Friday Newsletter: Opening Up My World Cup Archives
Plus I answer your Mailbag questions
Look at this guy. He’s 24. From Kansas. It’s the second trip of his life to Europe. And he’s going to cover the 1998 World Cup. For Sports Illustrated! What a world. He has no idea what’s about to hit him. That a group of eight kilt-wearing Scottish fans will each buy him a beer at a French pub early in the tournament, only for his editor to call him from New York after Beer No. 8.
That he’ll have dinner with fellow SI scribe Ian Thomsen, who takes him to a restaurant that specializes in raw oysters. “Have you had oysters before?” Thomsen will ask him. “Oh, yeah,” the 24-year-old will lie as he promptly dunks his oyster … into the finger bowl.
That he’ll be in Lyon as the U.S. self-immolates out of the World Cup in a 2-1 loss to Iran. Or that he’ll get the worst flu of his life that still gives him nightmares about restrooms at the Lyon airport. Or that somehow he’ll end up writing the big magazine story on France’s triumph in the final and become SI’s soccer writer for good after that.
On Sunday, I leave for Qatar to cover my eighth men’s World Cup. I still count 1994, when I was a college student attending Argentina games in the old Foxboro Stadium and wrote stories for a campus publication about the experience. I had some fun on Friday by digging into the storage unit of our apartment building and tracking down some personal mementoes from my previous World Cups. Let’s break it down:
World Cup 2002: South Korea/Japan
For some reason, the only World Cup credential that I don’t still have is from 2002. But I still have lots of memories from the high-water mark of the USMNT in the modern era, its run to the quarterfinals. My favorite story from that tournament? I shared it on my Instagram the other night:
After 35 days in South Korea, I wrote a short ode to the people of Seoul for SI.com. I didn’t think much of it at first, but I wanted to say thanks for their friendliness. I mentioned the older Korean man who, when I was taking my laundry to the cleaner in the rain, held an umbrella over my head as I crossed the street. And I mentioned how everyone welcomed us during our time there.
What happened next was remarkable. The biggest Korean newspaper translated my piece, and I got invited onto the Korean version of Oprah. I said the six words of Korean I knew, and smiled, and they gave me a standing ovation. A few weeks later, after I’d returned home, I got an email saying a famous monk had watched and wanted to give me a gift on behalf of the Korean people. I reluctantly gave them my address, and two weeks later this vase arrived from Seol Bong Monk. It’s front and center in our living room, and it makes me smile to this day.
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Before that 2002 World Cup, I traveled to China to do a story on Bora Milutinovic (the former U.S. coach), who was the most popular person in China thanks to guiding the country to its first (and still only) men’s World Cup. I met a bunch of Chinese journalists, including Lily Li, who got me to write something for her national newspaper. I always hope they got the translation right, because I had no way of knowing.
World Cup 2006: Germany
The U.S. was based in Hamburg, so I ended up staying in that gorgeous northern city for most of the tournament even after the U.S. got bounced in the group stage. Germany is a perfect country to host a World Cup. Fantastic trains, great stadiums, a passionate soccer culture. Could have used some more late-night eating options beyond curry wurst, though.
The moment I’ll remember the most? Sitting next to the New York Times’s George Vecsey at the final in Berlin and looking slack-jawed at each other when we first saw the replay of Zinédine Zidane’s head butt on Marco Materazzi.
World Cup 2010: South Africa
I had lived in Johannesburg with my wife for six months in 2008-09, so I knew my way around when I returned for one of my favorite World Cups. One weird thing: I had become friends with my massage therapist, who ended up having Sepp Blatter as a client, and the FIFA president gave her all sorts of free stuff, including a ticket to the final. I rented a house in Johannesburg with Gabriele Marcotti, Guillem Balagué and a bunch of SI people, including Peter King (who was wonderfully curious about the World Cup).
The U.S. won its group ahead of England after Landon Donovan’s late goal to beat Algeria, and it was crushing when the U.S. went out in extra-time against Ghana in a game the Americans were dominating by that point. We also hosted a Fourth of July party at our house that was a lot of fun at first, until people we invited started inviting more people, and even more, and then it became a house party that was out of control. Yikes.
World Cup 2014: Brazil
God, there was so much travel at this World Cup. The U.S. team was based in São Paulo, in the south, but drew games nowhere close to that in Natal, Manaus, Recife and Salvador. We had a lot of 2 am flights. The most fun I had was probably after that when our whole SI gang relocated to Rio de Janeiro for the last two weeks. We stayed in Santa Teresa, high above the city, and spent some fun nights drinking cold Antarctica beers at Bar do Gomes. I also did television work for Fox Sports, which wasn’t a rights-holder then, and it meant I had to go to postgame press conferences and then race to a spot beyond the outside perimeter of the stadium area just to do a postgame report.
