Wednesday, September 10, 2008

USA-Trinidad & Tobago 9/10/08

You know what I love the most about a good old fashioned USA-Trinidad & Tobago match?

The obligatory flashback of Paul Caligiuri's "shot heard round the world" during World Cup qualifying back in 1989. Ah, '89. A time of neon snap bracelets, men's mesh belly shirts, and Quantum Leap.

For those of you that require a summary: the final spot from CONCACAF was to be decided by the winner of the USA-T &T qualifying match on November 19, 1989 in Port of Spain. Before a crazed Trinidadian crowd that was absolutely possessed by national pride, Caligiuri's goal ensured the USA the three points necessary to claim their first trip to the World Cup in 40 years. It was, at the time - and still today, perhaps - the biggest victory for U.S. Soccer since the US's upset victory against England at Belo Horizonte, Brazil during the 1950 World Cup.

Anyway, I was just an 8-year-old boy when the grainy images of Caligiuri's shot floating into the T & T goal were originally broadcast into a few big box, wood paneled television sets. I didn't know what the World Cup was. I barely knew what soccer was for that matter. The only soccer ball I had been in contact with was a half-deflated model at my grandparents' apartment. It would take me another few years - USA '94 to be exact - before the sport returned under my radar. Being the host, the US was guaranteed a spot for that tournament.

But back in 1989, things were far from certain. There was no major pro outdoor league. The most popular form of soccer was played indoors. I have a vague memory of Tatu bicycle-kicking a goal or two, courtsey of a sports highlight video I received for Christmas. This scene still sticks out in my mind, even today. Chris Berman, who narrated the clip, exclaimed "Tatu! Tatu! The play! The play!"

Here was this crazy, short guy (Tatu, not Chris Berman) who, with his back parallel to the artificial turf, whipped his right leg into the air, and launched this incredible shot over his head - and into the goal. Over his head. Into the goal. Really. Over his head. Into the goal.

In all of my eight years, I had never seen anything like that. Soccer? Hmmm...

Then, my friend asked me to play catch with the baseball in the backyard. I grabbed my glove and promptly forgot all about soccer for the next five years.



Meanwhile, whose idea was it to bring Shaka Hislop on board for last night's telecast? I mean, don't get me wrong - I think Shaka brings a refreshingly unique perspective to the normal tandem of J.P. Dellacamera and John Harkes. He did a solid job behind the studio desk during the network's coverage of Euro 2008.

But three equals one too many in a soccer broadcast booth, and that equation was painfully visible last night. Shaka's comments seemed forced, as if there was a quota on Shaka's insight in between the typical J.P. & Johnny banter. Poor Shaka. Around the 67th minute, I had almost forgot that he was even there, until Harkes made a criticism of his relative Makan Hislop, a defender for T & T.*

(*And it was at that moment that I could sense a wee bit of awkwardness radiating from the press box. It seemed like Shaka was none too pleased with Harkes' assessment, and acted accordingly with a silent protest for much of the match until J.P. had to continually re-introduce Shaka to meet the Shaka quota.)

My heart bled for Shaka. Watching your country get outplayed by the USA is one thing. Watching your country get outplayed by the USA with the Captain for Life right next you - that's a special kind of torture. I can't imagine what Shaka did to deserve this. I tried to recall all of his matches against the Revolution. I had nothing.

I suppose it could have been worse. It could have been Eric Wynalda. At least the Cap and Shaka seemed to have reconciled by the 89th minute while discussing E.J.'s less than stellar performance off the bench.

Meanwhile, it was great to see the Yanks* firing on all cylinders, even if there were a handful of defensive breaches that made it seem like a courtesy goal was in order. Really, the game should've been something like 5 or 6-0. A clanked shot here. A lucky save there. It could have been a bloodbath. Needless to say, everyone in the striped Abercrombie polos and navy shorts earned their post-match orange wedges.

(*As a Red Sox fan, I'm just warming to the idea of calling my country's national team "Yanks." It's taken some time. I'm getting there. Slowly.)


After Deuce (Clint Dempsey) proffered his post-match assessment, the Deuce (ESPN2) showed a wonderful documentary entitled "Kicking It." The 2-hour feature showcased the incredible plight of those vying to play in the Homeless World Cup in Cape Town, South Africa.

A brief background of "homeless" soccer. The game is essentially an organized form of street soccer, with 4-on-4 teams playing on an enclosed pitch and a hard surface. Teams train well in advance to prepare for this event, despite their circumstances. To them, this is the World Cup, and they take it quite seriously.

The storyline focused on a handful of players. One such player was a Dublinite named Damien, a 23-year-old meth addict whose life seems to have landed him at rock bottom. But the promise of playing football has inspired him to strive for an admirable goals - kicking the ball in the homeless world cup, and kicking his drug addiction.

Another player is a Kenyan named Alex, a 29-year-old who's struggling to get by cleaning toilets in one of the dirtiest slums you'll see. His job is absolutely disgusting by any measure. But he's inspired to play football professionally. To that end, he labors to help in the construction of a pitch in the heart of the slum.

And yet, one of the most fascinating figures is Jesus, a 62-year-old man with a boyish grin from Spain residing in a shelter, cast away from his family. Described by his coach as someone who was "a very bad guy," Jesus actually spent 10 years in prison and tried to kill himself at one point. But football keeps him going, and plays the game with the enthusiasm of a school boy in the playground. Incredibly, his aged body does not seem to have betrayed his efforts, and plays the game remarkably for a man of his age.

You see, this is just another example of why I LOVE SOCCER/FOOTBALL so much. The beautiful game has this incredible magnetic pull to draw so many different people from so many different backgrounds together to accomplish the same goal: to play football. These players come from Kenya, Spain, Afghanistan, and the U.S. They're united by a round ball with a 27-28" circumference.

And for a few precious moments, they're not homeless.

They're footballers.

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