The USMNT with Marvelous Marvin Hagler at the 1990 World Cup. (Photo courtesy of Rich Riehl)
By Michael Lewis
The U.S. locker room at Stadio Olympico on June 14, 1990 was a tumult of activity after the team’s 1-0 World Cup loss to Italy only minutes prior.
An exhausted American team had made life difficult for the host side and almost pulled off a stunning draw had it not been for the rear end of goalkeeper Walter Zenga denying Peter Vermes’ rebound shot off Bruce Murray’s free kick.
Despite the defeat, the USMNT players felt proud of themselves that they were able to show the rest of the world they could stay with one of the cup favorites, especially after a disaster of the opening 5-1 loss to Czechoslovakia only four days prior.
In a surreal scene that included the legendary Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Roberto Baggio, several Italian players visited the USA locker room to offer their congratulations to the young team. The USMNT was competing in its first World Cup in 40 years at Italia ’90 and rarely would players would go to the opposing dressing room after games.
After the Italians left, the Americans were ready to leave the locker room.
“And then, lo and behold, as we’re sitting there, the commotion, in walks Marvin Hagler,” Murray said. “It was just astonishing.”
“He came walking in,” defender Desmond Armstrong said. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Marvelous Marvin Hagler is in our locker room?’ ”
Hagler, the former middleweight champion of the world. Hagler passed away Saturday night. He was 66.
In 1990, Hagler was in Italy at the time making Spaghetti Westerns after he lost the crown to Sugar Ray Leonard in a controversial loss in 1987.
“You were like, who is this? Why is he in Italy?” Murray said. “We’re in Rome. what is he doing here, and not the bad way but everybody knew who the champ was.”
Hagler spoke to the team.
“He talked about how great you guys were and made him proud,” Murray said. “He was just a really nice guy, a humble guy, not huge in stature. He was very encouraging just like Italian players through translation. … It was just amazing. He met everyone, shook hands. We were just star struck.”
Moreover, that a celebrity, a former world boxing champion made a statement by attending a World Cup in which the USA men had competed.
“That signified the magnitude of the World Cup in a more American context of significance,” Armstrong said. “Globally, of course, everybody else outside of the United States was glued to that game because we’re playing Italy, and Italy, and was also one of the favorites to win the World Cup. Globally, everybody was involved, engaged, but for someone from America with that type of fame, to be at that game, really signified the magnitude of what we had accomplished. That was that was more significant in my estimation, than us traveling down the streets of Rome and getting ready to play Italy after we get demolished by Czechoslovakia the game before.”
Hagler also posed for photos.
After all, who wouldn’t with one of the world’s greatest boxers?
The USMNT poses with Marvelous Marvin Hagler at Italia ’90. (Photo courtesy of Rich Riehl)
Maryland residents Murray and Armstrong didn’t need a primer about Hagler or Leonard, who lived close to both players at the time. Armstrong, who met Sugar Ray at a McDonald’s in Landover, Md., remembered how competitive the middleweight division was at the time with the likes of Tommy “The Hitman” Hearn also fighting.
So, how did Hagler find his way into the locker room?
We’ll let John Polis, then the USMNT’s press officer, take over. In a Sunday Facebook post, Polis remembered how he “helped the champ out of jam.”
“As the team’s press officer, as usual following every game, I was making my way to the U.S. locker room and as I approached a security barrier, I noticed a familiar-looking African American man who looked very athletic and, well like he was someone I should recognize,” Polis wrote. “He was going back and forth with the security guard trying to gain admittance to the U.S. locker room.
“I kept thinking: I know that guy. Who on earth is he? Finally, it dawned on me: It was Marvelous Marvin Hagler, long time world middleweight champ and one of the greatest boxers of all time. He was about six-seven feet away and I said in a voice loud enough for both he and the security guard to hear: ‘Hey, Marvin, you need some help?’ … ‘Yeah, man, I’d like to get in to see the guys.’
“I spoke to the security guard and asked if it was OK for him to go in with me and he said yes. The instant he walked into the locker room our players greeted him with loud cheers. Of course, there were pictures all around. A memorable night for me in so many ways: In one way, it was a thrill to be working with the first USA squad to play in the quadrennial event’s final round tournament in 40 years, plus we were playing host team Italy in The Eternal City. But perhaps most important of all, it was the night fate put me in the most unlikely position of ‘coming to the rescue’ of a world champion.”
When Armstrong read about Hagler’s passing, he said that he “was transported back immediately to when I actually met him. I didn’t read about him in the paper. I actually shook his hand. I took pictures with him. I was transported back to that time, in the locker room, he came walking in, I was like are you kidding me, marvelous Marvin Hagler is in our locker room. I was definitely saddened by the news. He obviously was a young man. 66. We don’t know the details of why he died so rapidly, and I hope it goes well this family in terms of their loss. But definitely transported immediately back to that time when we were younger.”
“So many memories from that night,” added team trainer Rich Riehl, who traded a shirt with Baggio. “It was totally surreal to have our locker room a place that Hagler and the Italians would visit.”
* * *
A couple of things to help put that warm Italian night into context.
Italian journalists predicted that their national squad would win by five or six goals in what some were calling the 20th century version of the Christians vs. the Lions. Of course, that didn’t happen. The USMNT slowed down the pace of the match, frustrating the host side and turning its fans against it.
“The significance of that is that I think we had maybe 21 consecutive passes without the Italians touching the ball,” Armstrong said. “We had a chance to actually score on the free kick rebound. We didn’t just roll over after having lost that first game. We actually showed a little bit of character to the extent that another American would feel proud about his team playing against one of the favorites of the World Cup on their home turf in their stadium.”
Armstrong marked Alessandro Vialli in the opening 45 minutes and Salvatore Schillaci in the second half.
“Two their top strikers, not only for the Italian team, but also in the world at that time because Serie A was the top league in the world,” the former defender said, adding that he had “a lot of emotions personally as well as collectively. Again, we just came away with a little bit of relief, a sense of excitement. Even though we lost the game we just felt like we were so close to actually gaining something from it.”
Through a translator, Murray said Baresi told him that “that I was a tough matchup because of my size. and my fighting.”
“I thought that was really interesting because it was all about trying to get the ball down and at that time there was not a lot of big 6-3, 6-2 type strikers,” he continued. “So, I was very blessed to hear that he said it was a very tough matchup because we were going to battle for it. The game reflected that because one of the players saw through an elbow and that’s what got us our free kick where we almost scored. I know Peter Vermes would love to have the rebound back but.”
Murray was called in for a drug test afterwards and after such an exhausting performance he did not have much liquid in his body.
“It was the hardest game I ever played because you get behind the ball,” he said. “Sounds easy, and very [tiring]. You play for 70 minutes or 80 minutes or however long I lasted before Chris Sullivan came on to give me a break. You got to do so much work.
“I remember just sitting there after about an hour. They gave me like a water, two waters. Finally, somebody came in with a six pack of beer. I can’t remember the name of the beer … but me and the other two guys from Italy were half drunk when we walked out.”
Murray laughed. He realized he was holding up the rest of the U.S. team on the bus.
“The guys wanted to get back to the hotel,” he said.
“It was it was a night for the ages. I mean everyone was there [in the locker room]. It was absolutely crazy.”