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The Perfect Place for an Imperfect Soccer 'Star'


I was on the soccer field, playing alongside some of the top figures in the game:

Dreadlocked U.S. World Cup speedster Cobi Jones taking the ball up field . . . his teammate, star goalie Tony Meola, shouting encouragement to me from the sidelines . . . former New York Cosmos star Shep Messing behind me, tending my team's goal . . . George Best beside me, waiting for a pass.

George Best. The jet-setting Irishman who in the '70s and early '80s was probably second only to Pele in terms of international football (that's soccer to us) fame.

Jones . . . Meola . . . Best.

This must be one serious case of World Cup delirium.

But wait. If this was a dream, I'd probably play brilliantly in it.

I stunk.

This was no dream. I really was playing alongside these guys, as well as alongside rockers Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy of the Cult, ex-Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cooke, "Quantum Leap's" Scott Bakula, "Acapulco Heat's" Alison Armitage, rappers Tone Loc and Cypress Hill's B-Real.

The occasion was last Saturday's "Rocker Soccer" match at East L.A. College, a benefit for the T.J. Martell Foundation for Leukemia, Cancer and AIDS Research. The music industry charity--having previously put together benefit softball, bowling, hockey and other celeb sporting matches--this summer tapped into soccermania.

What you'll see on ESPN2's hourlong special about the game will probably be a little silly, though entertaining. (It'll air eight times, starting Saturday).

In the tradition of the MTV "Rock 'n' Jock" softball games, some wacky rules were devised to raise the game's TV-Q. At one point, Blues Saraceno, the guitarist for the band Poison, was flashed a red card for a penalty (a red card to Blues, get it?), but instead of being booted from the game had to spend the next five minutes playing in a straitjacket. (Just watch the show; maybe it will make sense there.)

But the spirit on the field was genuine and impressive. Veterans and novices alike--people drawn from fields generally known for prima dons and donnas--had flocked to the 10 or so practices held in the weeks before the game, which was run by three young soccer talents--Steven Schwartzbart, Hilton Goring and Jeff Cole--who generously gave their time.

The soccer wasn't bad. The English rockers, a broadcaster from Mexico, a German or two, former Hungarian women's soccer star Kati Simek--pretty much everyone from somewhere other than the United States--had grown up with the sport. And even a bunch of the U.S. natives had years of American Youth Soccer Organization experience behind them.

And me?

I opened my big mouth. I happened to be talking to Linda Archer, one of the event's organizers, and happened to mention that I'd grown up playing soccer, attending a small school in Santa Barbara. She happened to mention that they'd love to have me play. I happened to respond that it had been 20 years since I'd last played.

"It's like riding a bicycle," she said.

Right. Well, riding a bicycle is how I wrecked my knee the last time I tried a foolhardy athletic endeavor--an attempted trip across the United States in the 1976 "Bikecentennial."

This time it was my ankle, sprained about half an hour into the first practice I attended. I missed all subsequent practices, but a couple of days on crutches is about the best upper-body workout you can get.

Plenty of people bring speed, skill and strength to the soccer field. Thanks to my twist of fate, I had something better: an excuse.

I had several excuses come game time. Because I have neither contacts nor geeky sports goggles and had to play without my glasses, I couldn't see. My two-decade layoff was longer than Meola had been playing the game. And the shoes they gave me were half a size too small.

And, oh yeah, I was never any good to begin with.

But there I was when the opening whistle blew, stationed at the natural position I'd trained for throughout my youth. I was sitting on the bench.

Twenty minutes later, though, coach Schwartzbart tossed me into the game in my least natural position. As a left-footer who always played on the offensive line, where else should I be but on the right-side defense?

As I watched the World Cup games on TV, I was awed by the poetry, the finesse, the timing, the ballet.

As I played on the field, I remarked on the intensity, the breathlessness, the pain, the humiliation.

Cooke, playing to my left, furrowed his brow dubiously as he saw me take my place. I squinted downfield, myopically trying to pick out the ball in the blur of red and white jerseys.

Just as I saw it, I saw it headed in my direction, propelled by a very fast, healthy young man. I set my feet and steeled my will. . . .

Which turned out to be the wrong thing to do. This guy pushed the ball just out of reach to my left, breezed by me on the right and--while I stood flat-footed--drove toward the goal, leaving Cooke to sprint over and save my can, preventing a sure point against us.

But next time the ball came my way--with Cooke yelling at me, "Go to it!"--I did just that, forcing a bad pass as I charged at the oncoming player. It wasn't exactly a sliding tackle to prevent a goal, but it was something. Next time I went to it even harder, and next time after that I used my body a little to force someone away from the ball.

I felt part of a team, part of the game. It made no difference who won the game (although my team won).

Hey, I even touched the ball once.

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