Meet Mr. June! It is Maradona, or, as he is more affectionately known by his millions of fans the world over, “The Divine Diego.” What a hunk! He is 25. Diego comes from Argentina, the country he will be playing for in the World Cup this month. But he plays professional soccer for a club in Naples, Italy. There he is called “The God of Napoli!” They even name their children after him! They buy Maradona wigs, and pizzas too. He loves the people, and they love him! Maradona earns $2 million a year, but it does not go to his head. He signs many autographs. “I came from a poor background,” he says, “so I understand how important soccer is to people.” As you can see from the photographs, Diego leads a very exciting life. In his spare time, Maradona is the UNICEF ambassador for the children of the world. That is just another reason why Armonda Diego Maradona is our Mr. June. Divine!
— Tom Kertes, Mexico, 1986
GENOA, 1990 — The Mondiale, a frustratingly ambivalent experience, sweeps you up in a corporate-fueled dolce vita, then wears you out in a morass of anticlimax and overkill. It leaves you lost on narrow streets asking for directions to the stadium: the locals always assure you it’s straight ahead, can’t miss it, but inevitably it’s five kilometers off to the right, on the other side of a highway. In Naples’s enormous Stadio San Paolo, hundreds of Romanian fans singing songs of the December revolution wave their blue, yellow, and red tricolor; each flag has a big hole cut out of its middle, a reminder that back home the fight for democracy is perhaps being lost. The national anthem is played. and the woman sitting next to me is on the verge of tears. “This is an important game for Romania,” I say to her in French after a decent interval, “for many reasons, no?” She looks at me enigmatically and says nothing. “Important,” I try again, this time with an emphasis just short of elbowing her in the ribs, “because of the events in Bucharest — the miners, the government, the demonstrations … ” She half-nods noncommittally. I see from her lapel pin that she works for Romanian state radio.
You get pumped for epiphany but end up with exactly what you would’ve expected in the first place. This is what happened to the United States national team. Prior to the selection’s departure for Italy nobody gave them a prayer, but in the last few days before their opening match the phrase “Miracle on Ice” began to appear in newspaper stories, and sportswriters, particularly those who know little about soccer, wondered how the young Americans might manage to steal a win or a couple of ties and sneak through to the second round. In the end, of course, the U.S. wound up finishing slightly ahead of just one of the other 23 teams, the all-amateur United Arab Emirates, and that’s exactly what everyone expected. Nevertheless, many American reporters who’d come to Italy felt betrayed. So last week at Florence’s Stadia Comunale, when the first U.S. players slouched into the interview room after losing their final match to Austria, the reporters asked them the inevitable “How do you feel’?” — a pointed question, since the Yanks had lost, 2-1.
“We’re disappointed,” said defender John Boyle, offering the scribes just the note of contrition they were looking for. “We came to Italy with hopes of moving into the second round, but the loss to Czechoslovakia [a 5-1 debacle] surprised us. There wasn’t much we could do after that.” Jimmy Banks, another backliner, whose game-long battle with rugged Austrian attacker Andreas Ogris helped to make the match the roughest of the tournament’s opening round, apologized for allowing Ogris to score. So did Desmond Armstrong, another culpable defender on the play. The room was redolent with shame, hand-wringing, wincing accounts of shattered hopes, and then the reporters asked Tab Ramos for his assessment. “If anything,” said Ramos, “we learned that our soccer is closer to the rest of the world than most people thought.”
This was the truest response; for the Americans in this World Cup, God lived in the details. Like in the two goals they scored: Paul Caligiuri’s magnificent solo effort in which he ran past three Czechoslovaks to plant the ball in the net, and Bruce Murray’s opportunistic garbage goal made possible by Ramos and Peter Vermes’s deft give-and-go against the Austrians. Armstrong’s little epiphany game against the Italians, when, “I was able to mark one of the best forwards in the world [Gianluca Vialli], and he only got past me once. There are people back home aching to say they started in the World Cup in Rome against Italy, but only 11 of us did it, and I’m really proud that I’m one of them.”
The American team will get another chance in the Mondiale in four years, when the United States plays host to the world’s hugest, most terrifying sporting event. There is a great deal of pressure on the Americans to field a team worthy of the honor, but that’ll be a difficult feat as long as the country remains without a viable professional league — or, as U.S. Soccer Federation president Werner Fricker claims, until the sport in America sheds its “suburban, upper-middle-class” image and becomes popular among “poor kids, who know what it means to struggle.” Right now, at any rate, the nation’s hopes lie in its players who are good enough to play in European leagues. Caligiuri, perhaps the U.S.A.’s steadiest player, is about to sign on with one of four fair-to-middling first division teams in the Italian League, the world’s best. Twenty-year-old goalkeeper Tony Meola, who performed bravely under siege but not as brilliantly as most observers in the U.S. and Italy had predicted, is also about to sign with a midlevel first division Italian club. Ramos, sometimes brilliant as a playmaker, sometimes guilty of tactically unsound individualism, is trying to work out a deal with Roda in the Dutch first division (a stumbling block is the $750,000 transfer fee the U.S. Soccer Federation is demanding from Roda). And John Harkes, the the American revelation of the tournament for his fire and dogged pursuit of the ball, is negotiating with top teams in Austria and Belgium. Five other players are talking to European clubs, but right now Caligiuri, Meola, Ramos, and Harkes are the nucleus of the ’94 World Cup team — and of the future of American soccer. “Some kid somewhere in the States is dreaming of playing top flight soccer in the U.S.,” as Caligiuri told a reporter from Rome’s Il Messagero, “and maybe some day that kid will realize his dream. I’d like to think that I will be one of the pioneers.”
