Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Alex Sandoval Dreams Of Wearing The Atlas Colors


(Published in print in the United States – July 2001)

Raised in Bridgeton, New Jersey, Alex Sandoval is an American. But unlike many whose families originated in Europe and who seem to think their ancestors simply grew out of the ground here, Sandoval knows who he really is.
"I was born here, but my blood is Mexican," he said from his home Friday.
That kind of self-awareness permeates America's Latino community.
In fact, just last week the Sandoval family was back in Mexico. But this time was special. While there, 18-year-old Alex had a soccer tryout with Mexican club giant Atlas of Guadalajara.
"They said they liked the way I play," said Sandoval, a returning senior striker for the Bridgeton High School team. "They test your conditioning, see where your footwork's at, see whether you're a team player or an individual."
The evaluation took place at the club's youth facility, not the grand stadium seen regularly on Sundays during Univision's Mexican League broadcasts. The left-footed Sandoval, a 5-foot-8, 165-pounder, is hopeful Los Zorros, as they're known, will bite.
"They said they'll give me a call," he said.
Sandoval's dreams certainly aren't misguided according to Thomas Masucci, his high school coach at Bridgeton.
"He's one of the best players I've ever seen at the high-school level," Masucci, a native of Italy, said Friday of Sandoval -- who scored 25 goals last season. "Alex basically has everything it takes to be a pro. He has the talent, skills, ball control and precision. He's a natural soccer player who was born with the talent."
Masucci is a 52-year-old supporter of "glorious" Italian club Juventus who's been Stateside for 25 years. He touched on the factors he thinks will push Sandoval, who's scored 40 career goals for Bridgeton, over the top.
"He needs discipline," the coach said. "He needs to work out every day and do all the other things pro players do.
"Like all the great talents, Alex has a personality that's not the average one. A good coach is one that not only understands the game but understands the individual. Alex has not been able to be consistent as far as being coached. Bridgeton is not an easy team to coach. You have to be experienced and be in control.
"Alex gave me 100 percent last season and he was a major factor in our team's success. He really excelled. He has the ability to go on and play major college soccer."
Sandoval, one of three siblings, shares his coach's vision. "Hopefully I can go to college," he said, cognizant that only the best go on to play for a club like Atlas. "My immediate goals are to have another solid season with Bridgeton and try to get at least a division title."
Sandoval began playing the game at age 9 under the tutelage of his father Pedro. "Every day, my dad took me out there to teach me," Sandoval said. "He taught me to shoot, pass and dribble -- everything. I played baseball at first, then I broke my arm. I liked soccer as soon as I started it. It was competitive and you needed a lot of skill to play."
Sandoval played for the Seabrook-based Cohansey Soccer Club for four years before moving on to the South Jersey Stars, an independent club that plays matches in Mercer County against teams from throughout the state as well as Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Besides Atlas, Sandoval supports Major League Soccer's MetroStars "because they're from New Jersey" as well as the national teams of the United States and Mexico. "They're both going to be in the World Cup. Mexico will sneak through," he said. "Soccer's growing here (in the U.S.) more than it used to be. I see it all the time."
As far as players, Sandoval cites two as his inspiration. "Barcelona's (Brazilian) Rivaldo is my favorite," he said. "I like the way he can take charge of the game. He can shoot, he can score, he can pass. He breaks down defenses. He's the man.
"I also like (Liverpool's Englishman) Michael Owen. He can change the game with his speed and he cuts on a dime."
Sandoval outlined his own skills when prodded. "I'm more of a dribbler who likes to play one-on-one," he said, admitting the Latin influence on his game. "What you learn depends on who you play with. If you play with Spanish people you learn their slower, dribbling style. If you play with other Americans, you get a faster game. It's good to play with both. That way, you learn a little bit of everything."
Sandoval soaks it all in every Sunday, as at least 15 people -- "my family, my dad's friends -- gather at their house for the Mexican League broadcasts on Univision or the various leagues shown on Telemundo. "Sometimes I can't watch because I'm playing my own games," he said.
If that call does come from Atlas, the roomful might one day be watching Sandoval ply his trade in that storied red-and-black shirt. Just maybe.

