Excerpted from The Soccer Diaries: An American's Thirty-Year Pursuit of the International Game.

June 5, 1983
Fiorentina vs. SĂŁo Paulo; Cosmos vs. Seattle Sounders
Giants Stadium
East Rutherford, N.J.

It was a new year, a new season. It was time, again, to beg. Never underestimate the act of begging. Soon we, all four of us, my parents, sister, and me, were off to the Port Authority, in the sunshine of high noon, blinding and warm, with the final destination being Giants Stadium.

Was the Port Authority any less what it was—name the adjective: decadent, seedy, intimidating, vile—on a Sunday, awash in deep spring sunlight? We took a taxi, cross-town, through the muck, the Deuce, like the Kurtis Blow record. Why I don't remember, probably because my mother, whose ideal afternoon was shopping in Lord & Taylor or wandering through the Metropolitan Museum, refused to walk west of the New York Public Library; Bryant Park was a park in name only. There was unshakable traffic on 42nd Street, maybe something happened, and we took a detour, up Sixth Avenue west on 43rd or 45th and down Seventh, each square block more seamy than the next, something about sex everywhere—and drugs, though not advertised. While some people were in church finishing mass, clasping hands, peace be with you, people here, were just finishing their Saturday night, pursuing or succumbing to wants and needs, needs they may have hated themselves for. That or caressing their pain. They were, on Sunday morning, now early afternoon, running away, or running toward, their shame and relief.

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Do you look away? And where do you look? Being 15, I wanted to look, at all of it, but felt I should look away, my mother and sister were there in the backseat with me, my father on the jump seat of one of the dowdy old checker cabs. I thought my mother was going to cover my eyes as we drove past great big marquees with SEX SEX SEX; PEEP PEEP PEEP; GIRLS, GIRLS GIRLS; LIVE LIVE LIVE; all apparently for 25 cents. Oh, god, what this looks like. She'd never been to a soccer game in her life, we'd only done Mets, Yankees, and Knicks as a family, but she couldn't get to Cosmos Country fast enough.

Not that this was just a Cosmos game. This had the added zip of international glamour. It was a doubleheader, part of the annual Transatlantic Challenge Cup series, which included the Cosmos and another NASL team, this year it was the Seattle Sounders, and two foreign clubs, Fiorentina of Florence, Italy, and SĂŁo Paulo of Brazil. Portuguese and Italian were spoken, on the bus from Port Authority, on the concession lines, in the seats.

The Italians stood out more to me, not because they were Italian, but because they had World Cup players on the roster. Not only a starter on the championship team, Giancarlo Antognoni—Like the film director? No, different spelling—who scored the wining goal for Europe in the FIFA World All-Star Game the year before, but also Francesco Graziani and the Argentines Daniel Passarella and Daniel Bertoni.

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My scope was primarily limited to the World Cup, and especially to the players who took part in last year's, but also those who'd played in past World Cups (Eski, Bogie, Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto), and who might play in future World Cups (Ricky Davis, Jeff Durgan, Steve Moyers, Daryl Gee, one would hope). I still dipped into the FIFA All-Star Game program and learned most of the past greats: Bobby Charlton, Johan Cruyff, Alfredo Di Stéfano, Eusébio, Just Fontaine, Garrincha, Gerd Müller, Ferenc Puskás, Lev Yashin, on and on.

On São Paulo, there were no World Cup players, except the bald goalkeeper, Waldir Peres, and goalkeepers didn't seem very exciting to me, unless it was Yashin, long retired, a superhero dressed all in black. There was no Sócrates on São Paulo, no Éder, no Leandro, no Cerezo, no Paulo Isidoro. I loved how Toby Charles had said his name last summer in the replays of the World Cup games, almost as one name, like the other one-name, one-man carnivals: Pauloisidoro. He was one of the few Brazilians with two names, and Toby made it one. So no Brazilian national team members. Sergihno, the center forward Paul Gardner wrote was "utterly inadequate," had been with the club but left, as a young striker named Careca was emerging. And there was no Zico, Arthur Antunes Coimbra—I had memorized his real name, like I had with Edson Arantes do Nascimento.

