Friday, July 02, 2010

World Cup fever gone, but it was a kick in 1994

Well, soccer fever has died down here in Michigan now that the very best soccer players in all of America have once again been booted out of the World Cup by the squad from an African nation roughly the size of Indiana.

I'm not weeping, mind you. The vuvuzelas didn't bother me as much as the sportswriters complaining about the vuvuzelas. How dare other countries have their own traditions.

And it's not the bad officiating. Detroit fans know all about bad officiating.

The charms of soccer are just lost on me. But that wasn't the case when the event was here in the United States in 1994, and I got to cover one of the games.

Here's a tale from the vault.

According to my oral surgeon, I was pretty excited about going to the match.

What is hyped as the biggest sporting event in the world came to the Detroit area, with three games to be played at the Pontiac Silverdome.

My editors at the Flint Journal allowed me — succumbed to my begging, actually — to be a part of the coverage. One of the fun parts about being a reporter is that we get to see exciting things up close, and I thought this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Not that I’m a soccer guy by any stretch. In fact, it’s safe to say that I was a full-fledged soccer mocker. Growing up in Massapequa Park in the 1970s, it seemed the sport was shoved down our throats. And there was a whole elitist thing going, about how it was the world’s sport and we silly Americans don’t get it and need to get on board. Most of these people were new Yankee fans who knew a thing or two about jumping on bandwagons.

But reporters are curious beings and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about.

A couple weeks before the first game, I had to go through a special security screening to get a press credential that, for its time, was over the top. By today’s standards it was like boarding a flight to Atlanta.

Then I was able to attend a press conference where we were able to see the special grass that was grown outside on octagon-shaped trays in California then trucked to Michigan and installed in the Silverdome, where the Lions lost a lot of games on plastic turf.

We also were allowed to see the FIFA trophy up close. It was underwhelming.

Then I had to get my wisdom teeth yanked out. I’d never had a procedure like that before, and the only thing I remember was the oral surgeon putting some kind of tube over my nose and my saying that the gas that was supposed to knock me out wasn’t working — and several hours later waking up in my bed with my wife saying "Ick, change your gauze." I had no idea how I got there.

So I was still kind of sore when the big day arrived. The United States was playing Switzerland in the opening round game, and the hometown team was considered great underdogs.

We had actual sports guys covering the action on the field. My job was to write about everything else going on. And the fans from Switzerland were completely out of control. The Silverdome parking lot was an explosion of red and white, with singing and dancing, painted faces and flags.

People were walking around with cow bells, and I don’t mean Blue-Oyster-Cult-it-needs-more-cowbell cowbells. These things were massive. Somewhere is Switzerland, bovines were stealthily moving throughout their countryside because their bells were in Pontiac.

I looked for Swiss people who spoke English, and found one guy who didn’t mind talking to an obvious soccer novice. He spoke about the strengths and weaknesses of both teams, then leaned forward and spoke softly.

"Now I have a prediction for you. But I warn you, you might not like it."

"OK,let me hear it."

"Switzerland 4, U.S. 1" he said, then stood straight up with his chest puffed out, clearly expecting me to launch into a tirade. I’m sure he was disappointed that I didn’t.

I admired their fanaticism and patriotic fervor, which was a stark contrast to the Americans in the crowd.

I moved inside for the game, and the Swiss-induced bedlam continued, with more singing and chanting.

I’ve always thought soccer was pretty boring. A colleague at the paper wrote that it’s played on a field the size of Rhode Island with goals bigger than an airplane hangar, and people still can’t seem to score more than a point or two. And all that is true. But it was amazing to see the way the players could send the ball way down field, floating like it was a beach ball, and make it stop on a dime.

Predictably, there were only two goals. Georges Bregy of Switzerland scored first, and Eric Wynalda of the U.S. later. Sadly, I missed them both, having picked a bad time to use the mens room and grab a Diet Coke.

But a 1-1 tie was considered a sizable victory for the U.S., and I got caught up in World Cup fever, staying up late to watch some games, and even buying a U.S. jersey.

There's no way I’d attend another soccer game, but this was a fun way to dabble in a lesser sport for a short while.

But I'd love to be able to take some of the Swiss fans to see a Mets playoff game and let them see what real excitement is!

A week later I was back at the oral surgeon to get my stitches out, and he asked if I had a good time at the World Cup game.

"How’d you know I went to that?" I asked. "Did you read my stories?"

"No," he responded with a smile. "While you were knocked out, you kept repeating over and over, ‘I’m covering the World Cup next week.’"

Apparently I tried to drive home, too.

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