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 "gigantón" 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.
In Guatemala the custom sometimes is to shower visiting players with orange peels, and there were 50,000 soccer fans at the stadium last April 16 to greet the Americans. That took care of the year's orange crop. When the visitors finally dug themselves out of the peels the explosions began. A string of what the Guatemalans call firecrackers, five- or six-inch jobs, had been placed on the running track all the way around the field. For half an hour or so they blasted away, during which time, Guelker says, "We were trapped." The explosives ceased, the smoke cleared, the players' ears kept right on ringing, and that is when the Guatemalans trotted out fresh to meet the Americans. The U.S. lost only 3-2, and it still had a chance in round two. The first thing it had to do was heat or tie Guatemala the following week in Miami, where there are plenty of oranges but not many people who throw the peels.
The U.S. led 1-0 at the half on a header from six yards out by Mike Seerey of St. Louis. Eleven minutes after the half-time break Seerey scored again, which in a put him just two points behind his dad, Fat Pat Seerey, who once hit four home runs in a game for the Chicago White Sox. Guatemala got a goal, but with three minutes left Goalie Mike Ivanow made a spectacular save to assure a 2-1 U.S. win. Messing sat out the game because the Guatemalans were high shooters, and Ivanow is 6'4".
Last week in San Francisco it was Mexico vs. U.S. again. Another must. Mexico needed the win, too, and tried its hardest to arrange for it prior to the game. At least so the suspicious might argue. International soccer rules require the presentation of passports to officials for proper identification before each match, but the Mexicans came to Kezar Stadium passportless. Left them at the hotel, they said.
"Can't we bring them in at halftime?" one Mexican asked.
"No," an angry American said. "You might play professionals and be leading two-nothing by then." But the game did begin, under U.S. protest, and all went well enough. Pat Seerey's son caught up with the old man, scoring two more goals, one with an assist off Carenza's high head, but his team couldn't score any more. Mexico came up with two goals of its own to tie.
So it was on to St. Louis for the game with Jamaica. victory and glory. It was fitting that St. Louis should he the place of decision. No city in the country has a more ambitious soccer program. None has produced more good, native-born soccer players. Four of its all time best came home to start against Jamaica—Seerey, Carenza, Joe Hamm and Art Demling. And all week in the streets around Busch Stadium there were little kids bouncing funny-looking halls off their toes. None of them was the slightest bit lonely.