Atlantic City High School Boys' Soccer Team A Real United Nations


(Published in print in the United States – October 2003)

The world revolves much like a spinning soccer ball, and in one small part of southern New Jersey that analogy applies more to real-life social studies than a science lesson.
On the fields of Atlantic City High School, boys from all points of the globe gather to play on the soccer team and sample each other's wide range of cultures.
Colombia. Honduras. Jamaica. Liberia. Mexico. Bangladesh. Croatia. Peru. Argentina. And, of course, the United States.
Just a handful of the 16 players are American by birth. Most come from the countries mentioned, bringing with them a unique sense of soccer style as well as their everyday customs.
"We try to mesh together and become one as a team," says Tennyson Davis, a muscular 14-year-old sophomore from Liberia with a gleaming smile. "We try hard to combine everything."
During matches, many of the Vikings bark out directions to each other in Spanish. The team's three players from Liberia mix their regional West African dialects with English.
And head coach Kevin Semet, a 33-year-old native of Egg Harbor Township, lends his voice to proceedings while prowling the sidelines.
What emerges is a true sporting cacophony.
"In practice, the coach tells us what to do and those who understand him interpret for the others," Davis says. "Some of the kids who speak Spanish don't speak good English, but there's always somebody around to translate."
Brian Penagos, a tall, athletic 17-year-old junior who comes from Colombia, admits his native tongue just surfaces naturally on the field.
"It's your first instinct," he says. "All of us play soccer for fun when we're not in school, and Spanish is how we communicate."
Jose Pineda served as the Vikings' captain until he broke his right femur in a match against Buena Regional on Oct. 20. After rods were inserted into his leg through surgery, the 16-year-old junior from Mexico has had time to reflect on the eclectic nature of this team.
"It took a while to get used to each other," Pineda says. "But now, everybody seems to be responding pretty well. We finally got the team concept down after a while."
They sure did. Earlier this month, the Vikings beat Pleasantville, Holy Spirit and Millville in consecutive matches. It was the first three-game winning streak in the program's history, and it was accomplished in style.
In the 5-4 win over Millville, the Liberian trio put on a display of ball skills and speed inherent to the African game. The Central and South Americans employed their usual flair, especially in one-on-one matchups.
And Germaine Walker, a 16-year-old junior from Jamaica, wore a wide Caribbean grin while showing his opponents a steely determination to win battle after battle.
The Vikings still lose more games than they win. But there are tangible signs of progress. Goals from Walker and Penagos ensured a 2-2 home tie vs. Egg Harbor Township in a downpour Monday. The draw improved their record to 4-11-2.
Yet on the teamwork front -- the intangible part of the sport -- it has all come together.
"It took two years for this to happen," Walker says of the winning streak. "It takes time, but we all have the same goal in mind."
Holding this patchwork quilt together is Semet, who lives and breathes the sport while trying to instill in his players the benefits of discipline and hard work.
Coaching is more than a job to him. Semet treats it as a calling, whether it's filling his white pickup truck with players to attend MetroStars games at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford or securing support from local businesses in order to upgrade the Vikings' uniforms.
Quite often, the players' post-match trip to McDonald's comes courtesy of their coach.
"There's no question the talent is there with these guys," Semet says while dodging raindrops and giving shouts of encouragement to his players before Monday's game.
"It's my job to make them a cohesive unit. So many coaches try to use their players in a set system that doesn't suit them. I honestly believe you play the hand you've been dealt. Luckily with this group we can play creative, attacking soccer."
That suits Davis just fine. His remarkable skills were honed on the gravel roads of Liberia, often in his bare feet.
"When you did have a pair of cleats, you kept them for six or seven years," he says with a laugh. "If you split them, you would take them to a tailor so he could sew them up."
Davis dreams of playing professionally for Spanish club Real Madrid and following in the footsteps of French midfielder Zinedine Zidane, his favorite player.
"Soccer is such a major sport in the world," he says, his gaze wandering to faraway thoughts. "People here just don't know how big it is."
One of his teammate agrees wholeheartedly with those sentiments.
"We were all raised on soccer," Penagos says. "It means so much in our families, and the great part is we learn a little bit more about each other with every game we play."

The Dema Kovalenko Interview


(Published in print in the United States – July 2000)

