Uncharted Waters

Alexi Lalas is the first U.S. player in Italy's top soccer league
September 25, 1994

He is back at the Prato della Valle again. How did he do this? He drove around the large square once, past all 78 statues of famous former residents of Padua, Italy, past the scientist, Galileo, and the historian, Titus Livius, and past the poets, Ariosto and Francesco Petrarca, and all the rest. He has driven around it a couple of more times in the past 15 minutes, and now he is back for a fourth try. Or is it the fifth?

Alexi Lalas is not sure. His girlfriend, Jill McNeal of Los Angeles, has the map of Padua spread in front of her. They are looking for a particular street, a particular turn, but keep missing it. The street signs are passed in a perpetual take-no-prisoners surge of traffic: small cars in a constant tangle with fat buses and motor scooters and—watch it!—a woman on a bicycle.

"All right, this street at the next corner is something with an S," Lalas says as he drives the Fiat station wagon. "Here it is. It's...aw, it's a long one. S with a lot of letters. Do you see anything like that on the map?"

"I can't find it," McNeal says.

"Well, what are we looking for?"

"Wait a minute. I lost my place."

They are coming from lunch, where they discovered that pepperoni pizza is a vegetarian dish in Italy, red peppers spread across the cheese and tomato paste. McNeal looked up the word peperoni after the fact and confirmed that it means "peppers" in Italian. The goal now is to find the home of McNeal's Italian-language tutor. Her first lesson is not scheduled until tonight, but this is a practice run to see where she must go on the real trip. The practice run is leading again past the famous Basilica of Saint Anthony—the third or fourth or fifth time for that.

"Jill," Lalas says. "You better leave an hour before the class."

"I don't think it'll lake that long."

"Yes it will," Lalas says, "because you're going to get lost."

The confusion and adventure of his new life are a wonder to behold.

"I never expected any of this," says the 24-year-old Lalas. "I never set out to play professional soccer as a kid, much less play over here. I never had the dreams. That's why this is so crazy. I never would've thought of this in a million years."

He is the American. He is the unlikely pioneer, sketched out in Peter Max Day-Glo colors, red hair flying, goatee hanging off his chin, set against a classical white-marble background. Professional soccer? Italy? He is the first American ever to do this, to play in the best damn soccer league of them all, Serie A of the Italian League, to play against the best players in the world. Everything is new and very different. Everything has happened very fast.

As recently as the middle of June, he had no thought that any of this could take place. At that time, the horizons of virtually any American soccer player went no further than a quietly hopeful tomorrow, than the idea of somehow still being allowed to play the sport after college was finished. There was no demand, no expectation. Lalas was thinking that maybe he would try the music business with his band, the Gypsies. Or maybe he would head into the real-life job market. Both of those possibilities stood a better chance than this one. This was a fantasy that couldn't even be considered.

"The entire summer is a blur," he says. "The World Cup is a blur. I can't remember any of the particular things that happened. I can talk about them, sound pretty good, because I have seen a lot of the stuff replayed on television, but I don't really remember what I was thinking and what I was doing. All I know is that I was having a blast, and it still hasn't stopped."

A rocket came past, and he reached out and grabbed a handle. Simple as that. An international spaceship landed in his backyard, and he was taken as happy captive by soccer-crazed aliens. The World Cup came to the U.S. for the first time, and he somehow became the rock-and-roll American face of the game, looking outrageous, saying outrageous things, then running onto the field and playing better than anyone had suspected he could. By the time the Cup ended—after the U.S. had beaten Colombia 2-1 in a surprise and made the second round, another surprise, and lost a surprising 1-0 game to eventual champion Brazil—he had completed the late-night hat trick, talking with Koppel and Leno and having Letterman trim an inch off his beard.

The Americans' success was his success. He was the U.S. representative on the All-Tournament team. The billion or so people in the worldwide television audience had watched him and remembered. He had a shoe deal in the works and an agent in Brussels and offers to play for Coventry City in the English Premier League and for Bocum in the top-rated German Bundesliga and here in the most unlikely, high-powered setting of all.

"I looked at the different places, thought about all of them, but I kept coming back to the thought that 20 years from now, if I didn't come here, I'd be sitting around, wondering if I could have played in Italy," he says. "This is the best. No one has ever had this chance."

The team, Padua, was working on its own little blur of success. In European soccer the composition of the top, major leagues varies from year to year. The four teams that finish at the bottom of the 18-team major leagues are dropped back into the leagues below them, relegated to the minors. The top four minor league teams are brought to the majors. Under this system, if the Detroit Tigers finished last, say, in the American League, they would be replaced by, say, the Toledo Mud Hens of the International League. Padua was moving to Serie A from Serie B for the first time in 32 years.

Serie A teams can play as many as three foreigners in a game and have as many foreigners as they want on their rosters. With increased ticket prices and increased expectations, Padua moved cautiously into this market. It picked up Goran Vlovic, a 22-year-old Croat striker, and it picked up Lalas, the 6'3" defender, and that finished the budget. Underdog joined underdog. Lalas was given a $500,000 salary for one year, plus the use of a car and a house. He became Padua's big gamble.

