And so to America. Land of the Free (as in free of football passion).
Pete Sixsmithspeaks with genuine affection about a country where he has travelled a lot and even worked, but which hasn’t a clue when it comes to what everyone else in the world calls football and they call soccer, at least as played by males beyond the age of about 11. But hang on, Pete: didn’t Claudio Reyna’s goals once keep us up? …
After the glories of Italia 90 came the grind of USA 94. The football wasn’t a great deal better or worse, but I thought the tournament was a shocker. Let me explain.
I am very fond of the USA and their way of life. I did a teacher exchange there many years ago and still have friends in Virginia and North Carolina. They were barely aware that the tournament was taking place.
I have travelled extensively by road, have crossed the country twice, have traversed the Mississippi from Hannibal, Missouri to New Orleans, have met some of the kindest, most generous people you could ever wish to meet, but, apart from once in New Orleans, have never ever had a lengthy conversation with a US citizen about football other than trying to explain to them that going to a game does not mean that you have to take a personal bodyguard and a very sharp knife …
Football and the USA is like Cheryl Cole and Rugby League, Nick Clegg and sticking to your principles and Mike Ashley and sensible managerial appointments – they just do not go together. They like games that they can be World Champions at because nobody else plays them. I like Baseball, but calling the play off the World Series… do me a favour.
Also, the country is so huge that travelling from one host city to another is absolutely no fun. You have to fly (Americans gave up on trains just after Randolph Scott had built the Union Pacific). And flying is boring and means having to go to airports. US airports are a tribute to dullness. They are functional, sparse and deny you the undoubted pleasures of retail therapy offered by any UK airport. You can’t stock up on shortbread biscuits, garish ties and ethnic souvenirs at Washington’s Dulles International. I know because I tried.
One of the pleasures of a World Cup is the ability to travel about following the games. I remember two Swiss lads sitting underneath the Roker End in 1966, preparing to watch Italy v Chile. They had seen Switzerland the night before and were travelling around from city to city to watch as many games as they could. Thety were even considering going to Middlesbrough – but we dissuaded them from that life changing experience.
A friend did the same in Italy in 1990, using Italian trains, buses and car hire, but predominantly trains. Planes don’t have that same feel about them. It’s a long way from New York to San Francisco and then on to Stanford where the games were being held. And when you get there…….
The stadiums were a real let down after Italy. Stanford would not have looked out of place in Katowice or Minsk (which actually has a very attractive stadium, so sorry Minsk). It was just a huge bowl with no cover. The Rose Bowl in Pasadena (home of the Temperance Seven) was little better and must be the worst ever World Cup Final venue. The others were built either for gridiron or baseball or both and, apart from Giants Stadium (recently demolished, so maybe they will find Jimmy Hoffa’s corpse, which is allegedly buried in the foundations), they were dull with a capital D.
Because of the time zones, the games were not ideally suited to European TV schedules. Some games kicked off in the early hours of the morning, leaving many of us bleary eyed and bad tempered – in my case more so than usual.
There was no UK involvement, which pleased the Americans as they saw English fans as a mixture of Banzai warriors, Viking Beserkers and those spooky villagers in films like Straw Dogs and An American Werewolf In London. What they thought of the Scots, goodness knows as this was in the days before Braveheart and Shrek turned them into good guys.
The Republic of Ireland had made it and had a historic win over Italy, thanks to an iconic goal from Ray Houghton, but they went out in the next round to the Dutch, who went out in the next round to Brazil, who at least made it to the final, knocking out Sweden and Stefan Schwarz in the semis.
The good guys of the tournament were Bulgaria, principally for beating Germany. They also gave us Hristo Stoichkov, a magnificently moody Balkan superstar, who must have terrified some of his team mates. But probably not as much as Trofim Ivanov, “the Bulgarian Wolf” who looked like something that Christopher Lee would lead around on a rope to terrorise the occupants of troublesome towns and villages.
They also had a very gifted midfielder in Yordan Letchkov, a balding genius who was the real heart beat of the team and who scored the winning goal in the quarter final to put Germany on the plane back home. I am sure that he and Stoichkov had “Let’s see who can be the moodiest” contests throughout the tournament. It was a close run thing, but I think Hristo just got it.
The final was a tedious 0-0 between Brazil and Italy, which Brazil won on penalties. It ended with Roberto Baggio, “The Divine Ponytail”, lobbing one into the Pasadena night sky, allowing Brazil to win their fourth title. Their captain then is their coach now, Dunga, the man who looks like Tex Avery’s cartoon creation Droopy. He may get his hands on it again.
Memories: huge crowds but little appreciation of the game; Andres Escobar being murdered by Colombian gangsters for scoring an own goal; Ray Houghton’s chip; Germany going out and me going to work after three hours sleep. Not great recollections.
Next: Back to Europe and Allez Les Bleus.
* Claudio Reyna, it says at Wikipedia, is widely regarded as one of the best footballers the USA has ever produced. He captained the national side, played in three World Cups (though not 1994, when injury kept him out) and made 28 appearances for Sunderland, a tally also affected by injuries. Goals were a rare enough treat, but two of his three for us – against Leicester – were crucial in the escape from relegation of Peter Reid’s ailing team of 2002.
Now retired from playing, he devotes much time to his charitable foundation.