Ponytails and barbershop poles. It's a safe bet that the ad guys on Madison Avenue have been racking their brains since the U.S. victory over Colombia on June 22 for that one image that tells the whole wild, beautiful story of World Cup fever seizing the States. The Swiss ring their cowbells, the Brazilians bang their drums, the Irish sing their songs—and all the Americans have is a chorus of U-S-A! U-S-A? Sorry. Been there, done that. So what better place to start a campaign than with goalkeeper Tony Meola, the long-haired son of a barber, whose shoulders run pipe-to-pipe broad enough to carry a nation's hopes. And from there it's a short hop to fans wearing fake ponytails and waving plastic barbershop poles.
Yes, the poles are traditionally striped with only red and white, but a streak of blue could be slipped in there to give that patriotic feel. Tony's dad, Vincent, has been snipping hair in New Jersey for 30 years, since coming from Italy, and the barber image skews strongly blue-collar, hardworking. And here's his son, Tony, the leading U.S. keeper since 1990, who a few months ago seemed in danger of losing his job. But he hung tough, kept plugging. Then in three first-round matches in the World Cup, with the future of his beloved sport in the U.S. at stake, he gives up just three goals. While other World Cup goalkeepers are charging upfield for balls and getting fricasseed. Meola has patrolled his line with poise. The play-at-home, stay-at-home keeper. Perfect.
As for the ponytail, the 6'1", 205-pound Meola has been sporting one for a year and a half now, and it gives him a Steven Seagal look, a mixture of menace and smugness, Jersey meets Hollywood. "He makes his own decisions about his hair," Vincent says with a sigh. And to think, only four summers ago Tony was a far less stylish, toothpick-gnawing 21-year-old nicknamed Meat, who was overrun by Czechoslovakia 5-1 in his Cup debut and was almost too scared to suit up for America's next game, against Italy.
Now quicker than you can say Bora Milutinovic—a lot quicker—Meola has grown up. There's a star quality about him, with the green eyes that don't waver and the stable of three riding horses and the acting career he's pursuing, not to mention the cool half million per annum that has been lavished on him in endorsement fees. The night before he faced down Colombia, he read the script messengered to him by a casting agent for the part of a pirate in a Geena Davis-Michael Douglas flick called Cutthroat Island. The next day, in the Rose Bowl, he made 14 saves in the 2-1 U.S. victory and wound up trotting across the pitch draped in Old Glory. The following afternoon he reflected, with just the right hint of insouciance, on the win, telling a knot of reporters, "The toughest part of the day was watching the Knicks lose."
Meola's story has a comeback spin to it, "retribution," as he puts it. When the U.S. team started training in Mission Viejo, Calif., early in 1993, Meola was its captain and the top keeper. But there was a sense that Meola had gotten by for too long on reputation and sheer athleticism and wasn't dedicated enough to his craft. There was also another goalie on hand, Brad Friedel, who had an irreproachable work ethic and was probably the team's best all-around jock.
As Meola was coping with the Friedel challenge, the press was yammering at U.S. coach Milutinovic to give a shot to yet a third American goalkeeper, Kasey Keller. The 1993 MVP of Millwall in England's First Division, Keller had been hardened by weekly match experience, and, after all, hadn't Meola flopped in England's Second Division three years earlier when he was released by Watford? Trying out Keller made sense to everyone, especially Keller, who lobbied Milutinovic long and loud. Meola put on a brave front and tried to deflect the controversy, but at night he would come moping home to his house in Aliso Viejo, Calif., and talk of his fears to his wife, Colleen. "She just kept pounding it in my head: The only person you can control is yourself," Meola says. "I started to turn it on after I realized what had to be done." His work habits intensified, and with Colleen's help he changed his diet, lowering his body fat from 14% to 9%.
Milutinovic has often talked about Meola's "inspiration" in big games, and it was never more evident than during U.S. Cup '93, when he made a half-dozen dazzling saves in a 2-0 shocker over England. In the end, Friedel couldn't outplay Meola, and Milutinovic never gave Keller a serious look. "It bothered Tony, what was said about him in the media," says U.S. assistant coach Steve Sampson. "But in the last six months I haven't heard Tony say Kasey Keller's name once."
Even so, the advertising crowd probably wouldn't be talking about Meola if it weren't for U.S. goalie coach Milutin Soskic, who was the top keeper in the 1962 World Cup while leading Yugoslavia to fourth place. Meola had been carping about the American team's lack of a full-time goalkeeping coach for two years before Soskic was finally brought in from Belgrade last July. Soskic, 56, is a beefy man with twinkling eyes under a hedgerow of dark eyebrows, and when he arrived in the U.S. last year, he couldn't speak a lick of English. Meola is a Godfather devotee, and he saw the role that Soskic could play: consigliere.
Using hand signals, as well as English, German and broken Spanish, Soskic put Meola through his daily paces and built up his confidence. Against Colombia, Meola flew across the goalmouth to snatch a point-blank header and made it look easy, in part because he had made that same save 50 times a day in warmups. And in the 1-0 U.S. loss to Romania at the Rose Bowl on Sunday, Meola made several outstanding saves.
A German coach once said of Meola, "Luck follows him." It might appear that the phrase applies in the tournament so far, since Meola has made the hard saves look so easy. But luck has had relatively little to do with Meola's success. "I rely so much less on athletic ability and so much more on tactical awareness than I used to," Meola says. At 25 he has carved out his own style in front of the net, confident and strong—the marketing mavens can work with that, can't they?—and grafted on techniques of other keepers.