By Michael Lewis
As a sportswriter, I try to be that proverbial fly on the wall.
Many times, it is better to listen and accrue information than it is to be the life of the party or in the middle of it.
Yet, I got a bit of a lesson when I covered the FIFA Under-19 World Cup in Chile in 1987.
To climax that unforgettable and fabulous four-month span in 1987 in which I covered three memorable competitions, I journeyed down to Chile to write about the competition.
After returning home from the U-16 World Cup in eastern Canada in July and the Pele Tournament in Brazil in August, I was about to catch my breath before yet another trip down to South America.
I wasn’t just writing about the competition for Soccer Week, I was a correspondent for Coca Cola, which was the sponsored of that age group for years. Coca Cola decided to use writers to write features and cover games from their own countries and selected me to cover the United States.
Even though the U.S. was based in the desert, it was one of the most memorable trips I have ever been on. The Americans played all their games in Antofagasta, a port city 700 miles north of the capital, Santiago and was the second driest area on the planet to the Sahara Desert.
The writers wound up staying in the same hotel as the four teams in the same group, so we ran into players and coaches on a regular basis. I got an opportunity to meet West German coach Berti Vogts.
As for the players, well, no one realized at the time, but a few promising young performers were on the USA squad – Tony Meola, Kasey Keller and Marcelo Balboa. You probably have heard of them. The team included a couple of Long Islanders — Mike Constantino, who scored a goal in memory of his late best friend, and Adrian Gaitan, who will be detailed in a future piece.
In those stone-age days of pre-cell phones and 21st century wireless laptop computers, I had to send my stories back to the states via a fax machine and the business that did it had one in downtown Antofagasta. So, I had to leave the hotel complex, which was closely guarded because the four teams were there. One of the stipulations was always that we needed to wear our media credentials at the hotel so we wouldn’t be hassled by security. Fair enough.
However, during a walk to the downtown area, I made the mistake of wearing my credentials when I left the hotel property. There was a group of young girls who were dying to meet the young soccer players and futbol fans. Everyone thought I was part of the U.S. team, even though I tried communicating with them in my extremely limited Spanish that I was only a writer and not a coach or player. They would have none of that and wanted my autograph. I complied and wrote Michael Lewis, USA. And once you did one, you had to do them all. Don’t know how many of those signatures were saved by the fans.
I learned my lesson and made sure I removed my credentials before I left the property.
The deal with every writer was that Coca Cola would pay for four games, which meant the three group matches and a quarterfinal. The USA group was supposed to play in Santiago, so I took a plane south. I covered one of the greatest matches yours truly ever witnessed, when Yugoslavia (pre-break-up, which included Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro) defeated Brazil, 2-1. It was an inspiring match and I wound up writing about it for Soccer Week, it was so good. The game, incidentally, was held at Estadio Nacional, which had the Andes Mountains as a breath-taking backdrop. The venue was a detention center and reportedly an execution venue after the coup ousted President Salvador Allende in 1973.
There was just one slight problem: I was to return to the states the next day and I wanted to stay until the final game. Tony Correa, who was working for the U.S. team and decided to remain through the final (a week away), found a hotel in downtown Santiago that cost $16 a night with breakfast. I remember him telling me that I should be able to afford $112 for the week to cover the final.
My ticket, however, was dated for the next day and said it could not be changed. I was told there was a gentleman from Coca Cola that could possibly change my ticket, but he was nowhere to be found. So, I packed up and took a taxi to the airport, presuming I was returning home. I found the gentlemen and explained my situation and asked if the ticket could be changed. He said yes (and within a day, I had a new return ticket). I took another taxi to this new hotel and while it was far from the Ritz, it was clean and run by some nice people.
The teams’ hotel turned out to be the representing in the movie, Missing, situated across the street from the presidential palace.
Young girls surrounded the hotel seemingly for 24 hours, waiting for a glimpse of one of those superstar players. When they saw one glance out the window, they shrieked many a time reminding me of when The Beatles came to New York so many years ago.
When I left the hotel, I remembered to take off my credentials when I was in the revolving exit door (in some respects I felt like Clark Kent changing into Superman, but in very slow motion). It worked. I was “an ordinary” person who could work his way through the crowd.
As for the final, Yugoslavia defeated West Germany in a shootout. I dictated my story back to Soccer Week editor Bob Liepa, with one yellow legal pad having scribbled out most of my narrative, another notebook with quotes. I don’t know how much the collect call back to Massapequa, N.Y. was, but I still don’t want to know.
The final included such future stars as Robert Prosenicki, Davor Suker and Zvonimir Boban, who tallied a late goal and recorded the game-winning penalty kick.
Eleven years later, that trio was still the engine of a national team, this time for Croatia, which finished third at the 1998 World Cup in France. For my New York Daily News column picking the knockout rounds, I continued to select the Croatians, which confounded a lot of observers. I knew better, although they finally met their match, losing to eventual champion France in the semifinals.
Prosinecki was the midfield general, Suvker the World Cup Golden Boot winner and Boban the team captain.