Fan lives out soccer fantasy as World Cup stars get their kicks

Argentina's miraculous Maradona led the charge, flanked by Brazil's brilliant Julio Cesar (no relation to the emperor), and Mexico's magnificent Manuel Negrete. There I was, alone, a goalkeeper facing three of the best players in the world. I stood in the shadow of the goalmouth, staring like a cornered lion at Maradona as he cocked his deadly left foot. For a split second our eyes met and then wham-WHAM! The first sound had been Maradona's thunderous shot, the second a miracle -- the sound of the ball careening off my outstretched hand as I dived, deflecting the blurring ball just past the goalpost.

Maradona gave me the goalkeeper's greatest gift, that stare of anger, disbelief, and unbridled respect. Suddenly a bell went off. Was the ball still in play? I dived again but missed. Again. No ball. Confusion. Bells.

``Hello?'' I said.

``Hi, Richard, this is Frank. Are you going to the Rose Bowl soon?''

``Yeah,'' I said. Slowly the disappointment washed over me. The only dive I'd made was for the phone. My cat watched from across the room, coming as close to a laugh as a cat can come.

At the Rose Bowl, the best soccer players in South and North America were practicing for an All-Star game against the best players from the rest of the world. A lone American, UCLA's Paul Caligiuri, was going to live my dream of playing in a game like this; a dream he's had for 15 years; a dream that became a reality when he was invited to play after leading UCLA to a 1-0 win in the eight-overtime NCAA championship game last December.

A decade earlier, I'd been asked to come out for UCLA's soccer team by two assistant coaches. The head coach didn't know who I was, and I introduced myself by spiking him in the ankle during my first drill with the team. It was all downhill from there, and throughout the season I'm not sure he ever actually learned my name.

Now it seemed the closest I'd come to living my dream was retrieving errant shots during practice with the other ball boys. Suddenly Roberto Fernandez, the goalkeeper from Paraguay, decided to take a break. Fernandez's quickness and grace had earned him the nickname El Gato -- the Cat. My lack of playing time as a semi-pro goalie in Oregon had earned me the nickname El Reservo -- the Reserve.

Still, Caligiuri and Manuel Negrete needed someone to shoot against, and when I volunteered they shrugged and said OK. I recalled George Plimpton's advice when I'd told him of my dreams to follow in his participant-journalist footsteps: ``Just don't get too good.''

``Gee, George. Thanks for the tip,'' I thought as a booming shot of Caligiuri's rippled the back of the net. I didn't so much dive as crawl after it.

Negrete took great delight in toying with me. I flopped after shots like a flounder, the thought of stopping them never really entering my mind. At first I was hoping to look like a goalkeeper giving it his all, like a journeyman shortstop diving valiantly after the game-winning hit, even if he knows he can't come up with it. I'd always joked about Dodger shortstop Bill Russell having a no-dive clause in his contract, but now I came to see Russell's honesty. He never tried to look good in futility.

Inspired by this notion of honesty, I took to standing there, admiring Caligiuri's shot to the upper left-hand corner, then Negrete's shot to the lower right. ``Nice shot,'' I'd say, and they'd smile.

``Gosh, I'm really going to make a contribution to the Americas team,'' I thought to myself as another shot sailed into the back of the net. ``These guys are going to have so much confidence.''

Bolstered by my newfound contribution, I began to play with Negrete like a mouse with a cat. I'd come out to cut down the angle. He'd chip the ball over my head. Goal. I'd stay on the line. He'd rocket a shot past me. Goal. I'd fake staying on the line and come out. Goal. Fake coming out and stay on the line. Goal.

Then I realized the problem. It was my shoes. I hadn't had time to put my soccer shoes on, and I was wearing hiking shoes that aren't even good for hiking. No lateral support. Clothes make the man, shoes make the goalie.

The next day I wore soccer shoes, and when the same opportunity arose, I pounced. The ball went in the net. Then they took penalty kicks, the most inhumane thing in all sports. The shooter always scores, I told myself, and I was right. They lined up for shots. Negrete eagerly came back for more. In fact, his eyes lit up whenever he saw me in goal. I've never seen an athlete with a smile on his face like that. Actually, more of a laugh.

He represented Mexico and that whole soccer-playing, foreign-language world out there. I represented Mom and Apple Pie. At least I played like my mom or an apple pie. I threw my best head fake at him, darting left, then diving right. I'd faked him into kicking it my way, and yet I still missed his shot by a few feet. Or a few seconds. Goal.

``If I could get him to laugh harder,'' I thought to myself, ``he might fall down before taking the shot.''

Then the entire Americas team lined up to take shots on goal, and I felt like a cardboard cutout as I watched shots from all over zoom into the net. I began retrieving balls out of the back of the net as fast as I could, but they kept coming in faster and faster. I'd been reduced to my rightful position, ball boy.

