The U.S. team celebrates their historic victory. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
Here are some of Michael Lewis’ remembrances of events leading up to the U.S.’s 1-0 victory over Trinidad & Tobago in 1989 that qualified the Americans for their first World Cup in 40 years and the game itself. Today, Monday, Nov. 19, is the 29th anniversary of that historic result.
By Michael Lewis
Here I was, walking down a bustling street in the middle of Port of Spain with several other writers and a local woman teased us.
“We’re going to beat you,” she boasted.
I smiled and laughed.
“We” were the Trinidad & Tobago national team.
“You” were the U.S. national team.
In two days’ time — on Nov. 19, 1989 — those rivals were to tussle for the 24th and final berth of Italia ’90.
While American soccer fans expect qualification to the World Cup these days, those were rather uncertain times.
After all, the United States had not reached soccer’s promised land since 1950. The Americans’ failed efforts had been littered with frustrating and sometimes humiliating results.
The U.S. needed a win to qualify, Trinidad a tie. That the Soca Warriors managed a 1-1 draw in Torrance, Calif. on an 11th-hour goal May 13 did not make the U.S. prospects seem all that great.
The November confrontation did not garner much interest in the states; it was the talk of this Caribbean country of 1.2 million. The government asked its citizens to show their support by reveling in red, whether it was clothes, drapes or flags. Calypso songs were composed, singing praises of the team. In anticipation of victory, the day after the game already had been declared a holiday.
It wasn’t going to be easy. The U.S. had not won a World Cup qualifier on the road — not even at a neutral site — in more than 21 years, when the Americans defeated Bermuda in Hamilton, 2-0, on Nov. 10, 1968.
And Trinidad & Tobago wasn’t about to role over and die.
In fact, they literally painted the town red for the game after a govenment asked its citizens, especially Port of Spain residents to show their support by reveling in that color, whether it was in clothes, drapes or flags.
The govenment dedicated every day of the preceding week to its National Team. On Sunday, Nov. 12, exactly a week before the game, the government asked its citizens to wear red — its national colors — in a show of support for its soccer team.
Another day was set aside for prayer for the team.
Calypso ballads also were composed, singing the praises of coach Everett Cumming, who once played for the New York Cosmos, of the team, and even of the 88th-minute goal that Trinidad scored to secure that 1-1 tie back on May 13.
“When the Yankees come to the stadium, we’re going to beat them like bongs,” said one of the songs complosed by a musician called Super Blue.
“It’s soccer madness,” said Mervyn Wells, managing editor of Trinidad Express. “It hasn’t been keyed up like this for anything at all.”
The madness was for football, as it is known in this tiny Caribbean country, which needed only a tie to become the smallest country — 1.2 million population — to reach Italia ’90.
“That’s what all the people are talking about in the streets, nothing else,” Wells said. “They’re wondering how they’re getting a ticket, what team they’re going to put on the field, who’s going to be put on the sidelines.”
On Sunday, Nov. 19 National Stadium was a sea of red, as an overflowing crowd of more than 30,000 word red as popular calypso stars sang songs about the road to the World Cup two hours before the kickoff. Fans arrived six hours before the match to make sure they would get a seat.
Everything was geared for a Trinidad tie or victory, but someone forgot to tell the U.S.
We were advised to get to Hasely Crawford Stadium several hours before kickoff. By the time we had arrived, seemingly just about all of Trinidad had jammed into the ground, creating a massive sea of red.
Writers sat in stadium seats. Wireless was yet to be invented so we had to file our stories back at the hotel.
The U.S. lineup was filled with legends — Tab Ramos, John Harkes, Tony Meola, Bruce Murray and Paul Caligiuri, to name a few — although they had barely begun to make their reputations. Most were recent college graduates with little or no pro experience. Meola was still attending the University of Virginia and tending goal for the Cavaliers.
The game was an unremarkable one, although it forever will be known for Caligiuri’s looping, 28-yard shot that hooked to the right past goalkeeper Michael Maurice in the 31st minute. Caligiuri was a surprise starter over regular midfielder John Stollmeyer, whose great uncles earned reputations as world-class Trinidad cricket players. But coach Bob Gansler let strategy win out over sentimentality, which turned into a winning choice.
I was not in my seat for the final whistle. I had ventured to the TV broadcast center, which had a phone from where I could call in the result to United Press International to let the world know that history had been made (there were no cell phones in those days).
I found my way to a U.S. locker room celebration that was part New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras. Believe it or not, the media was allowed in. The smell of champagne punctuated the air. Today, the media is forbidden from entering the players’ inner sanctum. Today, mixed zones protect players from the endless horde of reporters.
After filing my stories, I phoned in to make sure they had been received. A forlorn hotel telephone operator — obviously a Soca Warriors fan — congratulated me for the Americans’ achievement.
As if I had anything to do with the win. But I thanked her anyway.
I know I never will experience anything like that magical time in Port of Spain again, but I thank the heavens for allowing me to watch some incredible history in the making.