Your next-door neighbor probably never played the game, but there was always some lonely little kid in town bouncing a funny-looking ball off his toe. Weird, man. If anybody knew much about the world's most popular sport, he kept it to himself. What's the use of talking soccer to people who weren't even conscious that the pro league had bombed, its players running their legs off before empty seats? And amateurs? Maybe in St. Louis, but no other place could they steal the hearts of Main Street. It is a wonder the kids kept playing. But play they did, and what's this? The United States may be ready to join the rest of the world? Weird, man.
Last Sunday, under threatening skies in St. Louis, a group of toe men called the United States Olympic soccer team beat its Jamaican counterpart 2-1 and suddenly found itself bracketed with the world's 15 best amateur teams in the Olympic finals this summer in Munich. Considering American performances in previous years, this is roughly equivalent to a group of Keokuk Little Leaguers playing for the American League pennant. Against Jamaica, in a game it had to win, the U.S. scored first at 22 minutes when Mani Hernandez, just finishing at San Jose State College, knocked in a rebound from 12 yards out. It scored again on a tough angle shot by John Carenza, an All-America from nearby Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Then it ducked into a desperate defensive posture and hung on for dear life and dear ticket to Munich.
Soccer has been an Olympic sport since 1900, and until 1960 each nation's soccer team just took off for the Games and prayed. After a horrendous ordeal of eliminations-it was one loss and you're out—it got so that one of 80 or so teams went home happy. Every four years the U.S. team of immigrants full of names ending with -ic would play one game, lose, and come home. In 1960 zone trials were begun, to pare the huge field to 16 teams. Under this setup, America's players never saw Rome or Tokyo or Mexico City. They never even made it to round two.
Meanwhile, professional soccer came to the U.S. and had its troubles. The teams were loaded with Eastern Europeans, there were no homegrown favorites and there were almost no fans. Bob Guelker, soccer coach at SIU, Edwardsville and coach of the U.S. national team, came to the unsurprising conclusion that "We need American heroes to make soccer go here, colorful ones."
Guelker's assistant, Julie Menendez, the soccer coach at San Jose State who also coached the U.S. boxing team at the 1960 Olympics, thinks Guelker may have found his man in one of the two U.S. goalies, a 22-year-old Harvard senior named Shep Messing. Messing owns two boa constrictors and has enough hair to hide them in. "Soccer will move as soon as people start hearing about players like Messing, guys with ability and showmanship," says Menendez.
The last may be an overly polite term, but there is no denying Messing's flair. For one thing, it got his team through the first round of the Olympic Trials. The Americans played two 1-1 ties with El Salvador. There was a playoff and they drew again 0-0. In overtime the teams both scored once, and that called for five penalty kicks alternately on each goalie. The U.S. kicked all five. El Salvador might have, too, if Messing hadn't run out of his goal and started stripping off his shirt and screaming bad Spanish at the kicker. "I wanted to show him that I was crazy," he says, "that he'd better think twice about scoring that goal." Messing ignored the fact that if the referee had blown his whistle the kicker could have shot at an open goal. Possibly as nonplussed as the El Salvadoran, the referee was mute, the kicker missed and the U.S. made round two.
Messing had said during the trials, "We can never play to only 95% of capacity and beat any of these teams. We'll have to hold them, and hold them and counterattack." He certainly gave his 100% or more. In a sense Messing's antics were a caricature of his team's play throughout the trials. The U.S. could not match the skill of the Latin players, who had bounced soccer balls around their cribs, but as Coach Guelker said, "We offset their finesse with intangibles like desire and determination and with tangibles like our size and strength. When we play a hard game, with lots of shoulder contact in leaping for the ball, our bigger men hold up longer."
In round two the U.S. was matched with Jamaica, Mexico and Guatemala. Two of the four would go to Munich. Mexico had finished fourth at home in the '68 Olympics and Guatemala had reached the quarterfinals, where it was eliminated 1-0 by Hungary, the winner. So the auspices were awful.
In the first U.S. game against Mexico last January, Mexican dribbling made Guelker's boys look clubfooted. The Mexicans, though, were completely unprepared for what Guelker inadvertently but accurately called his "pressure-type defense." As a rule Latin teams play a deliberate game. They like to bring the ball downfield slowly, passing with exquisite accuracy. But the U.S. players, as Coach Guelker says, are "typically aggressive, hard-nosed American boys. A lot of teams will let you play with the ball at midfield, but our men face the dawdlers and make them rush their passes." The Mexicans couldn't handle the pressure, and wound up being jeered in their own stadium. Abashed, they managed only a 1-1 tie.
After the game there was grudging Mexican admiration for Carenza, the biggest fieldman of the Americans at 6'4" and 220 pounds. The Mexicans nicknamed him "gigant�n" and it was rumored that he weighed 260. Later, in Guatemala, after a player ran into him and fell, as if shot, a local paper had it up to 270.