Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


THE ABORTED ‘MIRACLE 2’

The U.S. National Team will close out 2012 with a Wednesday, November 14, friendly against Russia at Kuban Stadium in Krasnodar.

The Russians, No. 9 in the current FIFA World Rankings, are coming off a frustrating first-round exit at this year’s European Championship, while the Americans, ranked 27th, are 9-2-2 in 2012 and a tie away from posting their best single-year record in their history.  [November 12]

Comment:  This could be a useful exercise for both sides.  Russia, led by the Zenit Saint Petersburg trio of Victor Faizulin, Roman Shirokov and Aleksandr Kerzhakov, leads European Group “F” in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup and has gone 4-0-0–all by shutout–under coach Fabio Capello, who last faced the U.S. at the 2010 World Cup as England boss.  As for the U.S., coach Juergen Klinsmann will use the opportunity to tinker yet again before his side begins the final round of CONCACAF qualifiers for Brasil ’14 in February.

But this game will hardly go down as historic.  The Cold War is a distant memory, and the two countries now keep one another at arm’s length, a frozen smile on their faces.  There have been meetings, but nothing of consequence:

o  February 3, 1979, U.S. 1, USSR 3, in Seattle

o  February 11, 1979, U.S. 1, USSR 4, in San Francisco

o  February 24, 1990, U.S. 1, USSR 3, in Palo Alto, CA

o  November 21, 1990, U.S. 0, USSR 0, in Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago

o  January 25, 1992, U.S. 0, Commonwealth of Independent States 1, in Miami

o  February 2, 1992, U.S. 2, Commonwealth of Independent States 1, in Detroit

o  February 13, 1993, U.S. 0, Russia 1, in Orlando

o  February 21, 1993, U.S. 0, Russia 0, in Palo Alto, CA

o  January 29, 1994, U.S. 1, Russia 1, in Seattle

o  April 26, 2000, Russia 2, U.S. 0, in Moscow

All friendlies, of course, with the Soviets/CIS’ers/Russians holding a solid 6-1-3 advantage.  The only competitive match between the Eagle and Bear was played September 22, 1988, in Taegu during the Seoul Olympic Games.  The U.S., featuring North American Soccer League old-timers Rick Davis and Kevin Crow and up-and-comers like Paul Caligiuri, Tab Ramos, John Harkes, Frank Klopas and Peter Vermes, had played Argentina and host South Korea to ties but needed at least a high-scoring draw against the Soviets to advance to the knockout round for the first time in its Olympic history.  Despite goals by John Doyle and substitute Brent Goulet, the USA lost, 4-2.

There might have been a game of real significance, however–a real Cold War potboiler–had the stars not mis-aligned four years earlier.

In 1984, the U.S., as host, held an automatic berth in the Los Angeles Olympic soccer tournament.  At the draw conducted that spring by FIFA at the plush Huntington Sheraton Hotel in Pasadena, CA–a stone’s throw from the Rose Bowl, site of the final–media members and guests gasped when it was revealed that the USA had been drawn into the same first-round group with the Soviet Union.  Visions of a Miracle on Grass, a redux of the Americans’ titanic upset of the USSR in ice hockey at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY, immediately danced through many a head.

When the media questioned  draw emcee Joseph Blatter, then general secretary of a FIFA even less transparent than the one he heads today as president, the shifty Swiss was characteristically oblique.  The U.S. and USSR landing in the same group didn’t happen by sheer chance, he allowed.  On occasion, said Blatter, FIFA will honor a host nation’s “request.”

In the end, the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that set up the American-Soviet clash were all for naught.  On May 8, the Soviet Union, still smarting from the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, announced that it was boycotting the Los Angeles Games.  Thirteen other communist bloc nations followed suit, plus Iran and Libya.  As for the ’84 soccer tournament, it meant that all three medalists from Moscow ’80–Czechoslovakia (gold medal), East Germany (silver) and USSR (bronze)–would be no-shows.  They were replaced by three nations that fell short in Europe’s Olympic qualifiers:  Italy, West Germany and Norway.

