Wednesday December 29th, 2010

The final days of 2010 are upon us, so it's natural to look back on the year in sports -- or, in my case, the year of soccer. It was a memorable year if you're a fútbol fan, and it was for me too. Here are some of my stories behind the stories, my memories of chasing the game in 2010:

DURBAN, South Africa, Jan. 24 -- On a perfect day in the Southern Hemisphere summer, I interview South African national-team defender Matthew Booth in a hotel overlooking the Indian Ocean. The World Cup is five months away, and Booth is a unifying figure. The only white starter for Bafana Bafana, he's a favorite of the team's primarily black fans, who chant "BOOOOOTH" whenever he gets the ball. (He also happens to be married to a black supermodel from Soweto.) It's a great pre-World Cup story, but nothing's ever guaranteed, and Booth ends up not starting in the tournament. Still, that doesn't keep South African fans from yelling "BOOOOOTH" whenever they see me (a shaved-headed Booth look-alike) during the World Cup.

LUANDA, Angola, Jan. 26 -- Who in their right mind schedules a connecting flight through Angola? Me, that's who. To save money after my last-second side-trip to South Africa, I fly back to Angola, where I'd been a week earlier to attend the world's most remote Big Game, Ivory Coast-Ghana, and to report a story in the restive province of Cabinda on Ivorian star Didier Drogba. The Africa Cup of Nations is going on, and fans from all over the continent are arriving in Luanda. One problem: Not everyone is being let through customs, and the Luanda airport isn't equipped to handle in-transit passengers like me.

As a result, Angolan customs officials disappear with my passport and I spend the next six hours in a holding pen with a motley crew of people they won't let into the country: a Cameroonian fan who misses his team's game ("This is bad country," he tells me); a Ghanaian guy who's passed out drunk after downing a bottle of duty-free liquor on the plane (he later vomits on the floor next to me); and a Chinese man who barely speaks English. With nothing else to do, I start watching DVDs of "The Wire" on my laptop. The Chinese guy takes an interest, so I attach my splitter and give him my headphones, pointing to the screen: "That's where I live: Baltimore." After subjecting him to scenes of West Baltimore, I end up wondering if he thinks I'm better off in the Angolan holding pen.

After six hours of wondering if I'm being held as punishment by the Angolans (who might not be happy with my report on Catholic priests being put in jail there), a customs official arrives with my passport and escorts me to the Lufthansa departure gate -- but not before I exchange e-mail addresses with the Chinese and Cameroonian guys. I arrive home 24 hours later. My checked bag shows up two-and-a-half weeks afterward.

TAMPA, Fla., Feb. 23 -- You might think the U.S. national team coaching staff has a special way of viewing overseas games involving U.S. players that's different from the rest of us. You'd be wrong. In the lobby restaurant of the hotel where the U.S. team is staying, I sit next to U.S. coach Bob Bradley and his staff (Jesse Marsch, Mike Sorber, Pierre Barrieu and Zak Abdel) as they watch two different Champions League games on the TV screens and U.S. defender Jonathan Spector (on Marsch's laptop) as he plays for West Ham against Manchester United. When Spector is shown on a replay, four of us gather around and watch the grainy laptop transmission. Technology these days is amazing, and someday it may allow everyone to watch any soccer game live in HD. That day has not yet arrived.

AMSTERDAM, March 4 -- On the day after the U.S.'s 2-1 friendly loss to the Netherlands, American midfielder Stuart Holden arrives at the departure gate for his return flight to Manchester, England. Also waiting for the flight is Dutch enforcer Nigel de Jong, the Manchester City midfielder who broke Holden's leg the night before with a vicious tackle. The injury will limit Holden's contribution at the World Cup (where he plays four minutes), a shame for a rising star who will be the U.S.'s most improved player in 2010. De Jong, the dirtiest player in world soccer, will go on to karate-kick Spain's Xabi Alonso in the World Cup final -- earning only a yellow card, the same punishment Andrés Iniesta gets for removing his jersey after scoring the game-winner -- and break the leg of Newcastle's Hatem Ben-Arfa in the Premier League. At their Amsterdam departure gate, Holden thinks De Jong might come over to apologize for breaking his leg. Instead, De Jong says nothing to him.

