Friday, June 26, 2009

Why I Still Follow Soccer

It doesn’t happen very often but there will actually be people paying attention to soccer this weekend. The timing is actually perfect: The U.S. Open was last week; the Wimbledon finals aren’t until next week and the days when Yankees-Mets or Cubs-White Sox were actually a big deal are long past.

So, when the United States plays Brazil on Sunday afternoon in the championship game of something called The Confederation’s Cup, there is actually a chance people will be watching. That’s because the U.S. pulled a stunning upset in the semifinals on Wednesday, beating Spain, which is a true power in world soccer.

Now, let’s be honest about this: this isn’t The World Cup. It’s one of the gazillion soccer tournaments played around the world ever year. There are so many different tournaments that teams in The MLS break off from their schedules in mid-season to play in them. It can be dizzying.

So, this was not as a colleague of mine tried to claim, “one of the great upsets in history.” What makes it significant is that it may bode well for next year’s World Cup. If the U.S. beats Spain THEN it’s a big deal. If it beats Brazil on Sunday it’s also a big deal because Brazil is the Yankees of world soccer. They don’t always win but when they don’t win, well, heads roll.

Now, your first question as you read this, especially if you are a soccer-nista is, what the hell do I know about soccer?

Look, I’m not George Vecsey, my friend whose New York Times columns are always peppered with soccer references because it is easily his favorite sport. But when I was a kid reporter at The Washington Post my first beat was covering the old Washington Diplomats in the now-defunct North American Soccer League.

Covering the Dips—as they called themselves, “Get Your Kicks With The Dips,” was their slogan—was a blast. The NASL had actually become fairly popular in the late 70s and early 80s after Pele came to play with the New York Cosmos followed by superstars like Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia, The Cosmos often played to sellout crowds in Giants Stadium in those days.

The Dips actually averaged more than 24,000 fans a game playing in RFK Stadium in 1980. The draw was Johan Cruyff, the Dutch superstar that ownership—Madison Square Garden believe it or not—brought in to bulk up attendance.

I’ve said this often but to this day Cruyff is my all time favorite athlete among those I’ve covered. Johan would say ANYTHING. This was a typical post game Cruyff analysis of a loss. “We lost because the coach is an idiot, the players don’t know what they’re doing and no one is listening to me. If they don’t listen to me we will never win.”

I would write that and the next day Johan would scream at me for writing it—I would point out I was standing there taking notes while he was taking—and say he would never speak to me again. Then, after practice, he’d walk up and say, “where are we going for dinner?”

I look back at my days covering soccer in today’s era of athlete websites and interview rooms and shake my head. I often joked that the soccer people were so cooperative that they’d come to your house to be interviewed and I wasn’t exaggerating by much.

In 1981 the so-called “Soccer Bowl,”—the NASL championship game—was being played in Washington. The league’s biggest star at the time was Chinaglia. On the Sunday before the game I was covering a football game at Giants Stadium when my boss called me. “As long as you’re up there, why don’t you stay over until Monday and see if you can talk to Chinaglia,” he said.

Okay, fine. It took me about five minutes to get Chinaglia’s home phone number from a Cosmos PR guy. When I called his wife he was asleep but would take a message. Sure enough, an hour later The Washington Post’s press box phone rang. (No cell phone in those days).

As luck would have it, Tony Kornheiser was closest to the phone. He answered it, got a funny look on his face and said, “John (no he didn’t call me Junior back then) there’s an Italian guy on the phone for you.”

It was Chinaglia, a little stunned that someone didn’t know who he was. I told him I was hoping to talk to him the next day.

“Where are you staying?” he asked.

I told him. He said. “I have to go into the city in the morning for a meeting. I’ll pick you up, we’ll drive in and have breakfast. We can talk in the car and at breakfast. Is that okay?”

I probably should have asked why he wasn’t inviting me to the house for breakfast but I said that was fine. When Kornheiser, listening to the conversation, heard the plan he began shouting all over the press box: “Giorgia Chinagli (he did know the name) is going to be Feinstein’s chauffeur tomorrow.”

I’ll always have a warm spot in my heart for those days. Which is why I still follow soccer even though I haven’t covered it for years. And I’ll be watching Sunday.

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