It would be nice to end there, with the minor epiphany, but unfortunately the U.S. was one of only three small footballing countries that failed to impress (South Korea and the Emirates were the others). Costa Rica, for example, beat Scotland and Sweden and, most impressively of all, lost 1-0 to joyous and mighty Brazil. With the president and Nobel Peace laureate Oscar Arias Sanchez cheering them on, the Ticos rode the heroic goalkeeping of Luis Cabelo Conejo into the second round, where they finally fell to the Mondiale’s other beacon of civility, Czechoslovakia. Such was Costa Rica’s anonymity that Bob Hughes, soccer columnist for London’s Sunday Times and the International Herald-Tribune, praised the mettle of “this island team.”
On the other side of football’s third world, Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions are now the darlings of the planet. Led by 38-year-old supersub Roger Milla, the Africans humbled defending champion Argentina and flashy Romania before beating the zany Colombians in two overtimes. I might mention here that there is only one city in all of Italy that does not seem to care about the World Cup: inward-looking, medieval Siena, which is preoccupied with the horse race qua internal warfare that is the Palio; no Italian flags in that city, just the banners of Siena’s 17 neighborhoods. Yet, at 7:40 last Saturday, moments after Milla had sealed a victory for the Indomitable Lions, a lone African holding a Cameroon flag strolled into the central square. With each café he passed, the Siennese applauded politely, a delicate rippling sound that wound slowly around the stately piazza.
The Mondiale revolves around a different kind of world power, the Italians, the Germans, the Dutch — and also the Argentinians and Brazilians, whose encounter in Turin last Sunday marked the first emotional climax of the Mondiale. Thousands of Brazilian fans, some in carnaval fright wigs, some in drag, all in their national team’s yellow jersey, samba’d into the cavernous Stadio Delle Alpi to bury the archrival Argentinians and especially Diego Armando Maradona, the hated, fading prima donna who nonetheless is still the best player the world. Just one minute into the game Brazil established the tempo when Careca (Maradona’s teammate on Napoli, the Italian club champion) ran 50 yards through two Argentine defenders; his shot was just pushed wide of Sergio Goycoechea, the keeper. So it went for the next 70 minutes: Valdo, Alem, Branco, Dunga, Muller, a host of single-named Brazilian footballists, dazzling the crowd with impossible individual maneuvers and visionary passes, strangling the Argentinian attack, shackling Maradona — but not scoring. The little Argentinian guy sitting next to me is emitting small, choked sounds. “Fifteen times Brazil could’ve scored,” he blurted. ”We are doomed.” Then, with 10 minutes to go, the stocky Maradona makes one good play, feeding young blond beauty Claudio Caniggia in the penalty area; Caniggia fakes Taffarel to the ground and … goooalllll! The little Argentinian guy next to me is leaping up and down; on the field, Caniggia is mobbed. Maradona lies flat on his back in the corner, alone, his arms raised to heaven. The samba drums in the stands fall silent, the green and yellow flags droop. The game resumes: the Brazilian players are now in disarray, shouting at each other. They almost surrender another goal, but regroup for one last try, and behind me a woman is praying in Portuguese. In the 88th minute Muller gets the ball all alone in front of the net — shoots it wide. The game end, Brazil’s eliminated. The stadium empties out, except for a few knots of leaping, singing, Argentina fans, the smiling golden sun on their light blue flags bouncing up and down joyously. Here and there a few Brazilians sit, in shock, staring out at the disastrously empty field. Afterward Maradona appears before the press for the first time in weeks and is asked what he did on the winning pass. “I prayed to the Lord,” he replies. The defending champ is still alive.
That night in Turin the Argentines and Brazilians sat together in bars to watch West Germany trounce the disappointing Dutch in Milan. Then at the Turin station everyone — South Americans, Italians, Irish, Africans — piled onto the midnight train to Genoa for the next day’s Eire-Romania match (won by Ireland on penalty kicks, 5-4). Four young Napoli fans festooned in a crazy-quilt mixture of Brazil and Argentina garb serenaded the sleeper cars, singing “Un Maradona, c’è solo un Maradona” to the tune of “Guantanamera”; “One Maradona, there’s only one Maradona.” The train finally started to pull out. “Ar-gen-tina, Ar-gen-tina,” a couple of young men two windows down chanted to a fat man, dressed in Brazilian yellow and holding a Forza Italia flag, standing near the end of the pier. “Ca-mer-un, (Ca-me-run.” chanted the fat man in response. Everybody cheered, and then the train pulled away into the night, on to the next game at the world championships of football. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 25, 2020