That summer, the U.S. thumped Costa Rica, 3-0, in its opener at Stanford Stadium, then lost to Italy, 1-0, at the Rose Bowl and missed the quarterfinals with a 1-1 tie with Egypt back at Stanford.  It appeared to be a golden chance lost, because for this tournament FIFA had changed the rules to allow players, regardless of amateur/professional status, to take part if they hadn’t played in a World Cup for a European or South American country.  Thus, this American team was loaded with NASL players, not raw amateurs.  And the absence of a marquee match like U.S.-USSR allowed ABC, the Olympic broadcaster, to choose to limit its coverage of the 16-nation, 32-game tournament to all of five minutes.

The ’84 Olympic soccer tournament drew a record 1.4 spectators to lead all sports–track and field included–and enable the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee to turn a $40 million surplus.  And that turnout prompted FIFA, four years later, to award the 1994 World Cup to the United States.

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THE ORIGINAL RONALDO, AND WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

Brazilian superstar Ronaldo, citing the toll the game has taken on his 34-year-old body, announced his retirement from soccer.

Once known as The Phenomenon, the striker leaves as the all-time World Cup scorer with 15 goals over three tournaments (he was part of the 1994 World Cup squad as a 17-year-old but did not play).  Winner of the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 1996 and 1997, Ronaldo received that honor a third time for leading Brazil to the 2002 World Cup title.

Ronaldo scored more than 400 goals in a stellar career that began in 1993 with Cruzeiro and followed with stops at PSV Eindhoven, FC Barcelona, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, AC Milan and, finally, back in Brazil with Corinthians.  His contract with Corinthians was due to expire at the end of the year, and he had been routinely hooted by fans for his obvious lack of match fitness.

“With this announcement, it feels like my first death,” Ronaldo said. 

He added:  “My career was beautiful, was wonderful.  I’ve had many defeats but infinite victories.”  [February 14]

Comment:  Ronaldo’s career was doomed four years ago, when he learned he had hypothyroidism, a condition that makes it difficult to lose weight.   But it should be remembered that the man whose irresistable, explosive runs into the enemy penalty area often ended with a goal and a trademark gap-toothed grin was among the most star-crossed stars in modern soccer.

Best known of his physical setbacks, of course, is Ronaldo’s mysterious performance at the 1998 World Cup final against host France.  Ronaldo had scored a team-leading four goals to that point, but the afternoon of the game, in the team’s hotel in Paris, he suffered convulsions, possibly the result of the combination of medications that had been administered to him for injuries to an ankle, a calf, a knee.  Scratched from the starting lineup an hour before the game, he was reinstated (it was rumored under pressure from the team’s mega-sponsor, Nike), played a lackluster 90 minutes and managed two shots, one a sitter from five yards that he sent directly at the chest of France goalkeeper Fabien Barthez.  Shaken by the pre-game drama, the swaggerless Brazilians bowed to the French, 3-0.

Not as well remembered is the period, starting four months after Paris, that typified the career of Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima.  That November, he scored for Inter in an Italian Cup game against derby rival AC Milan, but he soon limped off the field with a ruptured kneecap tendon.  Upon his return the following January he sustained another injury that shelved him for two months.  But the most serious threat to Ronaldo’s career came in November 1999 when he tore up his knee in an Italian league match against Lecce.  After surgery and rehabilitation, he returned to action in April 2000 in an Italian Cup game and lasted all of eight minutes before rupturing ligaments in the same knee.  Ronaldo wouldn’t be back until the following season, and in September 2001 he sustained a thigh strain in a UEFA Cup match gainst FC Brasov of Romania.  After eight weeks on  the sidelines, he touched the ball three times in a league match against Lecce and limped off with another thigh strain.  In all, the six injuries over four seasons forced him to miss 14 months of games.

The triumph over Germany at Korea/Japan ’02 proved that Ronaldo wasn’t entirely snake bit, and Real Madrid, apparently convinced that he was indestructable,  bought the then-25-year-old for $58 million.  Five years and 99 goals in 164 appearances later, a falling out with Real coach Fabio Capello prompted Ronaldo to move to AC Milan, and naturally another career-threating knee injury–the rupture of left kneecap ligament–followed.  During his rehabilitation his reputation took a hit when he was caught in an encounter with cross-dressing prostitutes.

Things were never the same, of course.  And now, one can only wonder where Ronaldo’s place in soccer history would be if he hadn’t lost what were four years from the prime of his career.  One thing is certain:  For the past few years, when one mentions “Ronaldo,”  it’s understood that the player in question is the Portuguese–not Brazilian–version.