HOUSTON — In the basement of my New York City apartment building, at the bottom of a plastic storage container, I keep an old ugly T-shirt. I bought it for $5 from a street vendor in Montevideo in July 1995, the last time I attended a Copa América semifinal, when I was 21 years old, exactly half the age I am today.
When I say it’s an ugly T-shirt, I mean it. There’s a crude soccer ball superimposed over the light-blue stripes of the Uruguayan flag, surrounded by COPA AMÉRICA ’95 URUGUAY in black lettering. For some reason there are yellow sun rays coming out of the shirt’s neck hole—another ode to the Uruguayan flag—that make the wearer look like he’s dressed up as a giant sunflower.
Yet this clothing abomination might be the favorite T-shirt I own, because it brings back a flood of memories from a special time and a special place. Memories of attending my first U.S. national team game. Memories of living alone for the first time and setting off with the guys on an unplanned road-trip adventure. Memories of eating spaghetti every night on a tight budget while seeking out experiences worth more than anything money could buy.
In 1995 I was a college student living in Buenos Aires for three months and doing research for my senior thesis on politics and soccer in Argentina. For my thesis, I interviewed all kinds of people: Club directors, historians, social scientists and journalists like Ezequiel Fernández Moores and Sergio Levinsky, guys I still know today. One day I met with a man named Mauricio Macri, who was running for the Boca Juniors presidency and would eventually become the president of Argentina in 2015.
Argentina was where I truly fell for the sport. I traveled overnight with Boca fans to a game in Rosario. I stood in the cheap seats with my buddies at a Boca Juniors-River Plate Superclásico. I attended a Copa Libertadores game at River where Colombian legend Rene Higuita did his famous scorpion kicks in the goal. Argentines are the most passionate soccer fans in the world, I’d argue, and I was full-on smitten with everything about the culture there.
We had a solid group of people to hang out with, too, a mix of expat Americans and cool Argentines: Channing and Matt, Alejandro and Lynn, Maribel and Ricardo, Holden and Scott, and two terrific guys we called Diego El Negro and Diego El Blanco. (Neither one was particularly lighter or darker than the other, so their nicknames were always a bit of a mystery.) We couldn’t afford to go out to clubs, but I’d host parties at the apartment I was renting on Calle Aráoz near Avenida Las Heras. We’d buy big bottles of cheap Quilmes beer and play Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, and when the Argentines stayed until 7 a.m. on Sunday mornings (as is their custom) I’d sprawl out on my bed as a way of saying: This was great, but could we please, please call it a night?
I learned a lot that summer, including some embarrassingly basic stuff. When I invited my thesis advisor and his wife over for dinner, she had to show me how to use a corkscrew and how to cook a chicken the right way. My friend Channing taught me how to make coffee with her French press. I had no TV, no Internet and plenty of time on my hands. So I read a lot: Bill Buford’s Among The Thugs, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, copies of The New Yorker that my parents sent in a care package.
In July the 1995 Copa América started. It was the year after the U.S. had hosted the World Cup, and the U.S. team was playing in the tournament. I watched its opening game at a neighborhood pizza place and pumped my fist when Eric Wynalda scored twice in a 2-1 win over Chile. A loss to Bolivia followed, setting up the group finale against a stacked Argentina team with Gabriel Batistuta, Diego Simeone and Javier Zanetti.
My friend Matt and I bought U.S. jerseys (vertical red wavy stripes) at a sports store on Calle Florida, and we watched USA-Argentina at Diego El Negro’s house. Argentine coach Daniel Passarella decided to rest a bunch of his starters, and we stood in disbelief as the U.S. blew the doors off the Argentines! By the time the 3-0 upset was complete, with goals from Alexi Lalas, Frank Klopas and Wynalda, the U.S. had clinched first place in the group.
We celebrated by doing what every Argentine soccer fan does when their team wins a huge game: Going to the Obelisk, the centerpiece of the Avenida 9 de Julio, and jumping around like idiots waving an American flag. Bad idea. The next day my apartment got robbed, which didn’t seem like a coincidence.
But something special was happening for Steve Sampson’s U.S. team. The U.S. dispatched Mexico on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals thanks to a huge performance by Brad Friedel, setting up a Copa América semifinal against reigning World Cup champion Brazil. And so Holden and Scott and I decided to go. We got tickets on the Buquebus slow ferry across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires to Montevideo. And when we learned to our surprise that the game was actually in Maldonado, we hopped a micro bus down the coast.
What do I remember about the game? Well, I remember being so cold beforehand—this was the Uruguayan winter, after all—that we did a couple rounds of shots in a bar outside the stadium. I remember getting my picture taken in my U.S. jersey with a bunch of male Brazilian fans in drag. (They never really explained why they were dressed that way, but they were clearly having a great time.) And I remember Brazil scoring a first-half goal and the U.S. never getting too close to an equalizer.
There’s no shame in losing 1-0 to the world champion in the Copa América semifinals, though. We made friends with the Brazilian fans—I’d give anything to find our photograph from that night—and I knew I had the bug. My first U.S. national team game would not be my last, and sure enough, there have been 119 USMNT “caps” for me since that game 21 years ago.
We took the bus back to Montevideo that night and stayed at a $12-a-night hotel. I bought my Copa América ’95 T-shirt the next day and finished up my three-month stay in Buenos Aires. Through the magic of the Internet, I’m still in touch with several of my friends from that glorious summer.
I’ll probably engage in some spirited trash talk with Diego El Negro before the USA-Argentina game on Tuesday. It’s the Copa América semifinals, after all, my first since that fateful trip two decades ago, and the two teams are my birth country and my adopted country, the one that gave me a deep and abiding love for this game.
I might have to buy another ugly T-shirt.