These club teams, not just Fiorentina and São Paulo, but the others I'd come across, with these grand names—Nottingham Forest, Red Star Belgrade, Partizan Belgrade, Girondins Bordeaux, Boca Juniors, Sporting Cristal. Benfica, Santos, Ajax—were separate organisms, the rule rather than the exception. I'd have to learn more about club teams, the world over, on top of all of the World Cup history.

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This game, or "friendly" as Seamus Malin described it on TV and radiocasts, seemed not only significant, but face-saving. Italy now had three World Cups, the same as Brazil, whose defeat to Italy still seemed improbable. These were just two club teams, but virtually all the players on Fiorentina were Italian (Passarella and Bertoni, the only exceptions) and the entire SĂŁo Paulo roster was made of Brazilians.

The fans, and there were 51,000 that afternoon, appeared to have more invested than the players. And one got the sense that national pride trumped municipal pride in this game. How many of these fans, either ex-pats or Italian-Americans, were from, or of, the Renaissance epicenter? Weren't most of them from the south? How many New York Brazilians, in that massive country of theirs, whose corners I was still exploring through the Atlas, were from SĂŁo Paulo? How many Brazilians were there in New York? I'd never met or knew any. And where did they live? Not the Bronx, I knew that. At the stadium, they were white, black, and brown.

My mother—born in Bushwick, Brooklyn, to parents from Flatbush, Brooklyn, to parents from Trapani and Marsala, Sicily—understood some Sicilian dialect, even less "pure Italian." But she knew the curses, not just the curse words, but expressions, which in dialect reached a baroqueness worthy of Sicily's own southeast. So when the cursing began in staccato spurts, and it didn't take long, she either laughed or grimaced or shook her head, depending. Oh, god, I can't believe what they're saying. Some of it, I gathered, had to do with sexual shortcomings or cheating spouses or cuckolded fathers, unfaithful mothers. Some was probably worse. "They take it a little too seriously, these people." Well, what are they saying?

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When a black, or brown, player touched the ball, we heard bruta this or bruta that. Bruta meant ugly, that much I knew from eighth-grade Italian class. The this and the that I didn't want to know. Was race an issue? I remembered being shocked when I read this from Brian Glanville, in that FIFA/UNICEF program, that was still close to my bedside: "Yet the Argentine style can never be that of the Brazilians—because the Argentines lack the key element of the Brazilian game, the black player. Rejected until well into the 1920s, black players have since then had a profound effect on the development of soccer in Brazil, with their sublime reflexes, their gymnastic ability, their ability to sprint almost from a standing start."

I circled it and put question marks in the margin, as if to say, huh? Was this allowed to be said? It was something that wasn't talked about in the U.S. Maybe it was thought, but never said. Did this game encourage uncomfortable stereotypes that American games didn't? I'd have to find out.

The Brazilian fans, meanwhile, seemed to give the players—their own, the Italians, the referee, this poor soul—hell. Only with Careca were they pleased; he had an undeniable sparkle to him and scored two goals. The Florentines absorbed kicks and elbows and Antognoni was the victim of a literal tackle, the American kind, from the Brazilian keeper. It all seemed very un-Brazilian. We didn't speak Portuguese, but cursing, its delivery, its irregular but melodic rhythm, is somehow understood, if not word for profane word, than by intonation. At Mets games you didn't hear, no matter how badly Craig Swan may have been struggling with his location, that he was the castrated son of a small-penised, cuckolded father and overweight mother who smelled of the Bay of Naples and orally serviced an entire precinct of corrupt carabinieri, and the local priest. At Shea, in the daytime, with little kids everywhere, you instead got "Take Me Out To The Ballgame." This was different.

