This writer saw a different view of the World Cup this time. (Tim Groothuis/Witters Sport via USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
Quite frankly, I really, really thought I would have experienced serious and life-threatening withdrawal symptoms during this World Cup.
After all, this was the first World Cup I have not attended or covered since Spain ’82.
When you are addicted to something like the World Cup, you would think it would be difficult to go cold turkey. Of course, Oct. 10 started my unofficial withdrawal, when the United States national team found a way to avoid making the journey to Russia by losing to an overachieving Trinidad & Tobago side, 2-1, in one of the most crushing defeats, if not the most, in U.S. soccer history.
Sure, I miss witnessing those magical moments in person, writing about and interpreting them in my style. I miss visiting new cities, stadiums and culture. I miss seeing old friends internationally, whether they are media or officials from various countries or international organizations. I miss the camaraderie with U.S. media, which has a meager presence in Russia.
Yet, it hasn’t been the end of the world or the World Cup, that matter, for me.
Actually, I have never seen so many World Cup games — full and parts thereof — ever. Most of the games have been through the most traditional method — TV. But thanks to the FOX Sports app, I have watched a few matches while taking the train into the New York City for soccer games.
If I was in Russia, I would have missed a lot of matches due my writing responsibilities and travel between venues. Russia ’18 has been entertaining and arguably the best World Cup of all time. Definitely the best of our generation. From what I heard there was this World Cup in Mexico in 1970 that featured this little team from Brazil, which featured Pele, Carlos Alberto and company. That team is considered the greatest World Cup team of all time.
It would be difficult to argue with that.
If anything — and I can’t believe I am going to say this — the World Cup sometimes has gotten in the way of me earning a living.
I write about soccer and that means attending games, training and tournaments and making phone calls. Add two games a day — and a few pieces about World Cup matches — especially in the group stage and Round of 16 and quarterfinals, and the day gets pretty clogged up.
I will go on record about this: I don’t miss the mixed zone, which is a legal wrestling match not only with your countrymen and women, but with the international media, some of whom don’t know what proper manners are and some of whom haven’t heard of what a shower is just yet.
Covering a World Cup is no picnic, especially when you have your home country to write about as you set your sights (or your editors do) on writing about other teams and games as well.
During our time at the New York Daily News, Filip Bondy and I would attend at least one U.S. training session prior to a match before splitting to cover a game on an off day. We would both return to cover the Americans’ match and then essentially repeat the process. It wasn’t perfect, but it made for great coverage of the entire competition (by the way, we covered six consecutive World Cups for the paper, a record that probably never will be broken, considering the sorry state of the newspaper industry. We also roomed together in some tournaments and actually still talk to each other. LOL).
In Brazil in 2014, the equation got much more complicated because of the great travel distances and the lack of a competent national train system. By then, I was writing for Newsday.
My love affair with the World Cup started rather unceremoniously.
I watched the 1978 final along with several thousand fans on a giant screen at the War Memorial in Rochester, N.Y., witnessing Argentina score twice in extratime and spectators toss what seemed to be a ton of confetti and streamers onto the field. That was the first of a unique doubleheader that Sunday as I covered the Rochester Lancers-Tampa Bay Rowdies game at old Holleder Stadium that night. Why do I remember that North American Soccer League game? Well, Lancers head coach Dragan Popovic guided his team from the rooftop of the press box via walkie talkie after he had been suspended by the league for eight games due to a referee incident. I sat next to him and recorded his actions and comments during the match. It was the first time I had quotes in a story that I wrote immediately after a game.
I truly fell in love with the Mundial in 1982. By then, I had become more “sophisticated” and a student of the game. And sometimes when you can’t have something, you desire it more.
Case in point: We lived in Brockport a college town west of Rochester. A nice home, a nice village. No cable TV. We were supposed to get cable that summer (ESPN had a handful of games on).
However, we did have a rotary antenna on the roof and positioning it in the correct direction via remote control, pointing across Lake Ontario at Hamilton, Canada, I was able to get the early game from Spain in near perfect reception. As the afternoon wore on, the second game wasn’t as clear and fuzzed out.
Then again, beggars couldn’t be choosers.
When I went into the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle for my shift, I would savor all the wire service stories of the games of the day on the computer. Since there was no internet as we know it at the time, I did the next best thing. We had a Wegman’s supermarket close to the house that sold out of town newspapers for maybe 35 or 50 cents. I bought Toronto papers and the Los Angeles Times, the latter of which featured coverage by the great Grahame Jones (please don’t tell him I said that about him or he’ll get a big head).
Back in the day of real newspapers, the Times gave Jones something like 1,200 words on game stories. Many times, perhaps all of the time, he would not use a quote in his coverage, instead describing the action, putting the game into perspective, whether it was geopolitical or even soccer.
For the quarterfinals and semifinals, my wife and I planned to take a vacation to Toronto, where the games were more accessible. We watched the semifinal doubleheader — yep, back then they had both semis on the same day — at a friend’s house. We saw Paolo Rossi continue his incredible run by connecting twice in Italy’s 2-0 win over Poland and then witnessed one of the greatest matches ever — West Germany’s astounding comeback from a two-goal deficit to France in extratime to win via a shootout. That was the game in which West German goalkeeper Toni Schumacher leveled France’s Patrick Battison and was not even awarded a yellow card on what the rest of the world thought was a red-card offense.
On the way back to the hotel, we had never seen a bigger celebration about the World Cup in North America as seemingly every Italian in Toronto had gotten into their cars while proudly displaying a green, white and red flag to celebrate the great triumph. I counted some 400 flags over several hours (perhaps a few were counted twice because some of the fans might have gone around the block once or twice).
My World Cup fever was getting more serious.
By the time Italy paraded around with the FIFA World Cup trophy several days later, I was hooked, hooked big time. I said at the time that I had to cover the 1986 World Cup in Colombia.
I was wrong. The World Cup was pulled from the South American country because it could not handle the expanded event (it was now at 24 sides). FIFA eventually awarded the tournament to Mexico (the U.S. Soccer Federation endured a fiasco and a half trying to secure hosting rights).
Actually, it worked out better for yours truly.
I went for the final two weeks of Mexico ’86 (my hotel, which had a bridge to the media center in Mexico City, cost me $80 a night) — the knockout round. Credentialed through Soccer America, I witnessed and wrote about several majestic moments and matches, including Diego Maradona’s Hand of God goal.
I had the privilege of covering all the World Cups from Italia ’90 through Brazil ’14. Then came the U.S. collapse. There were hardly any takers in the U.S. to cover an event without an American team in it.
So, come Sunday, I will be sitting on my living room couch like a billion or so other soccer observers and fans watching France tussle with Croatia in the 21st World Cup final.
Who am I rooting for? Well, a good game, an entertaining affair, a dramatic finish would be perfect. In the long run, I don’t care who will win as long there are great moments we can cherish and remember for the rest of our lives. Guess that comes from the journalist inside of me.
Then again, I think many fans are hoping for the same thing.
Will I miss attending the spectacle and writing about another world championship?
I’ll be lying if I said no. There’s nothing like being there and “breathing in” the atmosphere of a championship extravaganza.
But I won’t miss mix zones, the seemingly constant travel and the paranoia of an American being in Russia during these perilous times.
Hey, I have survived the last month without traveling to Russia.
It’s whole new world now and a whole new World Cup.