LIVERPOOL, England, March 7 -- On my first trip to Everton's Goodison Park, a Premier League crowd is giving a standing ovation to an American. In the final home game of Landon Donovan's successful 10-week loan, the U.S. star scores in a blowout of Hull City. Donovan's teammates carry him around on their shoulders. The English fans unleash a volley of "USA" chants. And at the end Donovan does a lap of honor around the stadium. After three failed attempts in Germany, Donovan has shown he belongs in the world's richest league. It's only the start of a banner 2010 for him.

THESSALONIKI, Greece, March 14 -- I've seen plenty of passionate soccer fans over the years, but nothing compares to the pregame pyrotechnics I witness from the fans of Aris Thessaloniki before their big rivalry showdown against crosstown enemy PAOK. I'm in town to do a story on what happened to former U.S. prodigy Freddy Adu. We end up having an excellent dinner on the city's striking waterfront. Unfortunately for him, though, Adu doesn't get off the bench. By the end of the year, he'll be looking to switch clubs again.

LONDON, March 17 -- I'm sitting across from England coach Fabio Capello in his Wembley Stadium office for an interview for an SI magazine profile. Once Capello learns I speak Spanish, the former Real Madrid coach wants to do the interview en Español, but then his England FA press officer wouldn't be able to know what we were talking about. We end up speaking in English. Capello is less expressive in his new language but no less of a gentleman. "My target is the [World Cup] final," he says. Rob Green's gaffe against the U.S. will help keep that from happening, but Capello stays in charge after the World Cup. On my way out from Wembley I sit down with Franco Baldini, Capello's dapper right-hand man. He prefers to talk less about soccer than about the Italian on the New York Knicks, Danilo Gallinari.

RIO DE JANEIRO, April 23 -- Francisco Moraes, a 69-year-old man who may be Brazil's most famous soccer fan, bicycles up to me at a scenic spot on the edge of Rio's giant urban lagoon. Moraes has supported Brazil at every World Cup going back to 1970, and he takes part in a rollicking debate with two other fans about the state of the Beautiful Game in Brazil under the hard-driving national-team coach Dunga. For an hour the freelance photographer makes the three men assume all sorts of bizarre poses, including climbing up a lagoon-side tree. (For a moment they think they're being punk'd.) I end up buying them drinks and apologizing for the embarrassment. In the end they'll be happy that none of the photos ran.

As for the city, Rio is Rio -- i.e., glorious. But one thing has me a little concerned about World Cup 2014 in Brazil. A few months after my stay at the Intercontinental Hotel, more than 30 guests there will be taken hostage in the lobby by gun-toting assailants from a nearby favela. Nobody ends up being hurt, but it gives you something to think about. I already got held up at gunpoint in Honduras before a game last year, and I promised my wife I was done putting myself in harm's way.

LONDON, April 27 -- I'm running up against the deadline for my three-story SI magazine package on the Beautiful Game. And so, just 36 hours after returning from Brazil, I'm on a flight to London to meet U.S. star Clint Dempsey. In 2005 I wrote a piece on Dempsey for SI and gave him the chance to choose any restaurant he wanted, expenses paid. He chose the Foxboro Dunkin Donuts. Now Dempsey laughs at the memory and takes me to lunch at a nice seafood restaurant near Fulham's training ground. (He's so tight with the owner that no check ever materializes.)

PRAIRIE VILLAGE, Kan., April 30 -- I'm starting to run on fumes during my all-time craziest global travel week. After a one-night stay in London, I flew back home to Baltimore, took a train up to New York City to interview U.S. coach Bob Bradley, trained back to Baltimore and now fly to do a speaking engagement at my elementary school in the Kansas City area. Total travel for the week: Eight days, three continents, 19,030 miles. (Distance around Earth at equator: 24,901 miles.) Wouldn't trade it for the world.

