On Sunday, at Comunale Stadium in Florence, Italy, the U.S. soccer team and its little-boy dreams were garroted 5-1 by Czechoslovakia in America's first appearance in the World Cup finals in 40 years. "Maybe you could say the worst is behind us," said U.S. defender Mike Windischmann shortly after handing over his postgame urine specimen to officials. "But it's not. We have to play Italy next."
At least Windischmann, the U.S. captain who still lives in the basement of the family home in Queens, N.Y., hit his cup cleanly and professionally and was not forced to leg-whip a drug tester. Which is more than could be said of what he did on the field, where he tripped Czech midfielder Ivan Ha‚Äö√¢√†¬¨‚àûek, who otherwise would have had a clear shot on the goal. That infraction led to a successful penalty kick by Michal Bílek and gave Czechoslovakia a dispiriting 2-0 halftime lead.
More on the U.S.-Czechoslovakia game in a moment. First, the Hooligan Report:
ITALIAN AUTHORITIES 10,000, HOOLIGANS 0
This is not to say that no dread soccer goons prowled around Italy during the first few days of the monthlong tournament. However, the uniformed police, army, soccer officials and God knows how many dogs, TV cameras and undercover agents outplayed the bad guys almost as severely as the Czechs outplayed the Americans. Among the first to go down was Paul Scarrott, 34, of England, the self-described "greatest hooligan in the world." Scarrott, whose passport had been revoked because of his 40 convictions for soccer-fan violence, sneaked into Italy with a fake passport and swaggered about for several days before getting snagged by railroad police at the Termini station in Rome while carrying a five-liter, mostly drunk, bottle of wine.
Scarrott's escursione italiana was presumed to have been sponsored by the London Daily Star, for whom he was a short-lived correspondent. In his June 4 dispatch, he sent a photo of himself in front of the Colosseum and wrote, "They'll never stop me. We're after the Dutch [whose team will play England this Saturday] and we want to give them a right good kicking. We'll wait for them with tear gas bombs at the Termini station." Once apprehended by Italian police, Scarrott displayed his tattoos to a clamoring press before being shipped back to England for a visit to Scotland Yard.
The scene in Florence was far more peaceful. The sale of alcohol was banned throughout the city on Sunday—as it will be on game days at all 12 of the World Cup sites—and the Czech and U.S. fans seemed as warmhearted and expansive as any visitors to the beautiful Tuscan capital. Indeed, with both competing countries flying red-white-and-blue colors, there weren't even the usual pregame banner clashes in the streets. To tell the fans apart, you had to look at their clothes. The Americans were the ones in college sweatshirts and Topsiders; the Czechs were the ones in sandals, black socks and 1950s-style swim trunks. The Americans also seemed to have a lock on such free-world products as Walkmans, gold watches and anything with a designer label on it.
Such disparity came as no surprise, considering that Czechoslovakia has only recently shaken off the burden of 41 years of totalitarianism. Indeed, President Vaclav Havel had to miss the game because his seven-month-old coalition government was facing election in the country's first free balloting since 1946. "We're very sorry we won't be able to vote," said star midfielder Lubo‚Äö√¢√†¬¨‚àû Kubík, a defector in 1988 who now plays for Florence's first division team, Fiorentina. "There's more than football on our minds, as you can imagine."
Nevertheless, this was an important game for the Czechs. It boosted their chances of reaching the second round, and if they achieve that goal, each player will receive a bonus of $1,600. (The top two squads in each of the tournament's six four-team groups—plus the leading four third-place teams—advance. In the group with the U.S. and Czechoslovakia are Italy and Austria.) "We want to do it," said Kubík. "We're poor."
For the first 20 minutes of the game, the U.S. players, also underpaid but promised a healthy bonus—$10,000 each—if they made the second round, looked as hungry as the Czechs. Forward Peter Vermes, who plays for a first-division club in the Netherlands, nearly scored early in the game. And goalkeeper Tony Meola, the kid from Kearny, N.J., made a couple of fine saves and lent an upstart cockiness to the decidedly overmatched American side. For a moment it seemed possible that the U.S. had progressed to world-class status.
But the Czechs soon cashed in. In the 26th minute, Lubomir Morav‚àÜí‚àö√üík drew three U.S. defenders to the left side and centered the ball to Tomà‚Äö√¢√†¬¨‚àû Skuhrav‚Äö√†√∂≈í¬©, who blasted it from close range past Meola and into the middle of the net. Twelve minutes later, Windischmann tripped Ha‚Äö√¢√†¬¨‚àûek, and Bílek rocketed the ball into the upper left corner of the goal on the resulting penalty kick. Suddenly the Americans looked like the youngest and most amateurish team in the tournament—which, of course, they are.
A group of Italians attacked Alain Lammortain, 26, a Belgian truck driver, in a bar because they thought he was an English hooligan. Youths kicked and threw stones at the blond-haired Lammortain after he had parked his lorry and ordered a beer in the town of Latina, 37 miles from Rome. Lammortain, who was not seriously injured, defended himself with a screwdriver and barricaded himself in his truck until police arrived.
Long before meeting Czechoslovakia, the U.S. players knew they faced an uphill battle. Europeans "have the advantage of having their own pro leagues," said midfielder Tab Ramos at the Americans' training site outside Pisa. The only comparable U.S. outdoor professional league, the North American Soccer League, folded in 1985. Beyond that, said the 5'7", 140-pound Ramos, the Czechs "are very big and mentally tough. They have a couple guys about 6'2", 185, and that can be a factor, especially on balls in the air."