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May 30, 1984
Italy vs. U.S.A.
Giants Stadium
East Rutherford, N.J.

My poster of Africa stayed on the bedroom wall through high school, as did the postcards of Estadio Azteca. Now there was an addition: The poster of the 1982 World Cup-winning Italian national team. My family and I would make occasional forays into Little Italy, on Columbus Day and Good Fridays usually, with a requisite visit to Ferrara's and Di Palo's. On one of these outings, in one of the disheveled souvenir shops on Mott or Mulberry—with old-fashioned coffee pots and dusty vinyl records and the tricolor and kitsch—were posters, the most prominent of 11 very serious looking men in blue shirts and white shorts, six standing with their arms folded, and five crouched, like baseball catchers. Underneath, it read just the last names: Zoff, Antognoni, Scirea, Graziani, Collovati, Gentile; Rossi, Conti, Cabrini, Oriali, Tardelli.

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Was I an Italy fan because they won the World Cup and I had gone with the winner, one of the uglier features of human nature? I was never a front-runner. Or did roots—those vowels at the end of names, the reed-thin bodies, locks of gentle curlicues, the noses, Roman or Neapolitan or Sicilian origin—lure me? If Brazil had beaten Italy and won the tournament, would I have been a Brazil fan? They did have Zico and Socrates. What if the U.S. team was there? Would I have been the pied piper of American soccer, as I had been for American hockey and speed skating (thank you sister and brother Heiden) in 1980?

I had been an Italian, if not a self-hating one than merely a young person with a sense of rebellion on one hand and on the other an anxious desire to assimilate with his peers, none of whom was Italian, most of whom were black. That I was largely accepted by blacks—and not all whites were, not by any means—made me feel special. The more accepted I felt, the more I wanted to learn their about their lives, points of view, their music, their figures of speech. Yo, what up blood? But my interest wasn't for a planned essay to get into a prestigious college in a couple of years. It was out of a certain time and place, my corner of the Bronx of the '70s and early '80s, and comfort level in that place.

With the World Cup win, there was a shift. No longer was Italy grandmothers, smelly cheeses, and old ways. Now it was men, young men, who didn't look like the Italians I knew of, with Travolta haircuts and bad diction and crude mannerisms. No, they ran like deer, were tough when they had to be and graceful for the rest, even cavalier. Bruno Conti did tricks with the ball, and against these great Brazilians.

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I was what I was, and that was an Italy fan. So when it was announced that the World Cup champions were to play the U.S. at Giants Stadium, I would go. No, we'll all go, my father said, like the previous summer to see Fiorentina-SĂŁo Paulo, Cosmos-Seattle.

The U.S. team was billed not simply as the U.S., but as Team America, a carryover from the season before when the best American players were set up in their own franchise within the NASL and played out of RFK Stadium in Washington D.C. The idea was to provide continuity for the American players, a chance to play and train together on an everyday basis, in preparation for 1986 World Cup qualification. Good idea, great uniform—red and white hoops, blue shorts—but it lasted only one year, 1983. Things were back to where they had been for the U.S. team, or rather Team America. I liked the players, but the team lacked an identity.

What to do? Who to back? Who knew this would be so complicated, choosing teams. But teams were more than teams. Teams were sides, and you had to pick one. Sides were often sides of town, or the town itself, or a side of the social ladder, or a region, or a country. Sides had boundaries and sometimes boundaries are serrated. I'd be choosing one that wasn't my own (although it was), and choosing against the country of my birth, of my parents' birth, even my maternal grandparents' birth.

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Was this allowed? Were there consequences? Maybe it wasn't even an issue? It wasn't war. When it was, my relatives all volunteered for the U.S. Armed Forces. So I'd go, backing Italy, my affection for Ricky Davis and the American Cosmos put aside for two hours.

