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SPORTS EXTRA / FOCUS ON THE WORLD CUP: FRANCE '98

Connfession Of An Obsession

It Only Took One Shot in '94 to Convert This Sportswriter Into a Genuine Socceraholic

June 09, 1998|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are times when I open the trunk of my car and spot the four soccer balls, the two soccer nets, the soccer coach's diagram board, the mini pop-up soccer goals, the plastic soccer practice cones, the empty water bottles and the stray jar of Mineral Ice and I flash to that old Talking Heads lyric:

And you may ask yourself

Well, how did I get here?

Hanging in the bedroom closet are more than a dozen replica soccer jerseys--Brazil, Scotland, Chile, Cameroon, England (1966 red edition, 1990 white and 1996 gray), Colombia, Arsenal (home red, away blue, long sleeved 1970s vintage edition), Sheffield Wednesday, Athletic Bilbao.

In the living room video cabinet are stacks of tapes bearing such titles as "Defending to Win," "Dribbling and Feinting," "502 Great Goals," "England's Tribute to Gary Lineker," "Goals Galore," "F.A. Cup Final, 1923-1978" and "Great Soccer Highlights: The Sixties."

Two shelves in the home library are crammed with the likes of "The Art of Soccer," "Soccer Skills and Tactics," The Yearbook of European Football," "Cantona," "Hand of God: The Life of Diego Maradona" and "The Complete Record of the North American Soccer League."

Next to the stereo system, sharing CD shelf space with the Smashing Pumpkins, Husker Du and the Clash are "The Best Footie Anthems in The World," "The Beautiful Game," "Good Old Arsenal" and Alexi Lalas' debut with the Gypsies.

Before the 1994 World Cup kicked off, I owned none of it.

Before the 1994 World Cup kicked off, all I had was a credential to cover the tournament, a working knowledge of the bare fundamentals (nil means zero; fullbacks can't handle the ball) and a skepticism about the sport that, looking back, teetered too close to the Ugly Americanism so prevalent in stateside media coverage of soccer.

In the months leading up to the World Cup, I had written derisively about the 1993 APSL final between the Los Angeles Salsa and the Colorado Foxes--drawing the ire of letter-writing soccer fans across Orange County--and poked fun at the "so-called American soccer underground--you know, the unshaven, vertical-stripe-shirted loners you spot from time to time in the corner of an international bookstore, breathing heavily over the latest copy of World Soccer."

Today, I am one of them.

My boss calls it "a disease." Concerned friends have suspected a midlife crisis. Others have brought up religion and that episode about St. Paul seeing the flash of light and falling off his horse--falling off his horse, especially.

No, there was no crackle of lightning, no rending of the heavens that I can remember.

Only a 35-yard free kick into the far upper corner of the net by Gheorghe Hagi.

That swerving, bending, incredible and illogical ball, struck during the first World Cup game I covered, Romania versus Colombia at the Rose Bowl, seemed to trigger some disabling chemical reaction in my jaded and crusted sportswriter's brain. I just sat there, staring at the replay on the press row television monitor, marveling at Hagi's imperious coolness as he approached the ball, his nonchalant follow-through, the wild trajectory of his physics-defying shot and the full-on Romanian festival suddenly raging in the south corner of the stadium.

I'd never seen anything like it, but I wanted to see more.

I covered 11 games during the 1994 World Cup, watching Colombia's Andres Escobar net his catastrophic own goal against the United States; checking out Bebeto and Romario "rocking the baby" after a vital goal in Brazil's quarterfinal victory over Holland; taking in the back-and-forth fastbreak action between Argentina and Romania and listening to Al Mistri, the Cal State Fullerton soccer coach seated behind me, roar with delight, "And they say this sport doesn't have enough offense!"

Everything about the event pulled me in--the drama of the matches, the virtuosity of the players, the unpredictable spontaneity of the play, the passion of the fans.

Midway through the tournament, I wrote a commentary outlining 30 reasons why soccer is better than baseball. (There are more than 30 reasons, I know; space was limited that day.) When I next showed up at the Rose Bowl, I was literally embraced by foreign journalists, who clapped me on the back and thanked me, seemingly stunned to read a Yank perspective that didn't slam the World Cup as an insurgent threat to apple pie, the Fourth of July and Albert Belle.

Of course, that seems so very, very long ago now.

During the '94 World Cup, my wife, also a journalist covering the tournament, half-jokingly asked for a soccer ball as a birthday present. I laughed at the suggestion, but Lisa insisted: "It might be fun to take it to the park and kick it around."

So I ventured into a soccer store for the first time in my life and purchased the ugliest, most ridiculous-looking ball I could find--a rock-hard Jorge Campos model, with panels tinted florescent purple, lime and orange, much the same color scheme as Campos' outlandish goalkeeping outfits.

And we took it to the park.

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