Mike Constantino waves to the crowd as he leaves the USA team hotel for a U-20 World Cup game in 1987. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)
By Michael Lewis
Thirty years ago this summer I had the opportunity to cover the 1987 Under-20 World Cup in Chile.
For so many reasons, it opened my eyes further to the world, soccer and otherwise.
I was the American correspondent for Coca-Cola, then the sponsor of the tournament (it was also called the Coca-Cola Cup), so I was dispatched to cover the U.S. team that was based in Antofagasta, a desert city on the western coast that was one of the driest areas of the planet.
The U.S. team did not fare that well as it was eliminated after the opening round, but that doesn’t last in my memory as my entire experience in Chile.
The U.S. boasted the likes of Tony Meola, Kasey Keller (he was the back-up goalkeeper) and Marcelo Balboa, who helped form the core of the U.S. national team of the 1990s. I started to get to know those three players personally, relationships that have lasted some 30 years (it certainly didn’t hurt that three area players, including Adrian Gaitan of Oceanside, N.Y. and Mike Constantino of Glen Cove, N.Y. and Meola of Kearny, N.J. were on the team).
One of the most heart-warming stories came via Constantino. His best friend, Ivan Kovac, who introduced him to soccer, died in a car accident during the summer of 1987. Constantino wanted to dedicate a goal to his old friend. During the USA’s 2-1 loss to West Germany, Constantino scored. He immediately pointed to the heavens. I know exactly what he meant. A heart-warming moment.
I discovered what it was like to be a celebrity. Whenever the players left the Hotel Antofagasta grounds, they were besieged by the locals. As it turns out, so was I. I was wearing a credential and they thought I was one of the players and wanted my autograph. I tried to explain to them that I was only a writer, but there was plenty lost in translation. So, I did the next best thing, I signed whatever piece of paper they had, Michael Lewis USA.
When I got to Santiago, the U-20 national teams were housed in the same hotel, which was across from the Presidential Palace. If you ever watched the fine movie, Missing, you would know that was the hotel portrayed in the film that starred Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek.
As in Antofagasta, the players were rock stars to the fans in the nation’s capital, especially the young girls who were wowed by their teen idols. I discovered very quickly that I was considered a big deal because of my credential. So, whenever I had to go through the revolving doors, I remembered to take off my press credential, not unlike Clark Kent changing to Superman, but a lot less elaborate.
I also witnessed some of the best soccer in a men’s world championship in my four decades of soccer reporting.
Many of these players already were regulars on their respective teams or even on the cusp of stardom.
Do the names the Davor Suker and Robert Prosinecki mean anything to you?
Well, they were two key performers on the Yugoslavian U-20 side that won the championship. A few years later, Yugoslavia split apart and they starred on the Croatian national team that finished third at the 1998 World Cup in France. Suker won the Golden Boot that tournament.
In the quarterfinal against Brazil, Prosinecki drilled a free kick from 25 yards into the upper corner with about a minute remaining to give his team a 2-1 victory. They were so excited and elated they took a victory lap around the stadium — that’s National Stadium in Santiago, where people were held and killed about 15 years earlier (for a more complete review of the game visit http://frontrow.soccer/jek81).
I was supposed to return home after the quarterfinals, but part of me wanted to stay in Chile. Thanks to U.S. team administrator Tony Correa, I had found a rooming house for $16 a night, which included breakfast. It was clean and in a safe part of the city. It would cost me another $100 or so to stay the rest of the tournament. But there was this problem with my return ticket, which stated that it could not be changed.
So, I packed up everything, took a taxi to the airport, found the proper official with KLM and asked him if it could be changed. He said yes. I took a taxi back to town with my bags and stayed for the rest of the memorable tournament. I watched Yugoslavia defeat Germany in a shootout in the final that was anticlimactic compared to the former’s quarterfinal triumph, but still memorable and exciting nonetheless.
And the Yugoslav team took their official victory lap around the stadium.
After the championship game, I went back to my hotel and dictated the story to Bob Liepa, then the editor of Soccer Week, in Rockville Centre, N.Y. I had scribbled my story on a paper. I still don’t want to know what the price of the overseas phone call was to the weekly publication.
Remember, boys and girls, this was back in the stone age, when internet was a dream not a reality.
I learned so much about Chile, how it changed from being an authoritarian government into one of the most progressive countries I had ever seen.
As for the soccer end of it, it was one of the most memorable tournaments.
Now, I can’t predict whether Josh Sargent, Brooks Lennon and Erik Palmer-Brown will go on to have some nice, long career professionally or with the full national side.
All I know is that they are participating in a world championship tournament of a lifetime.
I just hope they’re enjoying every second of it.
I sure did and I didn’t even play.