I'd barely be cheering; not because of any loyalty issues but because of the rain. It poured non-stop the whole day and never let up. I'd already had a cold and a persistent cough but this was the Italian national team, perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The tickets, $12 each, were already bought. My mother knew baseball and knew of rainouts and rain checks, and thought this would be such an occasion. But no, soccer is played in rain, I told her. Nothing stops soccer.

We met my father for an early dinner at Toots Shor's, across the street from Madison Square Garden, the one-time haunt of Runyonesque figures. Make that a refurbished version of the Toots Shor's, the original long gone, like the original Garden. Even if this was a chain version that Toots Shor, may he rest in piece, might not even recognize, it was completely incongruous with the forthcoming event, a game played by, on the one hand, mostly all-American, suburban white men, and, on the other, by Italian Italians, who knew nothing of the American sporting icons—whether Italian American, Irish American, Jewish American, African American—that were pictured on the walls of this one-time institution.

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The first thing my father did upon arriving at Giants Stadium (by bus from Port Authority again) was buy me the program. Anything to get my hands on something to read. It was slim, this program, not packed with history like the FIFA/UNICEF All-Star Game program, a primer on international soccer. There were no articles by Paul Gardner, Rob Hughes, or Juvenal. There were no think pieces on national styles of play and provocative ideas on national styles of play. There were the essentials, plus a little more, but I craved any and all information, and even in small details there was something telling. Look at this, the weights of the Italian players: Alessandro Altobelli, 6-0, 128; Bruno Giordano, 5-10, 136; Roberto Mancini, 5-10, 140; Paolo Rossi, 5-10, 132, Franco Baresi, 5-11, 140; Marco Tardelli, 5-11, 140; Antonio Sabato, 5-10, 132. Were these typos? Were the metric conversions miscalculated? Ricky Davis was 5-8, 155; Jeff Durgan, 6-1, 195; Steve Moyers 5-10, 158; Mark Peterson, 6-0, 160. Chico Borja, 5-11, 155.

There was a profile of the U.S. team's Greek coach, Alkis Panagoulias, a naturalized American citizen, who went from the local, very local—managing a team called the New York Greek-Americans in the 1960s German-American League, renamed the Cosmopolitan League—to the truly cosmopolitan, leading the Greek national team against Brazil in the Maracana and these very Italians four times from 1973 to 1983.

Six Olympic soccer games would be played in Annapolis, Md., an ad screamed, tickets available at selected Sears stores. SEE THE WORLD'S TOP TEAMS IN ACTION: FRANCE, QATAR, YUGOSLAVIA, CAMEROON, CHILE, CANADA, IRAQ. Were these really top teams? What was Olympic soccer, what did it mean, if anything? Was it redundant? Was it necessary? At least I learned a new country, Qatar, and where it was. But how do you pronounce it?

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And this, something I'd never seen before, for an athletic outfitter named Kappa, which made, and sold, the full team uniform of Juventus, the club that so many Italian national team members played on, plus Platini and Boniek. Who would have thought? Socks, shorts, and jersey, with something called ARISTON, whatever that was, written across the front, all for sale. It was available at the Kappa store at 53rd Street and Third Avenue. It didn't give a price, but it would probably be unaffordable. In the few games I'd attended, I'd never seen any fan wearing a team's jersey.

And the game? The fear for the U.S. was that it would be a repeat of a 6-1 loss to France three years ago. Really, you didn't miss much—or you missed a lot, perhaps the great turning point of American soccer. The game ended 0-0, the artificial turf now an amusement-park water ride. Section 128, Row 3, seats 13, 14, 15, 16, weren't covered by the forgiving overhang of the mezzanine deck above. There was nowhere to hide, except under umbrellas and opaque ponchos that were handed out. Thirty-one thousand showed up, despite the deluge, busloads of Italians from Toronto. Italians from Toronto? I knew nothing about any Italian diaspora, beyond Philadelphia and Providence.