Astute observers of American soccer figured Dema Kovalenko must have been feeling the pangs every time Dynamo Kiev put on a rollicking show on ESPN2.
There was the time, two seasons ago, when Eastern Europe's ambassadors for fluent football dismantled a talented Arsenal squad, in the spotlight glare of London to boot.
And any fan of Italian Serie A watches Kiev graduate Andriy Shevchenko shred the best defenders in the world on a weekly basis.
Even this year, striker Sergei Rebrov, also bequeathed from the famed Kiev academy, is being hailed as Spurs' key to European qualification at White Hart Lane in North London.
It all must represent a dizzying picture for Kovalenko to focus on.
"Yeah, I think about all that," Kovalenko, the 22-year-old midfielder for Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire, told me from his Chicago home via telephone on Thursday.
"But I've lived here (in America) for a long time now. I'm used to this life."
That existence includes being named a first-team All-American for 1998 national champion Indiana University as well as enjoying a regular starting position for what many neutrals view as MLS' most talented team.
The 5-foot-8, 145-pound midfielder (although he really is a jack-of-all-trades; "I even played right back this year," he said) was plucked from the hordes of young Ukrainian soccer-playing Soviets at the age of 10 and enrolled in storied club Dynamo Kiev's youth program for a five-year period.
"We were treated as professionally as the 21- and 22-year-olds were," Kovalenko said. "Every match was approached with the mindset that you were there to win. It was a very strict environment."
So strict, in fact, that stories circle the globe of Kiev's obsession with tactics and discipline. In European competition, a player was recently substituted for not being in prescribed place, even though the run of play resulted in a goal.
But, unlike, say, a freewheeling South American player who would decry such planned precision, Kovalenko credits that guidance when reflecting on his technically sound game.
"That's what carried me to this point," he said. "Being at Dynamo Kiev is what gave me the grounding to be the player I am today."
Kovalenko has followed Shevchenko's ascent in Italy with a keen eye. He recalls the affection the latter showed to him on a recent training trip back to Ukraine.
"We're only a year apart in age, and we scrimmaged together coming up through the system," Kovalenko said. "He came up to me when I was back there, asked me how I was doing."
If members of the Fire's brass were inquired on that front they would most likely respond quite well, thank you.
Kovalenko has raised the level of his game this year, tallying eight goals to accompany the bevy of assists that result from his pinpoint passing (he's right-footed, though, from watching him play you would answer ambidextrous if required to guess.)
On July 8 at Soldier Field, under the watchful gaze of his father Genady, in from Ukraine to watch his son play for the first time in four years, Kovalenko scored two goals, his first multi-goal professional start. "I was nervous. I respect my father so much," he said. "I love my dad, and it was nice to play for him like that. But you're only as good as your last game. I have to keep it going."
Kovalenko, who came to America at age 15 to live with a foster family, may soon be recapturing that form in Europe.
"I've had some calls recently," he revealed. "If someone makes a solid offer I'd go in a minute
"MLS is a terrific league, but it's hard not to want top play in front of 100,000 people (as Kiev regularly draw at home). That's what it's all about, really."
Kovalenko also finds himself facing the old dual-country FIFA litmus test: He's reaching a level of play at which he'll be asked to choose countries.
"I'm not an American citizen yet, but I want to be," he said. "But if Ukraine were to call me up for the national team, that's something I'd have to think about."
What requires no thought is absorbing the advice of Fire teammate Hristo Stoitchkov, the Bulgarian who once starred for Barcelona and lifted his country to unthinkable heights at USA '94.
"I don't think people (here) realize who he is," Kovalenko said. "He sits me down after matches, telling me what I should be doing better. I soak it all in. How could you not?"
If he bolts the American playing scene soon, Kovalenko will remember fondly his time at Indiana, an NCAA soccer factory that has produced Nick Garcia, teammate Yuri Lavrinenko and Aleksey Korol, among others.
"Not from the soccer side, but it's run better than most MLS clubs there," he said of his alma mater. "They even have their own plane."
But don't get the idea Kovalenko pines for days gone by. His Euro style fits in well with teammates Peter Nowak, Lubos Kubik and Stoitchkov, while that group complements the North American nuances of Chris Armas, Ante Razov, C.J. Brown and company.
"I think we have the best team in the league," Kovalenko said of the Fire, which hopes to recapture the form that led it to the American double -- MLS and U.S. Open Cup titles -- in 1998.
"Now, we just have to go out on the field and prove it."

The Tab Ramos Interview


(Published in print in the United States – November 2000)

