"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?"