World Cup 2018: Russia
Fox was a rights-holder for this World Cup, which meant I spent every day at the Red Square studio watching games, writing about them for SI and then talking about them on our late-night Fox show. We’d usually finish around 3 am, when the sun was already starting to rise in Red Square. I’ll never forget having a 3:30 am meal with Clarence Seedorf in our hotel restaurant sitting next to three U.S. fans—who were there even though the U.S. team wasn’t—dressed in Elvis costumes.
On Monday, hopefully, I’ll pick up my media credential for my eighth men’s World Cup. The older you get, the more you appreciate the opportunity to cover these quadrennial events that feel like you’re at the center of the universe for a month. Yes, there are plenty of reasons to feel conflicted about this tournament in Qatar, which I have covered in detail on this site, but I will always love the World Cup. And I’m going to keep going to them until I can’t move anymore.
OPENING THE MAILBAG
Can you shed some more light on the connection between Haji Wright, Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and the U.S. Development Academy? I sharply remember Pulisic speaking so glowingly of Wright around that Morocco friendly, because (as a new fan) he was completely off my radar. That, coupled with the fact that CP gave him that penalty, left me with the sense that this was a guy (Wright) those academy-linked players not only liked, but felt belonged right alongside them at the core of the USMNT. As a result, I feel like Wright’s inclusion on the team was Gregg making a nod to those core players and delivers a “the boys are back together” energy that could produce inspired play at the World Cup. What exactly is Wright’s relationship with CP, McKennie, Adams, etc? Is he someone they rate higher than perhaps the public consensus?
You probably remember that in June I wrote about Haji Wright and the long-term relationship he has with Pulisic and other current USMNT players from their days in Bradenton together. Back in those days, more talent evaluators thought Wright, not Pulisic, would be the big star coming out of Bradenton. When Borussia Dortmund went to scout Wright at a tournament, that’s when they saw Pulisic and switched their focus.
Wright was with Schalke when McKennie played for Schalke, and it just took a lot longer for Wright to find himself in Europe. You never know when (or if) it’s going to happen, but Wright has rediscovered his scoring touch in Turkey. His form is the main reason Berhalter ended up selecting him, but it doesn’t hurt that he has a longstanding relationship with the most important U.S. players.
What the heck happened with Zack Steffen? Part of me wonders if Steffen knew he wouldn't be GK1 and walked away. That seems hard to believe. Who wouldn’t want to go to a World Cup, even if you don’t see playing time? But it just feels like something happened behind the scenes that had nothing to do with form or injury. What’s your sense?
It’s a good question, and it’s a story I’m looking into. When I asked Gregg Berhalter about it at the roster reveal event on Wednesday, the coach didn’t provide much detail at all. The fact is Steffen had instances during qualifying when he wasn’t the No. 1 goalkeeper, and we never got any indication that he was a malcontent in camp when that happened. I always felt like John Brooks wasn’t called into camp during the early part of qualifying, it was because if Berhalter wasn’t going to start him he didn’t want him to be a potentially disruptive force. But that wasn’t the case with Steffen. I’m still struggling to understand it.
What kind of crowd atmosphere should we expect at this World Cup? Specifically for the three U.S. matches, is it going to be a raucous U.S./opponent split or a subdued crowd of wealthy neutral fans?
More tickets were bought for the World Cup from the U.S. than from any country outside the host. And while I realize a lot of those U.S. purchases are from fans of teams other than the U.S., I’m still expecting a lot of raucous U.S. fans in Qatar—potentially recreating some of what we saw in Brazil in 2014. I expect we’ll see a number of fans for group opponents Wales, England and Iran (which is close by), too.
How hot is Andonovski’s seat? What will it take for him to be let go and is it too close to next year’s women’s World Cup for them to change the coach? It’s been three years, and I still don’t know the identity/tactical approach of his USWNT team.
I know the USWNT has now lost three straight games for the first time since 1993 and lost for the first time at home in more than five years on Thursday. But while Andonovski’s seat may be getting warmer, I just don’t see U.S. Soccer pulling the plug on him so close to the World Cup. There’s a lot to fix, of course, but all along I have felt that he’ll get the chance to coach in Australia/New Zealand, and his future will be decided after that.
Listened to the pod discussion on the number 9. Is there any chance we don’t see a true 9 and instead see a front three from Pulisic, Reyna, Weah and Aaronson?
I just don’t see it at this point, and that comes from Berhalter not having experimented with that at all during qualifying or after. That said, Berhalter has already unleashed more surprises than we were expecting for the 26-man roster, so maybe he’s got more up his sleeve. If you’re a coach trying to get your 11 best players on the field, you would certainly consider one of those guys as a number 9. I’d lean toward Weah or Reyna.
If this was a traditional 23-man World Cup squad, who do you think are the three players that would not have made the team?
Interesting question! I’d say Shaq Moore, Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan.
Much more to come once I land in Qatar on Monday. Have a good weekend!
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Super enjoyed the look back at your recollections of those WCs. I had similar experiences. It really got my juices flowing, although this time, I will be stateside for the lads. Safe travels and keep the stories rolling for us back home. Go Yanks!
Oh my gosh I love this column. The World Cup is so much fun, and reading your reminisces makes me smile.