Suddenly the World Cup champion goalkeeper, Argentina's Neri Pumpido, appeared. With a wave of his hand he exiled me from the goalmouth. Then he stopped almost all the same shots I hadn't. I kept retrieving balls, but I was too quick, and Pumpido, who understandably wanted to slow the rate of incoming shots, yelled at me in Spanish.

``It's a position of decisionmaking,'' I told myself the next day when I was sitting safely in the press box watching the All-Star game below. ``That's what I was good at -- the quick decisionmaking.'' I tried not to gloat when, just then, Pumpido made a bad decision and used his hands outside the penalty box.

That gave the Rest of the World team an excellent chance, and Scotsman Gordon Strachan spotted the tallest player on the field, England's 6-4 aggressive defender with the appropriate name Terry Butcher. Strachan's pinpoint cross was sent into the far corner by Butcher on a beautiful header.

Earlier, Strachan and Butcher had given me almost the same response at different times to the question of when or if the United States might do better in international soccer. ``Americans succeed whenever they put their minds to something,'' Strachan had said. ``They can succeed at soccer if they want to,'' Butcher added.

At halftime, I decided to don my photographer's cap and go down behind the goal. Press boxes give all reporters the same perspective, a perspective dangerously close to television's. To really feel the intensity of a game, I'll take the field every time. You can see varying emotions like confidence or apprehension in the players' eyes -- and more than anything else, confidence decides the winner and apprehension the loser in athletic events.

So I said goodbye to a newfound Brazilian friend, a television reporter who told me that since the 1990 World Cup was to be held in Italy, Italy would win it and become the first nation to win the World Cup four times. Then the 1994 World Cup would be held in Brazil, and Brazil would win and tie Italy with four World Cup wins. It's rarely that simple.

The United States is determined to make a serious bid to host the 1994 World Cup, and the Italian team hardly looked like a top title contender in its early elimination by France last June. The words were on the way out of my mouth when the Italian hero of the 1982 World Cup, Paolo Rossi, scored an impressive goal off a volley, giving the Rest of the World team a 2-0 lead.

That meant the Americas would attack, and attack they did. They came in waves, their intensity heightened by the roar of the crowd. The roar reached a crescendo when Maradona drove one into the net from close in, but the goal was disallowed when the linesman called him offside. Maradona held up two fingers and one to the thousands of cheering Argentines in the stands, indicating what he felt was the true score.

Just 15 feet away were the most intense goalmouth struggles I'd seen. Brazil's Falcao raced Soviet goalie Rinat Dasaev to the ball but Dasaev got there a split second sooner, kicking the ball away. Then Dasaev did the same thing to Paraguay's Jorge Nunez.

But Maradona and the Americas team players had that look of confidence in their eyes. Statistically, their chances of winning were very, very slim. But during the game, statistics mean nothing. The game is mental, and the Americas had the mental attitude to win it. You could see it in their eyes.

Still, with only 17 minutes left to play, things looked bad for the Americas, down 2-0, and worse for Americans. Their lone representative had not played one minute. Then the announcement came, ``Coming in for Brazil's Julio Cesar, America's Paul Caligiuri!''

A cheer went up. Soon Caligiuri was backpedaling like a defensive back in high gear, left alone covering two players sprinting down the wing, the inside man dribbling at full speed. Caligiuri cheated toward the wing, but when the man with the ball wound up to shoot, instantly Paul was there to deflect the shot. Soon the best players in the world were passing to Caligiuri with confidence, and he responded by sending a bold, beautiful cross 40 yards in the air to the far post.

But time was running out for the Americas, and when a shot sailed over the World's goal, the stupefied security guards just stood and stared at it. Incensed that valuable time was ticking away, I sprinted after the ball and threw it back. A cheer went up, and in my moment of glory I thought 60,000 knowledgeable fans were applauding my alertness, but it turned out they were cheering ``the wave'' as it swept around the stadium.

But the crowd cheered another American, as Caligiuri handled the ball with great poise and confidence on the right wing, giving Maradona a perfect pass to start a play which, after another goalmouth struggle, became a goal by Paraguay's Roberto Cabanas.

With only two minutes remaining, Maradona led a charge down the center of the field and made a beautiful give and go pass to Cabanas, who fired a shot that Dasaev bravely deflected. But he deflected it right to none other than Diego Maradona, the man not only considered the best player in the world, but one of the two or three best players in the history of the game.

Maradona scored the tying goal with ease, and then scored the winning goal on the last of four penalty kicks each side was awarded to decide the winner.

When Maradona was mobbed by Negrete, Julio Cesar, and his other teammates, it was fitting to see Caligiuri joining his teammates and, in effect, the rest of the world in their love and celebration of soccer.

So while my dream hadn't become reality, Paul's had. But I got something out of it, too. The other ball boys were surrounding Maradona after the game, and he patiently and affectionately autographed their shirts. While I was thinking of what questions to ask and looking around for a translator, our eyes met.

I simply pointed to the shirt I was wearing, and he smiled and signed it. Certainly not a goalkeeper, and not entirely a reporter or photographer, I was, like most of the world's population, a fan.

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