In 1976, a young Tab Ramos left his native Uruguay and brought his developing talent north to the soccer hotbed of Kearny, New Jersey.
Twenty-four years later, Ramos -- who has spent most of his adult life advancing the game in his adopted country -- has closed a chapter in his sporting life.
Ramos announced his retirement from the U.S. national team Friday, expressing a desire to switch his footballing focus.
"This is something that didn't just happen. A lot of thought went into this," Ramos told me during a telephone interview Friday.
"(U.S. coach) Bruce Arena brought me in this year to help the team qualify for the next round of the World Cup, and we've done that. It's a good note to go out on."
Ramos played a full 90 minutes in the midfield Wednesday in the 4-0 U.S. win over Barbados, a result that catapulted the side to the final round of regional qualifying for the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
The 34-year-old Ramos finished his international career with 87 caps and eight goals. He represented the U.S. in three World Cups (1990, 1994 and 1998).
His most significant tally was the game-winner in a 1-0 France '98 qualifying victory over Costa Rica on Sept. 7, 1997 in Portland, Ore.
Ramos, despite his fine current form after recovering from a series of injuries, knows the limitations that come with age.
"It's important to realize when it's time," he said. "You don't want to be the last one to find out."
On that front, Ramos -- who plays for the New York-New Jersey MetroStars of Major League Soccer -- agreed his situation mirrors that of Englishman Alan Shearer, who retired from his national team this summer after scoring two goals in Euro 2000.
"In some ways, it's very similar," Ramos said. "I'm ready to concentrate on club ball and winning a championship with the MetroStars. That's my priority now."
He has also found that some of the soccer passions have given way to paternal ones.
"I want to spend more time with my family," Ramos said. "My son Alex is 5 and he's playing soccer now. I have a 3-year-old daughter (Kristen). I want to be with them as much as possible."
For their part, the MetroStars are glad to have Ramos' full commitment for next season.
"Tab is one of the best players to ever wear the United States jersey," MetroStars general manager Nick Sakiewicz said in a statement Friday. "We are extremely proud to have Tab as a MetroStar and are particularly glad he will be totally focused on helping us win a championship next year."
Ramos has enjoyed a bit of soccer celebrity in a country where those two words don't often go together. Appearances on ABC-TV's "The View" as well as "The Charlie Rose Show" to hawk the sport have added name recognition to the man who holds the distinction of being the first player signed by a then-fledgling MLS.
Chosen among the world's top 100 players by the England-based World Soccer magazine in 1991, Ramos earned a playing stint with Spanish club Real Betis as well as a tour of duty in Mexico's top league.
Ramos, who has battled back from two torn anterior cruciate ligaments, plans to play as long as his body allows.
"I'm really taking it one year at a time now," he said. "Ideally, I'd like to play this year (2001) and the year after that. After that, that's it. I want to do other things. But you never know.
"I think injuries, and my history with them, will determine how the rest of my career continues."
During the week when he hung up his international boots, Ramos also found out -- at a banquet just a few nights ago -- that his New Jersey scholastic record for career goals was under assault from Ocean City's Chad Severs, a senior striker.
(Ramos scored 161 during his years at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark; Severs finished his career with 159 after Ocean City's 0-0 draw with West Morris Central on Friday in the Group III state title game.)
Did he ever think his mark would be approached?
"Absolutely. I'm surprised it's lasted this long," Ramos said. "I've never been what you call a goal scorer; I just happened to have scored a lot of goals in high school.
"If the record isn't broken this year, it may be next year. Hopefully Chad can do his best (Friday). Then he'll be the one receiving telephone calls down the road."
Ramos held a viewpoint on how Severs might have approached Friday's contest.
"He can't play selfishly," he said. "Obviously his first goal is to win the game and for his team to win the championship. If he happens to score three goals, that's great."
Ramos, who was informed Severs has accepted a full athletic scholarship to Penn State, knows the American soccer landscape has changed greatly for players with true ability.
"When I was in high school, the NASL (North American Soccer League) was still around," he said. "I actually got drafted by the Cosmos in my senior year and it was a goal of mine to become a professional from the beginning.
"There was a gap there when a lot of kids didn't have the opportunity. This is good for Chad. He's getting his name out there. A lot of people will hear about it."

Why West Ham? East End Humor, Dedication To Flair


(Published in print in the United States – November 2001; reprinted in EX magazine in England)