PRINCETON, N.J., May 17 -- The U.S. national team is holding its pre-World Cup training camp on the campus where coach Bob Bradley went to college -- and where I happened to go as well. Knowing that Princeton University keeps the senior theses of every student at a library on campus, I track down Bradley's thesis, entitled "The History of Intercollegiate Athletics at Princeton." Even in his early 20s, when Bradley had no idea he would become a coach, he analyzed Pete Carril's old Princeton basketball teams in a way that gave you insight into how Bradley's U.S. soccer team would play in World Cup 2010:

"Carril's teams are noted for their tough defense, patient, often deliberate offense, taking only the good shot, and team play. To me, there is nothing better than to watch a Princeton basketball team frustrate and beat a 'bigger and better' team. Yes, the coaching staff is definitely very important."

SOWETO, South Africa, June 11 -- For the opening game of the World Cup between South Africa and Mexico, I skip the stadium experience and watch at a public-viewing area in South Africa's largest black township with my friend Mxolisi Mahlangu -- who with just about everyone goes by the initials "M-X-O." (I've never mastered the tongue click.) We enjoy some of Soweto's finest eats, and when Siphiwe Tshabalala scores an amazing goal the place goes nuts. I get hugged by a half-dozen South Africans I've never met before. It doesn't matter that I'm just about the only white face here. These folks are family. In a World Cup full of lasting memories, this might be my favorite one.

PRETORIA, South Africa, June 23 -- It's the 91st minute of the U.S.'s final group game, and the score is 0-0 against Algeria. The Americans are seconds away from going home. I have already written a World Cup obituary for the Yanks on my laptop screen for my "Three Thoughts" postgame reaction on (which I usually send within five minutes of the final whistle). You know what happens next: a long Tim Howard outlet pass, a Landon Donovan dribble, touches by Jozy Altidore and Dempsey, and suddenly Donovan is tucking the loose ball into the net, sparking celebrations around America. The U.S. has won Group C ahead of England. Get me rewrite! Part of me wishes I had saved the "U.S. Is Out" draft of my piece, just for the DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN nature of its content. Part of me is glad those words are nowhere to be found on my laptop now. Karma and everything.

RUSTENBURG, South Africa, June 26 -- The U.S. is out of the World Cup, a 2-1 extra-time loser to Ghana in the Round of 16. Postgame interviews are over, and now I'm standing in the cold outside the perimeter of Royal Bafokeng Stadium trying to pull off a one-man video hit for It's a comical scene. I've got my HD flip cam set up on top of a tripod. I've got my tiny "studio light" balanced precariously on the ground to light up my face. I've got my lavaliere microphone clipped to my collar and connected by a long wire to the flip cam. I hit the start button on the camera, run around to the other side and try to deliver a glitch-free three-minute-long game reaction. But nothing works right. My light is out of juice and flickers on and off. Then I flub my lines. Then some drunk fan stumbles between my camera and me. In the middle of all this, a bus rolls by. It's the U.S. team. The players' faces are drained. Nobody is talking. If they see me flailing around and can enjoy a laugh at my expense, I figure that's all right.

JOHANNESBURG, July 12 -- The World Cup final is over. Spain has won. And while I'll never forget seeing Nelson Mandela appear on the field at Soccer City before the game, my favorite personal moment takes place in the wee hours of the following morning at our World Cup House. I've lived here for the past five weeks with a multinational gang of journo friends: Gabriele Marcotti (Italy), Guillem Balague (Spain), Simon Bruty (England), Mark Bechtel (U.S.), Colin Udoh (Nigeria), Mark and Branko Mravic (U.S.) and Nick Muzik (South Africa) -- with periodic visits from Peter King (U.S.) and Joe Posnanski (U.S.). It has been a blast.