"Everything has changed for me," Lalas says. "My responsibilities have changed. In the U.S., how many people see you play soccer? Everywhere I go here, I'm recognized. I go out to eat, go to a club, it's like being in the zoo."

He arrived in the first week of August for a monthlong training camp in the mountains outside the city. No one spoke English. He spoke no Italian. The coach, Mauro Sandreani, told him through hand signals and a mishmash of languages that he would be a starting defender and that the expectations were that he would be a team leader. Only one other Padua player, Beppe Galderisi, had any World Cup experience, having played with Italy in 1986 in Mexico City. The Italians would teach Lalas about Italian soccer. He would teach them about World Cup soccer. The cultural differences would somehow be handled as they came along.

"Everything just becomes so hard when you move to a foreign country," Lalas says. "The little things take so much time...just trying to buy something. At home, you just get in the car and buy what you need. Here you have to find out where to go and you go there, and then you have to go somewhere else and somewhere else. I wanted an answering machine. It took me three weeks to get it. I wanted a fax machine. I'm still working on that. No one can understand why I want a fax machine. They ask me why I'd want one. I say, 'Because I want to receive faxes.' "

The Serie A season began three weeks ago, another blur. Padua, as expected, did not start well. There was a 3-0 opening loss to Inter-Milan at home in the first round of the Italian Cup, a season-long, home-and-home playoff setup—a kind of tournament within the season—that will see Padua eliminated if it does not beat Inter-Milan by more than three goals in the two teams' next meeting. The regular-season opening game was a 5-0 loss to highly rated Sampdoria on the road in Bologna, followed by a 3-0 loss to Parma in the home opener. Three games. No goals for. Eleven goals allowed.

In the middle, between the games against Sampdoria and Parma, came Lalas's strangest moment of all. He flew to London to join the U.S. World Cup team for a "friendly" game against the English national team at Wembley Stadium. It would be the first time an American team had played in the stadium. He discovered how much his life had changed. The game was a soccer bloodletting, a chance for the English fans to recover from the fact that their team lost 2-0 in June '93 to the crude Americans in another friendly game and had not qualified for the Cup in America. Lalas, the American celebrity, became a target for English frustration.

Whenever he touched the ball during the game, he was booed. He would pass, and the booing stopped. He would receive the ball back, and the booing would resume. This had never happened to him before. Never happened? In most of the games he had played, there weren't enough people in the stands to be heard, even if they had booed. When the English achieved their desired 2-0 win, the press did a dance on the most noticeable red head. He was responsible for allowing the two goals, he played with two bumbling left feet, and what could Padua have been thinking? It was all new stuff to him.

"Everyone seemed to lack perspective," he says. "I'm playing with the greatest players in the world. I'm learning. To learn, you've got to mess up. That's what learning is: messing up."

Success for Padua will be simply staying in Serie A, finishing above the bottom four at the end of the 34-game season. Success for Lalas will be simply staying afloat, showing he can do this. He says the soccer is not so much better than other soccer he has seen. He says there are other Americans who could play here.

"If I can do this, other Americans can do this." he says. "All my life people have been telling me I can't do something, and I've done it. Now they're telling me I can't do this. We'll see. I love the game and I have a big heart and I'm going to work my ass off."

"The washing machine finally stopped," McNeal says. "It ran for two and a half hours. Does that seem strange to you? Do you think washing machines run for two and a half hours in Italy?"

"I don't know," Lalas says.

"I hung the stuff out to dry," McNeal says. "It's out fronton the line. I never did that before. Your underpants are hanging out there. People can walk by and say, "There's Alexi Lalas's underpants.' "

He begins to laugh. He sits in his rented house with his rented furniture. The shelves are filled with Italian books he cannot read. The radio is filled with Italian words he cannot understand. A man, just the other day, proposed that he sing on an Italian record, a tribute to Bruce Springsteen. Why not? He is making more money than he ever expected to. He had seven houseguests for the weekend, his mother and his brother and friends from America, sleeping just everywhere. More are on the way.

In the late afternoon he will go to practice, where he will roam the field as this outsized outsider. The old Italian men in the stands will watch him and judge. His teammates will shout at him, and he will shout back, words like "Hit it, shoot," that he says in excitement. He will figure out what he has to figure out. Or he won't. There may be more exciting things to do and more exciting places to be, but he really doesn't know what or where they are.

For now, for this moment, his underpants hang proudly over his new land. Maybe soon he will even be able to receive faxes.

PHOTOBOB MARTINSo far it has been mostly smooth sailing for Lalas and McNeal. TWO PHOTOSBOB MARTINThe World Cup made Lalas a familiar figure to soccer fans, even in Venice. PHOTOBOB MARTINLalas has not turned his back on Italy's sights, like the vineyards near his home in Padua.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)