This story was meant to appear in September, just after I returned from my annual family trip to England and pilgrimage to one of the shrines of that country's soccer culture.
On Sept. 8, I had cemented fandom of English Premiership club West Ham United by traveling seven-plus hours by train, round trip, to watch the Hammers play away at Derby's Pride Park in the Midlands. That journey came two years after I saw the Hammers host Watford at Upton Park in East London on Sept. 11, 1999.
So I was all set to regale readers of our twice-weekly soccer columns with an account of my drinking a few dozen beers with a few thousand of my closest friends on the matchday.
OK, maybe it wasn't really a few dozen beers and maybe my fellow revelers were total strangers, but you get the overall feel of the proposed piece.
Then the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred and it all seemed so irrelevant. One of the best days of my life paled in comparison to the morning our world changed forever. By the time I felt like writing about that soccer-filled Saturday again, the European season was in full swing -- and we try to maximize our space here in order to provide you with the news you're so used to seeing.
But the life of an international soccer fan living in America has its intriguing moments. It seemed everywhere I went in pursuit of my passion -- Philadelphia's satellite pub the Dickens Inn, South Jersey Barons matches, the local high school sidelines -- fellow soccer guys would see my claret-and-blue jersey and repeatedly ask the same question: Why did you choose to back West Ham?
Most of the Britons and Irish I see in the aforementioned places, as well as hardcore American fans of the sport (and there are many), support the teams like Manchester United, Arsenal, Celtic, Newcastle, Spurs or Liverpool. That's understandable. They have high-profile players and very rich histories. Nearly all of their matches are televised via satellite to worldwide audiences.
But I wanted to choose a team from London, the part of England I know well. My wife Victoria was born in Suffolk and still supports Ipswich Town, although she comes from more of a cricketing family. My twin sons Benjamin and Alexander are still at the age where they change their allegiances on a weekly basis, depending on which club was on TV last or which shirt looks the coolest. (For the record, Ben most mentions Newcastle and Italian club Roma while at play; Alex prefers Everton and Roma, too.)
Already steeped in the history of the world's national teams as a teenager, I gradually warmed to what West Ham stood for upon further discovery in the mid-1990s. Here was a team that housed England's most-revered "football academy," a youth-development system unrivaled until Liverpool pumped out quality youngsters in the 1980s. Manchester United picked up the mantle in the 1990s, but the Hammers had set the precedent.
And it was the way West Ham played its soccer that closed the deal for me. It was a commitment to the beautiful game, to a brand of football easy on the eye. Hammers fans cared first and foremost about how the game looked, with the match result a distant second on the priority list. The game was played "on the floor" (as opposed to the air) and invention was openly encouraged.
My other Euro club is Lazio of Rome (my deceased great-grandmother came to the United States from that city in 1913), but they don't quite hold the sway of the Hammers. Watching the Italian Serie A is like watching the ballet -- and it can be just as moving. But there's a raw nature to the English game that demands attention. (Heck, maybe it's the weather.)
You would have to understand the character of those who inhabit cockney East London to fully appreciate the approach to their Hammers. An eternally humorous bunch, their hardscrabble verve is on full display along Green Street near Upton Park's West Stand. I made that trek for the 1999 match and often stopped in my tracks to take in sights, sounds and smells.
It's a very Indian part of East London. The hot foods and sitars emanating from the shops and streetside stalls mix with a constant banter. The ground holds just under 27,000 but is being revamped this year for a capacity of 40,000-plus. The starting eleven is usually as cosmopolitan as the stadium's urban surroundings.
For most matches this year, the Hammers' main team sheet includes two Frenchmen, a Czech, an Australian, a Trinidadian, four Englishmen, a Scotsman and an Italian. Oh, that Italian -- he's one Paolo Di Canio, their No. 10 shirt, and he's simply the most captivating athlete I've ever watched.
He's talented and outrageous. He promises to, ahem, off himself if the Hammers don't win a trophy during his tenure. He refers to his jersey as a "second skin" and the Upton Park faithful know his dedication is absolute. You see it in the way he throws himself into every tackle, how he leads the stands in the Verdi's "Rigoletto" aria they sing with his name inserted in the right location.
Speaking of which, the songs that fill the air on matchdays provide a fan with whimsy and sheer joy. European soccer in person is an auditory experience. It takes some thought to lyrically modify songs as different from each other as the pop band Spandau Ballet's "Gold" to "Chim Chim Cheree" from "Mary Poppins." But mostly, the Hammers hordes adore Di Canio for scoring the goal that dumped Man United from the fourth round of the FA Cup last season. It was priceless theater.
Clive Morris of Crawley, England recently e-mailed comments to the monthly Hammers News: "The (club's) numerous lows are so low that the occasional highs make you feel so good."
You can keep your big clubs to yourself, lads. I'll be sticking with the claret and blue.

MetroStars Will Gladly Practice Tuesday For A Victory Saturday


(Published in print in the United States – March 2000)

EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey -- It's a cold, crisp Tuesday morning at Giants Stadium. The gray clouds hang low and there's anything but the hint of spring in the air.
But for the past seven years, spring means the start of the pro soccer season. It's because of that the MetroStars train hard during an open practice session in front of the 30 or so media members gathered on the field. Their season begins at home Saturday (7:30 p.m., MSG) vs. New England and the team takes this late opportunity to iron out a few kinks.
Striker Clint Mathis, fresh off his recent appearances with the United States men's national team, exerts a commanding presence whenever he comes on the ball in this scrimmage. His thick Georgia drawl barks out orders to teammates, the majority of whom quickly return the ball to his feet.
Good decision. Mathis spends the morning launching lasers from his right foot toward the goal. Only the raw athleticism of goalkeeper Tim Howard keeps Mathis from bagging a dozen or more. Howard, unfazed by the barrage he's been facing, calls out words of encouragement to Mike Petke and his fellow defenders.
"Well done! Well done!" the keeper shouts when he's not pawing a ball away from the sticks with his gloved right hand. Petke and the rest of the backline give Howard a thumbs-up sign more than once.
An audible mix of English and Spanish rises from the field. His fellow MetroStars seem to be coaxing more effort from new Colombian striker Diego Serna, while Petke makes it a point to compliment a deft bit of dribbling by striker Rodrigo Faria.
Over on the right flank, midfielder Petter Villegas, all 5-foot-7, 140 pounds of him, makes incisive runs down the sideline before lifting a few appetizing crosses into the box for his teammates to finish.
Nobody works harder than Villegas during the training session, which comes to a close when coach Octavio Zambrano gathers the squad at the center circle for a breakdown of what he's seen.
Villegas, a Newark native, later reveals an interesting bit of information. It seems he has a tangible fear of Fire and Earthquakes. Well, not in the literal sense. But the Major League Soccer clubs from Chicago and San Jose, respectively, do concern the MetroStars player.
"Chicago is always a tough team. San Jose became a great team to watch last season," Villegas says, the sweat pouring from his forehead toward his red-and-black Nike training suit with the No. 8 stitched on.
"Los Angeles is always right there and there's us. I think it's going to be great year. Hopefully everybody's in shape and we're not going to have any injuries. We have high expectations for this year. We've got better players than we had last year. Hopefully we can take the first step forward Saturday."
Villegas applauds a tactical switch Zambrano has made for the upcoming campaign.
"We know what he wants on the field, and now that we're going to play a different formation - a 4-4-2 instead of a 3-5-2 - that's going to help the defenders," he says. "We have a good squad. I think we have the best bench we've ever had in the last six years.
"This year is going to be the most difficult year for every team because since Tampa and Miami are no longer with the league (due to contraction), all their best players went with the other teams so it's going to be a lot harder now."
Villegas and the rest of the Metros are ready to repay the faith shown in them by the 20,000 or so fans who come out to Giants Stadium for the matches.
"It's something that we've put on our minds from the beginning," he says of winning the MLS Cup. "It's been six years, and we haven't been able to even touch that final match for the trophy. Hopefully with Tab Ramos and Clint Mathis coming back (from injury) we can bring that championship here this year for New York."