Now we're re-watching a recording of the final, slow-mo'ing through De Jong's karate kick of Xabi Alonso, when Guillem arrives at the door. For the past four years we've listened to Marcotti, the Italian, yell "CHAMPIONS OF THE WORLD!" whenever he's mentioned the Italian team. Now Guillem, the Spaniard, has his arms raised. "CHAMPIONS OF THE WORLD!" he crows. We give him a hearty round of applause. See you at Brazil 2014, guys.

PASADENA, Calif., Aug. 7 -- After the Real Madrid-Los Angeles Galaxy friendly, I make my way out to parking area west of the Rose Bowl. Former U.S. star Clint Mathis always was a man of the people, and now he and a few dozen friends are celebrating his retirement at a postgame tailgate outside a giant motor home parked on the grass. As everyone partakes from a giant spread of Southern-fried food and cocktails, I listen to Mathis and his friends tell stories about his unique career. Good times.

NEW YORK CITY, Sept. 27 -- I've just finished interviewing new Red Bulls forward Thierry Henry for an SI mag story at the Mercer Hotel in SoHo, and now photographer Diana Eliazov has an idea: Could she shoot Henry walking on the street outside to capture him in his new Gotham element? Henry agrees. Diana gets some good shots (one of which gets published in the story), and a flash mob of fans ends up forming around Henry, who thankfully escapes in one piece. So much for soccer stars going incognito in the U.S. anymore.

COLLEGE PARK, Md., Oct. 1 -- College soccer gets a bad rap. That's my conclusion upon watching Maryland beat Duke before more than 7,000 boisterous home fans in a nationally televised game. It's an entertaining affair played at a high level in a fun atmosphere. Several of these guys will be in MLS next year. On this level, at least, the college game is making a comeback.

MUNICH, Oct. 27 -- In just about every case when soccer figures tell me they don't speak very good English, they actually speak quite passable English. Such is the case with Bayern Munich's Bastian Schweinsteiger, who comes across as extremely engaging in the first English-language interview of his career. We end up talking about a number of topics, including his early years as an Olympic prospect ski racer. He mentions that his girlfriend is visiting New York City, which he loves. I make a mental note to let the Red Bulls know.

MADRID, Oct. 31 -- I'm in Spain for an upcoming SI mag story, but I don't want to miss any of the MLS playoffs, so I connect to a pirate feed of the Seattle Sounders-L.A. Galaxy playoff opener in Seattle. The Spaniards at the hotel bar with me are stunned. They can't believe the soccer atmosphere in Seattle is just as good as it is in the European capitals of the sport. Soccer has a ways to go in America, but it's getting there, faster in some places than in others.

TORONTO, Nov. 21 -- On the day before the Colorado Rapids win their first MLS Cup title, MLS staffer Jason Saghini does me a huge favor, letting me use his VPN connection to watch the broadcast of the World Cup qualifying playoff between the U.S. women and Italy. ( isn't available otherwise outside the United States.) Just when it appears the U.S. is headed for a 0-0 tie, substitute forward Alex Morgan scores in injury time, one of the biggest goals in team history. The Americans end up grabbing the final berth in WWC '11, which will be one of the major U.S. soccer stories of 2011.

ZÜRICH, Switzerland, Dec. 2 -- A few minutes before FIFA president Sepp Blatter reveals the winners of the bids to host World Cups 2018 and 2022, journalists are let into the Zürich Messe auditorium where the announcements will take place. I train my eyes on the front of the auditorium, and when the Qatari bid delegation enters, its members get handshakes and even hugs from several voters on the FIFA Executive Committee. I post what I've seen on Twitter, drawing a chorus of angst from readers. A few minutes later, Blatter confirms the news: Qatar has beaten the U.S. for the right to host WC22.

I told you 2010 was a memorable soccer year. Thanks for going on the adventure with me, and let's keep it going in 2011. Happy new year!

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