Height or toughness or just plain skill was a factor when the Czechs headed in two corner kicks in the second half. Then, in injury time, striker Milan Luhov‚Äö√†√∂≈í¬© booted in the final goal on an overpowering charge of Czech attackers that rolled over the U.S. defenders like a wave over coral.
Three days before the game, U.S. coach Bob Gansler, the perpetually beleaguered former U.S. team player who last week seemed to spend most of his time replying "No" to questions about whether he will quit or be fired soon, had a hard time balancing the joy of making the World Cup finals with the threat of embarrassment that could come with getting routed by a superior team. "Perhaps we are further along than a lot of you think," he said. Then he added, "But it is an evolutionary process."
Against the Czechs the evolutionary process dead-ended at Java man. At first, handicappers set the odds of the U.S. winning the World Cup at 1,500 to 1, but that was changed in some betting circles to 5,000 to 1. Two days before the U.S.-Czechoslovakia game, USA Today odds-maker Danny Sheridan made the Americans 50,000-to-1 long shots.
On Friday the U.S. team watched Cameroon shock defending champion Argentina 1-0 in the opening game of the tournament (page 44). The upset proved, as Gansler drily put it, "that favorites don't always win, which is why you play the game." The U.S. players had mixed feelings about the outcome. "We were for Cameroon in one sense," said Vermes, "but, in another, we weren't. We want to have the biggest upset here."
Before his sojourn in Italy ended, Scarrott told reporters, "I want to see the monuments and the pope."
But the pope apparently didn't want to see him, although the pontiff did find time to bless Rome's revamped Olympic Stadium, telling a near-capacity crowd of 80,000 eight days before the opener that modern sport is threatened by "an obsessive search for wealth, commercialization, doping and other forms of fraud and violence." The man knows of what he speaks. Back when he was called Karol Wojtyla, he was the goalie for the State Secondary School for Boys soccer team in Wadowice, Poland.
Recently, the powers that be in Italy have been worried less about the venalities of sport than about the procrastination of the country's labor force. In late May, Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti threatened in his column for the magazine Europeo that if the bogged-down preparations weren't completed on time, "we will have to resume the execution of the Tarpeian Rock." The rock is a precipice in Rome from which traitors were thrown to their death in ancient times.
Despite all the anxiety and delays, so far everything has come off much the way it was supposed to. The opening ceremony at the Meazza Stadium in Milan was an impressive display of many of the good things Italy has to offer: music, art, fashion, beautiful women and—less assuredly—giant, floating balloons made to look like soccer balls. The huge, helium-filled, flower-covered orb that wafted out of the stadium is now, no doubt, a missile target somewhere over the Soviet Union.
In Genoa, English fans are dressing in tartans and masquerading as Scots in an attempt to dupe antihooligan officials.
One thing that may have subtly hampered the U.S. against Czechoslovakia was criticism in the days preceding the game that the Americans were too gentle and too law-abiding to compete with the rough and dirty European pros. But Gansler disagreed and asserted that his team could play with the big boys. "It is a man's game," he said. "You can't go out there as shrinking violets. You can't back down."
A U.S. player who didn't back down was midfielder Eric Wynalda, 21, who knocked a Czech player to the turf early in the second half in retaliation for having gotten his own foot stepped on. Foolishly, Wynalda did his pushing directly in front of the referee and was red-carded (ejected from this game and automatically suspended for the next). His manliness forced the Americans to play the final 38 minutes with 10 men. "Anytime you get a red card like that, it's stupid," said Windischmann.
The lone bright spot in the game for the U.S. was a breakaway goal by former UCLA star Paul Caligiuri shortly after Wynalda left the field. Following a give-and-go pass to striker Bruce Murray, Caligiuri took a return pass, dribbled up the right side and calmly beat Czech defender Jàn Kocian and charging goalkeeper Jan Stejskal for the prettiest goal of the match. "They said we couldn't score," said Caligiuri afterward. "Well, we did."
Although his goal still left the Americans behind 3-1, it had broken a spell. The last time the U.S. played in the World Cup finals was in 1950, when it beat England 1-0 in a game that's often considered the greatest upset in tournament history. Walter Bahr, 63, was a starter on that U.S. team, and he is staying with the current squad in Italy as a sort of ambassador of goodwill. Father of Chris and Matt Bahr of NFL kicking fame, Walter knows how it is sometimes necessary to leave the past behind. "That 1950 game is a dead horse that we keep beating," he says. "We need to get rid of it for the health of soccer."
Walter wants everybody, especially the U.S. players, to know that things have changed since he and his pals went down to Brazil for the Cup. "There was no pressure on us then," he says. "We were all workingmen with jobs, and those who could get out of work, did. We went to the World Cup to have a good time. How much did we practice? None."
How different the World Cup is today. Each member of the lowly United Arab Emirates team received $368,000 from his government merely for qualifying. There are players with wild manes of blond locks (Carlos Valderrama of Brazil and Claudio Caniggia of Argentina) and dangling earrings (Diego Maradona of Argentina). There are hooligans who hate the Dutch. The Dutch? The folks who gave us wooden shoes, windmills, tulips and cutie-pie striker Marco Van Basten?
Yes, the times have changed, and this might be a good moment for the U.S. to get serious about soccer. Of course, to succeed, the U.S. needs a pro league and a big homegrown star. It also needs a little patience. Says American defender Desmond Armstrong, "We're the best the country has to offer, but our country has a long way to go."
And that's the truth.