By Michael Lewis
There are all-star games and there are all-star games.
And there were a pair of the back-to-back spectaculars at old Giants Stadium to watch stars, domestic and international, showcase their talents on July 14, 1996.
The occasion was the first Major League Soccer all-star game as the Eastern Conference defeated the Western Conference, 3-2, as Carlos Valderrama earned MVP honors by creating the first goal and setting up the game-winner by Tampa Bay Mutiny teammate Steve Pittman in the 87th minute.
In the second match, the Brazilian Olympic team, which would go onto to claim the silver medal in the Atlanta Summer Games in the next month, defeated the World Stars, 2-1, in the FIFA World All-Star Game. Bebeto gave the South Americans the lead three minutes into the second half before Jurgen Klinsmann, the future U.S. men’s national coach, equalized in the 69th minute. Carlos scored the game-winner in the 78th minute.
Just in case you were wondering, Jorge Campos (Mexico), John Harkes (U.S.), Fernando Hierro (Spain), Mark Fish (South Africa), Abedi Pele (Ghana), Lothar Matthaeus (Germany) and George Weah (Liberia) were among the stars that glittered for the world team.
The real winners that crazy, unforgettable sunny Sunday afternoon in East Rutherford, N.J.? I would say two parties.
Proceeds from the doubleheader went to the SOS Children’s Villages in 125 countries.
The fans as well, as a sports crowd of 78,416 watched a delightful doubleheader the way the beautiful game should be played, with end to end attacking soccer and not a professional foul, yellow card or red in sight.
Tampa Bay Mutiny head coach Thomas Rongen, who directed the Eastern Conference that day, concurred.
“Winning or losing wasn’t important,” he said. “The winners were MLS, the players and fans, who saw a great game. They were part of history to see the league develop this way today. A big point was the MLS; 75,000 people. A highly entertaining game. This is what it’s all about.”
Given the way things are today, I doubt whether many, if any leagues or organization will have an all-star extravaganza ever again.
But who knows? We might be surprised someday.