The Americans were happy with the result, which is how they referred to it, as a "result." The tie equal to a win for us—I mean, them—same as Pelé, Stallone, and the Allies in Victory. (The War always seemed to come up in soccer.) Jeff Durgan called it the "sweetest tie I've ever played in." Angelo DiBernardo, an American-Italian with the Cosmos, said, "Maybe it's the start of a second boom. Who knows?"

"The Americans have a great future," said Marco Tardelli, the Italian captain famous for his celebration after scoring Italy's second goal in the '82 final, "the Tardelli Scream." "In three, four years, they will be very good. There are a lot of good players." In the downpour, something major happened for the U.S.: They tied the world champions, tied them at home, but were the away team, booed by fans, not during the national anthem, and not from me, but during the player introductions.

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David Brcic, for one, wasn't pleased: "We expect it from a lot of foreign fans here. Those people are ignorant. They're in the U.S. now but they boo players representing the place where they live, make a living from, and take from."

Wow, so it's like that. Love it or leave it. And that was from a Brcic, not even a Bunker.


Summer, 1987
Soccer Learning Systems
Pleasanton, Calif.
&
Trace Video Sports Club
Natchez, Miss.

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If soccer's future in the U.S. still seemed uncertain, its accessibility iffy and subject to change (and tape delay), well then why not live in the past, its deep, rich past, of which there was still more to sift through and revel in, through not only text and image but video cassette.

It may have been in Soccer Weekly, the tiny pamphlet on Xeroxed paper that was sold on newsstands, the same publication where I saw the ad for the three World Cup pictorials. It may have been in the slim Metropolitan Soccer Report, of which there were a few copies sold in my local candy store. It may have been in Soccer America or Soccer Digest, the most professional of the publications, though neither was readily available in the Bronx.

But at some point, circa 1986, when my family finally bought our first VCR, there was an ad, a classified ad, from a guy in Atlanta—he had a long Greek name—who sold pirated soccer videos. He had a vast collection, including G'olé, the official film of the 1982 World Cup. But could you trust sending a complete stranger a money order? The answer was, if they loved soccer, yes. A fellow soccer fan would never deceive.

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I called him first, and he must have been my age, more or less, and though a morose fellow, he sounded trustworthy. I ended up buying G'olé, narrated, unforgettably, by Sean Connery. It was instantly my favorite documentary ever. I watched it over and over. The next year, I wrote to him again, and he copied Hero, the 1986 film, narrated by Michael Caine. He even had one on the career of Tostão, the little Brazilian genius I had only read about. Where he got these, I didn't ask, but I was surprised such a fount of soccer knowledge lived in Atlanta. Who knew there were Greeks in Atlanta?

Soon after, there was another ad in another of these publications, not a classified, but one from an organization called, and I loved this, Soccer Learning Systems. It suggested that soccer was a learned pursuit, one with various systems and approaches to be studied and contextualized. You could send away for a catalog in California and so I did. Catalog was a generous word; it was more like a pamphlet, with listings of its books and videos. Ordered straight away was an over-sized hardcover British volume called The Soccer Tribe. It was a pictorial matched with anthropological analysis. Next would be either The Football Grounds of England or The Football Grounds of Europe or, god willing, both, even if they were pricey.

The videos came by way of a company called Trace Video Sports Club, in the unlikely outpost of Natchez, Miss. They had "educational" videos, as in what drills to run in practice, coaching instructionals, and goalkeeping fundamentals. A few years before, these might have interested me, and could've helped me, when I was still a player. I did revel in the self-taught aspect of the game; what Amani's dreadlocked uncle said to me about juggling the ball stayed with me, that it was important, no matter what anyone said about it not being applicable in game situations, because it was all about controlling the ball and touch. I thought if I spent hours with the ball, even alone, I'd cultivate a relationship with it, I'd be able to maneuver with it, and then without it, and that would enable improvisation and creativity. So if I'd discovered these videos two, three, four years earlier, would I have bought them? Maybe. Could they helped me? Probably. But my playing days appeared to be over, and perhaps it was more educational to watch the videos of great teams, the World Cups, the greatest goals.

