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1994…All Eyes on the USA….Sort of

Yes, we were the first to purchase World Cup tickets

In late 1993, I was so excited. The first allocation of World Cup tickets became available to City of Pasadena employees through a first-come first-serve system. Fortunately, very few people took much interest, and I was front and center along with my Irish friend Patrick, my Salvadorian friend Mauricio, and my soccer buddy Burke. We bought the max, 10 for each game, for 4 games at the Rose Bowl including the World Cup final! I was first on the list and paid thousands of dollars for these tickets. We knew we would not get the actual tickets until close to the World Cup, but we were floating high on top of the world.

The scoundrels almost took our tickets

In March 1994, just a few months before the opening game, politics reared its ugly head as a couple of the city council members finally realized how important the World Cup was and tried to take back the tickets we had paid for 6 months earlier. Not only had the city been earning interest on our payments, but now the council members wanted to use these as gifts to their constituents who had absolutely zero interest in soccer, but knew it was big event. We were so angry. I wrote a letter to the Pasadena Star News explaining how the World Cup would make the “annual Rose Bowl game look like a high school football game with a fancy half-time show”, and that tickets should be used by the fans who love the sports. Fortunately, there was a local attorney who stepped in and threatened a lawsuit, so they backed down, but it was a very tense week of high anxiety for all of us. 

Mexican passion and we almost caused an international crisis

On June 4, 1994, in front of 91,123 soccer fans, the U.S hosted their final friendly match before the World Cup with non-other than their main rival, Mexico. About 88,888 of those fans supported Mexico, but the festivities highlighted the potential that soccer had in America. I organized about 100 close soccer friends and their kids to attend this historic game. We painted the US flags on all their faces. There was a fever pitch around the Rose Bowl. Walking up to the stadium surrounded by thousands of green Mexican jerseys, you could tell my group was wondering what I had gotten them into.

On the field, this was definitely no friendly and US and Mexico went at it like dogs and cats. Our group was a small island of US fans squeezed in behind the goal and surrounded by a sea of the tricolors. There were hundreds of small Mexican flags throughout the stadium and the cries of ole’s circled the stadium every time the Mexicans connected passes together. My attempts to get my small US contingency to sarcastically yell out “oh no” every time the Mexicans lost the ball was drowned out by frenzy of the Mexican fans. But we had a secret weapon. I had “inherited” a huge US flag that as about 20 feet long. Every so often, to the boos of the crowd, we would unroll it for a few minutes and cover our area. Each time, cups of beer would come down on us from above, and the crowd would boo, hiss and curse at our group.

When the US scored in the 2nd half, we went nuts and unrolled our flag again. All of a sudden we saw security guards coming our way, thinking they would be removing some of the more rambunctious and drunk rivals’ fans, but boy was I wrong. Some in my group directed security to me. Jeers and whistles from the crowd were now more focused on us as the security came to talk specifically to me. I politely asked what was up, and they said that I had to take down our American flag. I am sure I heard wrong, and I said, “What?” The security guard, now backed up by hundreds of Mexican fans taunting us, repeated the demand in a much sterner voice, and I said, “You’re kidding me. You want me to take down my American flag in my country and the Mexican fans can have as many Mexican flags up as they want?” I used my hand to highlight hundreds of Mexican flags, in many different sizes, waving around the stadium. None was no where near as large as ours and one of the guards pointed up to the press box in the middle of the stadium, and he said that “they” (whoever “they” was) saw our large US flag and were “concerned” about our safety, and that, yes…it was a safety issue. With the surrounding jeers getting louder, and my small group incredibly nervous, I felt it was good time not to make a stand.

We unrolled the flag and put it away for the rest of the game. I didn’t quite know what to feel, except by game end, the pleasure of the US beating the strong Mexican team to cultivate one of the greatest rivalries in international football.

I remember a few years later, the news media complaining about the Mexican fans at the LA Coliseum, as the booed the US national anthem, and reported of bags of urine being thrown on the US fans and the players. The reporting only enflamed the racial divisions in our country. I again thought of all the signs in Spanish I saw throughout my life that forbid the playing of soccer in the parks, and I could not get that phrase out of my head: “Soccer is not really American.”

