Arnie Ramirez sets the Puerto Rico formation with bottles, plastic cups and oranges. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
Today is the 27th anniversary of Puerto Rico’s 2-1 win over the Dominican Republic in the very qualifying match of the 1994 World Cup. Arnie Ramirez coached Puerto Rico and here is a behind-the-scenes look prior to the game.
By Michael Lewis
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Arnie Ramirez, the special technical adviser to the Puerto Rico national team, was getting a bit anxious standing in the lobby of the Hotel Comodoro.
It was 1:48 p.m. and a tardy defender Martin Alvarez was hold up the squad’s departure for three minutes for the World Cup qualifying match at Estadio Olimpico on Saturday, March 21, 1992.
Finally, the former Long Island University defender, walked down the stairs.
“Come on, come on Martin,” Ramirez said as Alvarez carried his bags into the waiting team van.
Carrying his bag? A team van and not a team bus?
World Cup doesn’t always necessarily mean world class as the Puerto Rican team rudely discovered for its Concacaf Caribbean North zone preliminary match that Saturday.
Ramirez said he had much better accommodations while coaching the LIU soccer team. “We have a bus every game,” he said.
Puerto Rico’s stay down here was humbling and something bumbling experience. When the team arrived on Wednesday night, a bus supplied by the Dominican Olympic Committee was supposed to transport the team from the airport to its lodgings.
It never showed. The team chipped in and managed to rent a van.
“Remember the movie, ‘Romancing the Stone?’ ” defender Milton Espinoza asked. “Well, our bus was like the one in the movie only without the chickens.”
There was no bus for Estadio Olimpico as a van took the team to the game. The van had to make two trips — the 16 dressing players on the first run, the non-playing players, team officials and coaching staff on the second.
When they finally arrived at the stadium, Ramirez took one whiff of the locker room — it had backed-up toilets — and quickly negotiated for a new home — a delivery area that was temporarily converted into a make-shift locker room. It had benches and tables.
Life went on as normal, though a dog, a mixed breed that occupied the area appeared terrified of the interlopers. One native man wasn’t concerned. He continued delivering bananas as the team quietly prepared for its most important match.
“It’s the little things, but they add up,” Ramirez said.
Everyone had their own way of getting match ready. Most of the starters — including midfielder Franco Paonessa and Espinoza — laid down on their equipment bags while a couple of players juggled a soccer ball.
Milton Espinoza rests with his head on his equipment bag before a World Cup qualifying match in Santo Domingo. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
At 3 p.m., FIFA representative Richard Ramcharan of Trinidad & Tobago entered the room and asked to see the team’s passports. This was an important procedure because of the dispute over American mainland citizens player for Puerto Rico.
Ramcharan looked at one and said, “There is something wrong here.”
Team officials quickly explained the situation.
The inspection finished without incident. Before leaving, Ramcharan reminded coach Oscar Rosa that dissent from the bench was prohibited, to play fair and that the game would start promptly at four o’clock.
Instead of using a blackboard to diagram last-minute strategy and assignments, Ramirez was forced to use water bottles, plastic cups and oranges on a table to get his point across.
There was one advantage of having this type of “locker room” — the team was able to do calisthenics and light running.
“If we win today, we make history,” Ramirez told his team.
He later added: “Be careful in the first 10 minutes. Concentrate a lot so they don’t score a stupid goal.”
Then it was: “If they spit at you, don’t spit back. Don’t fight back.”
At 3:40 p.m. the rival teams entered the playing field together, much to the delight of the 5,000 spectators. “It’s show time,” midfielder Stan Koziol said.
Just minute before the starting whistle, a photographer gathered the Puerto Rican side for a team picture. As they lined up, referee Lancelotte Livingston gestured for the squad to take their positions for the start of the match.
He stood over the ball at the middle of the field, looking at his watch before he was interrupted by several Dominican soccer officials. They needed the teams back on the sidelines so a local honcho could shake everyone’s hand.
Before going back out, each team sang it’s national anthem acapella because there was no music to be found in the stadium.
At 4:09 Atlantic Standard Time, Livingston signaled for the game to start. Dominican Republic midfielder Nevis dela Cruz complied as he kicked the ball to teammate Hector Marnol.
Finally, the World Cup had begun.