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This was mail-order paradise. If only they weren't $30 and $40 each. The ones I wanted, the Greek in Atlanta didn't have on his list, or if he did, I wanted fresh copies with the original cover, as I knew this was something I wanted to collect, along with soccer books.

The first video I bought was Heading For Glory, the official film of the 1974 World Cup. It didn't have the familiar Scotto profundo of 007, but instead was "spoken by" a daft English voice that belonged to Joss Ackland (an actor, I would learn), with text by Geoffrey Green (a football writer of some renown, I, too, would learn).

It began at the end, with the disconsolate Dutch. The saccharin was unrelenting and yet irresistible:

"Johan Cruyff, the natural heir to Pele, lonely as a mounted wind. He has tilted at windmills—and lost. It is etched on his face."

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"Winner take all; the loser is jilted. Holland are yesterday's men, with a great future behind it."

"The flying Dutchmen head for home in their big white bird.Cruyff and his wife; he flicks a spec from his eye. Or is it a tear? Others fondle their medals, not gold but silver in the stars. ... They've pricked our pretty balloon and our moon has been taken away. Where did we go wrong?"

Then it circles back to the beginning of the tournament:

"Now the football story begins. Sixteen nations playing in nine German towns come to the starting line. The establishment is here, minus England. But in the field are outsiders. East Germany: blood brothers of the host from over the wall; Australia: jolly swagmen; Haiti: from the land of Papa Doc and voodoo; Zaire: Leopards from the steaming Congo basin."

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It was $39.95 but the pricelessness continued. "Meanwhile, back at the ranch, West Germany, reigning European champions open their account against Chile, men from the high Andes in a royal hunt of the sun."

"The elements take a hand as West Germany face Poland to Wagnerian overtones. Crashing thunder and lightening fork the black heavens. This is the twilight of the gods."

Brazil, "the ebony champions," eliminated by Holland, are hardly portrayed as saints, nor for that matter are the Dutch. With a groovy soundtrack of organ and electric bass that might as well be out of funky oeuvre of Deodato, or a porn movie, we learn the following:

"Brazil, their crown toppling, now unsheath the broadsword. ... Rivelino, twice bodily obstructed, plays Henry Irving, the outraged actor. ... But the Dutch themselves are not all light and innocence. Rep supplies an eyeful of elbow to a dark face."

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We arrive back at the final, in its lead-up, with Henry Kissinger, Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly, and Willy Brandt all making cameos.

"It is the dawn of the final. Munich's Olympic Stadium is silent under its strange roof, a mosquito net where soon the gnats of fate will sting."

Paul Breitner has an "Afro hairsyle and left-wing opinion." The Dutch players' wives are "viragos on springs." Beckenbauer is "the fingerpost pointing the way, unhurried as a man strolling down the boulevard for an apertif." And this being a British production, there's a lot of screen time—too much—for Jack Taylor, the English referee.

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We see the perfect illustration of Total Football, in fact its apotheosis: the first 60 seconds of the match, when Holland string together, like the love beads around Ruud Krol's neck, 19 uninterrupted passes in a seamless interchange of positions, an intellective exercise that appears perfectly organic, that led to the first goal, started by lithe Cruyff, pointing this way and that, a non-stop talk machine, as the last man on defense. It was a minute for the ages.

And then this final bit:

"J.B. Priestley once wrote, 'To say that people pay money to see twenty-two hirelings to kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is made of wood and catgut. 'In contrast, George Orwell wrote that 'sport at international level is frankly mimic warfare.' Whoever was right, that's what the World Cup is all about."

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Michael J. Agovino is the author of The Bookmaker: A Memoir of Money, Luck, and Family from the Utopian Outskirts of New York City. You can buy The Soccer Diaries on Amazon. Follow him on twitter, @soccerdiarist.