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The exact moment when Tony Meola became a pro—in the best sense of the word—is impossible to pin down. But it came somewhere between the afternoon of last Nov. 19 in Trinidad and Tobago, when he helped the U.S. soccer team clinch its first berth in the World Cup finals since 1950, and last month, when he went shopping for his first Porsche near his hometown of Kearny, N.J.
That game in Trinidad and Tobago might seem the obvious place for Meola's coming-of-age party. Not many Americans saw his performance that day at the National Stadium in Port of Spain, but those who did won't forget the young goalie in the long-billed baseball cap who guarded the U.S.'s fragile 1-0 lead through a second-half siege by the home team—one moment shouting at his teammates like a drill sergeant, the next, moving after the ball as explosively as a large predatory cat.
A week later, Meola was a kid again, a sophomore back in his dorm room at the University of Virginia, reunited with his pet python, Monty. Though Meola would soon turn 21, he still clung to the symbols of his teenage years: the spiked hair, the gold earring, the friendship bracelets, the word MEAT scrawled in black ink on the tongue of his shoe. Meat, or sometimes Meatball, is what his college teammates call him.
Most likely Meola came to full flower in late February, during the U.S.'s 3-1 loss to the Soviet Union in Palo Alto, Calif. The turning point occurred in the closing seconds of the first half, when the Soviets took a 2-1 lead. Throughout the half, Meola had played well, though not brilliantly, behind a broken, demoralized defense. That second, crushing goal had come from a Soviet free kick that the U.S. defensive wall had failed to clear, giving Meola, whose view was blocked, no chance to stop the rebound shot. As he picked the ball out of the net, he looked incredulous and disgusted at the same time.
For Meola, who had been unscored upon in his four World Cup qualifying games, this was his first heavy dose of reality in international soccer, and he responded with determination. In the second half, his brave performance prevented a rout, despite a relentless Soviet attack. "I kept us in the game for a good while," he said. "And that was something that perhaps went unnoticed."
His abilities as a goalie had not been lost on the rest of the world, however. Last December, shortly after he led Virginia to an NCAA cochampionship, Meola left school to seek a contract with a pro team. This decision was reasonable enough, for as Bruce Arena, the Cavaliers' coach, says, "Tony is going to be a rich young man. He's going to be our first international soccer star."
And indeed, in January, Sheffield Wednesday, a British first-division club, invited Meola, along with another Kearny native, U.S. midfielder John Harkes, to a tryout. Sheffield made offers to both players. (Neither the club nor the players would reveal the terms, but Meola's lawyer, Tony Benevento, had been angling for a $250,000 signing bonus and a three-year deal for around $130,000 a year.) But Meola and Harkes decided to sign one-year contracts for a reported $40,000 with the U.S. Soccer Federation, and they committed to train full time with the national team for the World Cup finals in Italy this June. Since making that deal, Meola has also signed an endorsement contract worth more than $500,000 with Reusch, a West German sporting goods manufacturer.
If Meola had known what awaited him when he returned to the U.S. from his tryout, he might have had second thoughts about leaving England. The spirit of Trinidad and Tobago swiftly evaporated as the American team became involved in grubby squabbles over money. Furthermore, team morale took a dive when it apparently became the coaches' policy to keep even star players uncertain of their status.
"We were getting into a mold where we were just too serious," Meola said shortly afterward. "Obviously, most of the time you have to be serious, but one of the troubles with our team since Trinidad is that we haven't been able to do enough fun things away from soccer. We've been starting to get too much into our work, getting stressed out. So this is what we badly needed."
The "this" Meola was talking about was a rap tune the team recorded in Los Angeles after the Soviet game, with vocal assists from O.J. Simpson and Marcus Allen. The lyrics, which were written by striker Paul Caligiuri and his friend Douglas Pryor and "enhanced" by musicians Def Jef and Eric Vaughn, are not exactly Miltonian, but they have the right spirit. The refrain is fitting: