June 12, 2014
DON'T BLAME IT ON RIO
Getting ready for a crazy eighth World Cup
SAO PAULO - How appropriate.
I began this column sitting in the departure lounge of Terminal 8 at JFK Airport, awaiting my flight to Brazil. The number eight certainly hit the spot: This will be my eighth World Cup.
I have to admit, I have been quite fortunate. I have been able to see some of the greatest players live and some of the most mesmerizing moments in football history.
Yours truly watched Diego Maradona punch the ball into the net against England, then waited for the assistant referee - they were called linesmen in those days - to raise and hold out his flag, but he didn't.
As it turned out, I've managed to witness all three England-Argentina confrontations in person, including the David Beckham red card and Michael Owen's marvelous run for a goal in 1998, and Beckham's vindication with a penalty kick for the lone goal in a 1-0 win in 2002. After the 2002 game, I managed to get a spot next to a BBC radio reporter I had befriended who was certain Beckham was going to be brought to him. Lo-and-behold, he was and the rest of the media corps followed, straining for some words of wisdom. I noticed the wooden or fiberglass barrier was about to give way and topple half the media at the Sapporo Dome onto Beckham. The Japanese security also noticed and several men went on their hands and knees to stop a potentially life-threatening incident.
At Italia '90, I remember taking an early morning train from Florence, where I was based, to Bologna for the second-round encounter between England and Belgium. My comrades and I decided to see the English hooligans up close and personal at the train station.
Were we disappointed that they never showed because some 300 had been deported the night prior? Outside the station, Italian police and Army patrolled the area. One even asked me whether I was English. I said, "No! No! I am American!" as I flashed my media credentials. I did not want to end up with the remaining England supporters, who were bussed to another part of the city and were forced to sit out in the summer sun, sapping their energy by game time.
The 1990 World Cup might have been the most frustrating in history because goals were scarce, but I got an opportunity to see some historic ones, including two by Cameroon, which stunned England by grabbing a two-goal advantage before the English rallied behind Gary Lineker to win in extra time, 3-2, in the quarterfinals.
In 1994, there was Branco's fantastic free kick that powered Brazil to a 3-2 quarterfinal win over the Netherlands in a wonderfully played game in Dallas. The irony was that Branco was in the lineup because his teammate Leonardo, was red-carded and suspended for breaking the jaw of Tab Ramos in a second-round encounter. Branco wound up being Ramos' teammate on the MetroStars in 1997; the team was coached by Carlos Alberto Parreira, who had guided Brazil to the 1994 title.
In 2010, Landon Donovan - remember him? - scored that fabulous goal against Algeria. I remember goalkeeper Tim Howard throwing the ball out to start that dramatic play.
Beyond the games, I remember what transpired off the field and the personal side.
When I arrived in Mexico City midway through the 1986 World Cup, I walked through customs without anyone questioning me because everyone was glued to the TV watching Mexico play.
Could not imagine having lax security like that anywhere in today's post-911 society.
I remember my very first World Cup match - Argentina vs. Uruguay during a storm in Puebla. The stadium was hardly filled and us journalists - Soccer America's Paul Gardner was there as well - sat fairly high up underneath the roof to the stands. I remember the side of the stadium, a piece of sheet metal, flipping in the wind.
Later, I made the save of the tournament, saving former Los Angeles Times soccer writer Grahame L. Jones' life. After a bunch of American journalists took a harrowing flight through a thunderstorm or two from Mexico City to Guadalajara for the France-West Germany semifinal, we checked into a flea-bit motel that charged us $10 a night. We went out for drinks at a hotel, which had a pool. As we returned from a couple of drinks, there was a bunch of German fans with their beer steins raised high, saluting their heroes. Grahame had the boldness, or stupidity, depending on your vantage point, to yell, "Vive la France! Vive la France!" as I pulled him away.
I don't recall if any of the Germans turned around to see what all the commotion was, but I really didn't want to have my family read about two foolish American sportswriters drowning in a pool before the semifinals of the World Cup.
In 1994, I wound up in three cities in one day. On July 3, I started off in Chicago, flew to Los Angeles to cover a remarkable game between Romania and Argentina that the former side won, 3-2. After dropping off my rental car at the airport, I flew into San Francisco for the USA-Brazil match on July 4.
In 1998, I endured one of the most confounding days in this writer's coverage of anything. In my most favorite - ahem - city in all of France, Marseille. The hotel I was supposed to stay at for the group-stage match between Brazil and Norway did not have my reservation, even though I had a proper voucher. So, I went to the game and saw American referee Esse Baharmast make the right call at the time, a controversial penalty kick awarded to Norway on a hot and sweaty night. I returned to the hotel, tried to negotiate a room, but they claimed it was sold out. I was allowed to sleep on a couch in the lobby. I wrapped my computer bag around my leg. I woke up and I believe my smell bordered between rancid and heaven-knows-what. Because TGV's in France did not have the capability of going from Marseille to Nantes at the time, I had to travel north to Paris, not only switch trains but train stations as well. If all went perfectly, I had about 2 1/2 hours between coming and going. That's when I decided on a bold decision: I went back to my apartment in Paris, showered, and got rid of my used clothes in my bag. I made the train to Nantes with 10 minutes to spare as I managed to buy a baguette on my way to the train. What I didn't know is that my roommates were out to lunch at the time while I accomplished my time-defying feat. I was nicknamed "The Wind," by my roommates, which included Filip Bondy of the New York Daily News.
I didn't get a chance to see any of the U.S. games in person in 2002, because I was based in Japan and the Americans were in Korea. But there certainly were perks. I commuted to games from Tokyo on the bullet train, whose speed efficiency has been measured in seconds, not minutes late. And besides, I got an opportunity to talk with Lamar Hunt for a good portion of the afternoon about soccer, stadiums and life. Most of it was off-the-record, of course, but I did get an incredible 20-minute interview that was solid gold.
Four years later, thanks to Germany's great train system, I managed to cover 22 games out of a possible of 25 dates, the most I have never attempted in a Cup. That included reporting about three games in Munich without ever having to stay overnight there (although I became a patron of the train station's restaurants).
The day after the U.S.'s stirring and dramatic defeat of Algeria behind Donovan's goal, I was invited to be part of a Q&A with other reporters to interview President Clinton in a round-table discussion about soccer, global events and his Global Initiative.
I liken each World Cup to an adventure and I realize that this one will be so unique onto itself.
What will Brazil offer?
Before I left, I was wondering if I would be flying into a maelstrom called Sao Paulo with strikes and traffic problems.
I was wondering if I would survive Manaus and the Amazon.
Heck, would I survive opening day?