture, history, never forgetting.
It was about Rossi’s hat trick in ’82, Manuel Negrete’s goal in the Azteca in ’86, Omam-Biyik airborne in ’90; the goal of goals; the French of ’84; the Danes of ’92; the Colombians 5–1 in Buenos Aires; the North Koreans of ’66, the South Koreans of ’02; and things you can’t Google. The pick-up games we played on a field beside the FDR Drive—before it was rented out by urban professional leagues, yuppies trying to network—with guys whose names we didn’t know, just their country or jersey they wore: Pass the ball, Turkey; Mali, shoot it; Brazil, you dribble too much; good defense Roma.
It was about the Danes taking it to the Nigerians in ’98 and the Senegalese taking it to the Danes in 2002—and that goal, the goal they’ll always talk about, we’ll always talk about, one, two, three, four, that gorgeous second pass that led to the pass that led to Salif Diao’s goal.
It was about Brazilians, always Brazilians, not just Vava, Didi, Kaka, but Brazilians in Cruzeiro jerseys playing with a dead ball on an asphalt patch in Central Park—things you can’t find on YouTube.
It was about context, not trend or business. It was about what came before, what’s in a black-and-white photograph—the kids from Rwanda; did they survive the spring of ’94?—or what you can only read about, the poetry, . . . In Sun and Shadow, Sir Stanley, Schiaffino, Puskás and the Mighty Magyars. It’s about the ones who never got to a World Cup: Weah, Boli, Brady, Giggs, Best. Not an owner. Not a directive. Not a market. It was—it still is, I think, I hope— about the joy.
Michael J. Agovino (@SoccerDiarist) is the author of The Soccer Diaries: An American’s 30-year Pursuit of the International Game, and The Bookmaker. His work has appeared in Best American Sports Writing, GQ, The NY Times, and Tin