The Luis Hernandez Interview


(Published in print in the United States – July 2000)

Major League Soccer, in its fifth season, continues a quest to define itself not only in the American sporting landscape, but also within the global soccer scene.
On one hand, its limit on foreign players serves the goal of developing seasoned American players for international tournaments like the World Cup.
Yet, since its competing against European and South American clubs for fandom, a key foreign acquisition shifts world attention to MLS, if only temporarily.
The league's swoop for Mexican striker Luis Hernandez, formerly of Tigres, follows this year's additions of German Lothar Matthaeus and Bulgarian Hristo Stoitchkov in turning a few heads worldwide.
Hernandez, speaking from New York in Spanish via a teleconference call recently, commented on MLS' rugged style of play.
"The soccer (here) is very fast and very physical. It is not what I anticipated, but it's not too much of a surprise," the Los Angeles Galaxy, player who's nicknamed "El Matador," said.
"MLS is missing some salt, (it's) a little bland. It's like a potato that needs some salt; (it) needs some flavor and savvy."
Hernandez has not yet scored with his new club. He was frank in explaining why.
"I need to keep working, along with my teammates. They need to learn my style of play and my movements on the field. I cannot do this alone," he said. "It basically is the lack of adequate passing. I'm only getting sporadic passes, not the quality or quantity of passes I got in Mexico."
The league paid Tigres upwards of $4 million for Hernandez, who's locked up contractually for three years. But don't be so sure he'll remain with MLS for the duration. Hernandez performed brilliantly on a world stage at France '98, leading an unfancied Mexican side into the second round, where the Tricolores sent a scare into the Germans before bowing out 2-1.
Hernandez scored four goals at that World Cup, and he's eager to return to soccer's biggest geographical stage.
"Being in MLS enhances my abilities to be in Europe," said Hernandez, who will most likely be loaned to a European side until MLS' season begins again next spring. But if Hernandez gets untracked the league may want to sell him for a profit. (Eddie Lewis' transfer to Fulham of the English First Division filled league coffers with $1.8 million, enough to pay Lewis's ex-club the San Jose Earthquakes for the entire 2000 season.)
The 31-year-old Hernandez has left Mexico before, to play with heralded Argentine club Boca Juniors. While there, he mostly rode the bench.
"At Boca Juniors, there was a limit of five foreigners and only two can play at one time," he said. "The coach would choose the other foreigners and not me too often."
Because of the MLS salary cap, the league emasculated the Galaxy in order to fit Hernandez on to the roster. Yet, he's not worried about the added responsibility.
"I don't feel the pressure," he said. "The (downward) turn that the team took since my arrival is circumstantial. I'm just focusing on what we need to do. "I have a professional duty here. It is true that they need to adapt to my style, but I also need to adapt."
The league allocated Hernandez on how he was allocated to the Galaxy to tap the fertile Mexican fan base in the Los Angeles area.
The strategy worked initially, as 40,003 turned up at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena fro Hernandez's first match with the Galaxy, a win over D.C. United.
MLS executive vice president Ivan Gazidis feels the tide will turns eventually.
"It's Not easy for foreign players to come in and dominate," he said via teleconference call. "Gradually, the world is waking up to that. Eventually the cream rises. Once he gets used to the tempo he'll be a very important player.”

