From Princeton to Pretoria, a year of fútbol across the world
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
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,
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
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,
THESSALONIKI, Greece, March 14 -- I've seen plenty of passionate soccer fans over the years, but nothing compares to the
LONDON, March 17 -- I'm sitting across from England coach Fabio Capello in his Wembley Stadium office for an interview for an
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.
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
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
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 SI.com (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
RUSTENBURG, South Africa, June 26 -- The U.S. is out of the World Cup, a 2-1 extra-time loser to
JOHANNESBURG, July 12 -- The World Cup final is over.
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
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
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!