All I could think was, “I wish the US had as much passion as the Mexicans had”

Soccer Degree from Notre Dame on the eve of the World Cup

Although my mom is English, my heritage is Irish. I think this helps me understand why many Mexican-Americans support the Mexican soccer team over the US. I have feelings for Ireland with no rational reason, except that it is in my blood, and I am Catholic, and I was ingrained with understanding the abuse that the Irish went through in their home country, but also the bigotry that overwhelmed the Irish when they came to America for a better life.

When the opportunity came up to take a week-long NSCAA coaching course to earn a National Coaching license at the mecca of Irish Catholic education, the University of Notre Dame in South Bend Indiana, I jumped at the chance. To top it off, the final day of the coaching course was to end one day before Opening Day of the World Cup with the current champions Germany facing Bolivia in Chicago’s Soldier field.

The week in South Bend was amazing. I stayed in the campus dorms. We got to play a bit on the historic football field just under the shadow of Touchdown Jesus. One of our trainers was Tony DiCicco, who was to eventually lead the US women’s national team to the World Cup championship in 1999.

During the cold Indiana nights, we drove into downtown South Bend, and it appeared just like what a person from Los Angeles would imagine a steel town would be like. It was run-down, old, industrial, with its own unique smells. But it had a sense of belonging to it that I am sure resembles thousands of smaller communities all across this country. This small college town passionately supports Notre Dame football, just like Liverpool, Manchester, Naples, Buenos Aires, Newcastle, and any other town in the rest of the world supports their soccer team. And I wondered, why hasn’t that happened here in America. But at the time, I had no answer. I did not understand. But I would later. 

The Colombians and the OJ Sighting

Hanging at Notre Dame for a week was an unforgettable experience for me. Back In Chicago, I tracked down Michael Jordan’s Restaurant and had a few beers watching Bolivia upset Germany in the Opening Game of the World Cup. I was super exciting as I had rarely seen so many people watch soccer in a sports bar, let alone a basketball sports bar for that matter.

Waiting for my flight at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, I recall hearing the airport loudspeakers requesting that OJ Simpson come to one of their airport locations. I wondered if he was on our plane, if I might bump into him, and imagined him jumping over luggage as he did in his Hertz commercials. There was no instant twitter feed in those days so my attention quickly shifted back to excitement of attending World Cup games at the Rose Bowl and in Stanford Stadium in the upcoming weeks.

It just so happened that I was taking the long flight home with rabid Colombian soccer fans on their journey to watch their beloved team play in Pasadena. It was an exhilarating yet exhausting flight, as the Colombian fans passionately screamed “Coooolumbiiiiiiiiia” for 5 straight hours. Talk about jet lag. If nothing else, I was hyped up to think soccer had finally arrived in the USA and the next month was going to be the final tip of the iceberg to make soccer a mainstream sport in America.

But little did I know that, instead of talking about Valderama, Maradona, Baggio and Romario, the world was about to become glued to one of the most talked about media circuses in modern history.

The White Bronco Chase

When I arrived at LAX, I again heard people murmuring about football legend OJ Simpson. Would I see him?

Boy, was I in for a big surprise. When I arrived home from the airport that afternoon, I turned on the news expecting to hear of the arrival of the world’s crazy soccer fans. Instead, like millions of Americans, I was sucked into by one of the most bizarre chase scenes in US history. Not only were 10-20 police cars chasing a slow-moving white Ford Bronco on the 405 freeway, but inside that Bronco was OJ Simpson with a gun to his head and was now seen as a murder suspect on the run. Even more outrageous were the hundreds, if not thousands, of onlookers crowding overpasses and streets to catch a glimpse of OJ, before he finally surrendered at his Brentwood home.

To me, what became an obsession for the media over the next year had simply put an immediate damper on soccer’s moment the sun. Fortunately, the US stunning upset of Colombia, one of the Cup favorites, and record breaking crowds at all the stadiums forced the media to pay attention to the young brash American team. 

WORLD CUP 1994

After two years of anticipation, the World Cup had finally arrived. Read on…