The Brian McBride Interview


(Published in print in the United States – February 2000)

Striker Brian McBride found himself a player with a massive choice to make last September.
The 27-year-old Columbus Crew stalwart faced the decision most of the best American players encounter at some point: Stay Stateside and help the sport grow or travel abroad to prove yourself on the playing fields of Europe.
McBride, an Arlington Heights, Ill., native, chose the former, signing a contract with Major League Soccer that keeps him with the league through the 2002 campaign.
"I was weighing my options. It was a difficult choice," McBride told me during a telephone interview Friday from Columbus, Ohio. "There was a big European club really making a push for me, but I looked at the situation from all different angles."
Pressed further, McBride revealed the name of the club: German giants Bayer Leverkusen, who also count American Frankie Hejduk as part of the squad. Hejduk has seen the majority of his action during UEFA Champions League play; the club takes a different direction with its Bundesliga lineup.
In the end, McBride, who had previously played with and scored a pair of goals for German side Vfl Wolfsburg, wanted the most time possible on the field.
"In evaluating, I realized how my time spent starting in MLS had made me a better player," he said. "The league has also given me financial stability, and I knew that my best chance of keeping a spot with the national team was by playing here."
That familiar club vs. country battle is rearing its ugly head throughout Europe and South America more than usual, so much so that FIFA president Sepp Blatter is heavily pushing for a standardized soccer calendar.
McBride's commitment to the U.S. men's national team has rewarded him recently. Last summer, he scored vs. New Zealand to send the Americans well on their way to an eventual third-place finish in Confederations Cup. Then, the 6-foot, 175-pound forward picked the Miami-held Gold Cup quarterfinal match vs. Colombia (a 2-2, 2-1 PK loss for the U.S.) to shine.
McBride took a Cobi Jones aerial feed in the box and headed the ball into the upper right corner of the net to give the U.S. an early 1-0 lead. McBride later headed the ball to Chris Armas, who put the feed away for a second-half goal and a 2-1 U.S. lead.
The Crew striker nearly bagged his second goal 10 minutes later, when he stretched, right-footed, in vain for a through ball in front of the prone Colombian keeper.
The U.S. team faces a long, tough 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign, but McBride says the team is in good hands under new head man Bruce Arena, the ex-D.C. United and University of Virginia coach.
"There's a vast difference now," McBride said, referring to the shambles the team faced under disgraced coach Steve Sampson, whose skippering faltered at France '98, where the team finished 32nd, and last, in the field.
Somewhat ironically, McBride scored in a 3-0 romp over Austria in Vienna leading up to that World Cup. Sampson used the resounding victory to validate his controversial 3-6-1 system as well as his decision to drop team captain John Harkes, a Kearny, New Jersey, native, from the squad. But the thud was loud and hard in France.
McBride says that tired finish is well behind the team now.
"One of the most important things Bruce does is instill confidence in everything we do," McBride said. "He makes us want to go out and play for him. We're playing a style that takes the game to the other team and makes them play us, instead of reacting to what they're doing."
Only three teams from CONCACAF, now known as The Football Confederation, will travel to South Korea and Japan for the 2002 World Cup. The U.S. will battle, among others, Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and upstart Canada, today's surprise Gold Cup finalist vs. Colombia (2:30 p.m., Univision), for a spot to play on the global stage.
McBride is confident the Americans will qualify.
"We have a good team," he said. "I think what other countries are seeing now is the quality of depth we have. Our goal is to make the quarterfinals at the World Cup. We want to do well."
McBride knows well the grandeur associated with the event. His late header vs. Iran in a 2-1 loss at France put him in some heady company, as he joined Ernie Stewart and Eric Wynalda as the only Americans of their generation to have scored in a World Cup match.
Yet, at the time, McBride was indifferent to the tally and its significance.
"We were losing the game and I really didn't think about it at the time," McBride said. "It wasn't until I got back home and was able to enjoy it with friends that it became completely thrilling. Then, it became special, but at the time, we were worried about getting a positive result."
McBride enjoys the prestige of playing for the one MLS outfit that built a soccer-specific stadium. The significance isn't lost on him.
"It's tremendous," McBride said of the venue. "I watched a few matches from the stands last season (while recovering from a fractured cheekbone) and it makes all the difference for the fans, having a facility like this.
"I wish every team in MLS would do the same. It's really the future of the sport in this country."
McBride, who shattered scoring records while at Saint Louis University, has seen his exploits recognized by some non-soccer sources. The Baseball Writers of America cited McBride with the John C. Wray award for "accomplishments in sports outside of baseball," and he wiggled his way twice in 1996 into CNN's "Play of the Day" for spectacular goals.
McBride, whose favorite soccer player is Liberian and Chelsea striker George Weah, even finds time to keep up with his favorite hockey team, the Chicago Blackhawks.
"To say I'm a big fan would be an understatement," he said. "But we miss the days when (Jeremy) Roenick and (Ed) Belfour were here. There are some hard times for the club now."
Speaking of difficulties, McBride was forced to miss the opener of the Gold Cup vs. Haiti when he experienced an irregular heartbeat. A battery of medical tests found nothing to fret about.
"It's genetic," he said. "My mother and sister have experienced the same problems. It's not a big deal. I'm a fit person."
And McBride also deems as fit the five-year-old American league he has committed his near future to.
"We're having a great preseason," he said. "The quality of play has gone up, especially with the number of younger players that have come in. Considering the new (Saturday) TV schedule, it's exciting to be a part of it."

The Joe-Max Moore Interview


(Published in print in the United States – February 2000)

Joe-Max Moore is still experiencing a bit of culture shock when he walks the streets of his new soccer destination.
"It's amazing," the 28-year-old American told me during a telephone interview Friday evening from his place of lodging in Liverpool, England.
"Everywhere you go, people come up and pat you on the back or ask for your autograph. The team's fortunes are always at the forefront of their thinking. These people live and breathe it."
The new striker for Everton -- the "other" club in Liverpool -- had better get used to the adulation.
Since joining the English Premier League side on a free transfer from Major League Soccer's New England Revolution, Moore has made an impact.
Once Moore regained match fitness, manager Walter Smith has worked him on to the field as a substitute. The strategy has yielded wonders.
On Jan. 15 at Liverpool's Goodison Park, 36,144 fans were treated to a second-half injury-time goal by Moore. The tally lifted Everton to a 2-2 draw with Tottenham Hotspur and preserved the Toffees' unbeaten home mark for the season.
Moore started a league match vs. Bradford City, then worked his late magic again on Jan. 29 by scoring in injury time at Goodison Park to seal a 2-0 FA Cup win over Preston North End.
The man who scored 40 goals in 80 MLS matches seems to have found the ability to put the ball in the back of the net at the next level. And his teammates are noticing.
"I think they're gaining some trust in me," Moore said. "I know the goals helped raise my confidence level. Once you start scoring, it's something you wish to maintain. My goal is to keep helping the team."
Moore is tipped to get his second league start today when Everton travels to Selhurst Park outside of London to take on Wimbledon. (The match will be shown live at 11 a.m. on FOX Sports World.)
The Sunday TV slot had Moore looking forward to a national audience for the match in Great Britain.
"The game is live on Sky Sports here, so that gives us some profile," Moore said. "I think the guys get fired up when you have that fixed viewership."
Toward that end, Moore raves about the home crowds at Goodison Park.
"First off, the fans are right on top of the field, which makes it nice," he said. "And while there are some tremendously knowledgeable fans in the U.S., you can't get what you get here.
"It's just great to see them applaud when you make a nice tackle or hit a 50-yard ball. They really know the game."
Moore is also part of one of the deepest rivalries in the British game. Only Sunderland-Newcastle United, Manchester United-Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur-Arsenal and Rangers-Celtic can approach Everton-Liverpool for passion.
"Oh, boy," Moore said. "The whole city is consumed by it. I know families that teeter on the brink of divorce because the husband likes Liverpool and the wife is an Everton fan."
Moore, who played once before in Europe for Nuremberg of Germany, landed at Everton in a curious manner.
Scotland international and Everton player Richard Gough did some time with MLS' San Jose Clash (now called the Earthquakes). He was so impressed with Moore's play he recommended the American to Smith. It moved on from there.
"My agent compiled a tape of my goals and sent it on to the Everton officials," Moore said. "They signed me to a three-and-a-half year deal."
Moore has a high level of respect for his manager. "The way Walter prepares the team during the week, the speeches he makes to the team -- he's a class act," he said. "He lets his assistant do most of the coaching, really. He sits in the stands for the first half of the matches then comes down and makes adjustments."
Moore is actually representative of a growing trend in the FA Carling Premiership (known as the EPL overseas) -- foreign players. Any European Union-based side can sign a player from any member country. But there is a flood of cheaper East Europeans, South Americans and, yes, Americans (Claudio Reyna plays for Rangers and Brad Friedel for Liverpool) entering the league.
Moore's opinion?
"It's tough to say," he said. "On one hand, people identify with their own. But, for the most part, I think all fans want to see the highest quality of play possible, no matter where you're from."
Moore is well aware of the 1990s exploits of countrymen John Harkes -- who started for Sheffield Wednesday -- and goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who did well with Leicester City and now plays with Spain's Rayo Vallecano.
Reyna's midfield scoring exploits with Rangers have made an even bigger impression.
"What Claudio's doing up there (in Scotland) is incredible," Moore said. "He's set a standard for American players to follow."
Moore is also happy that technology allows Americans to see the European matches on a regular basis.
"You're getting the Wimbledon match?" he asked. "The world is truly global now. That's great. The sport certainly is."
Moore and his wife of four-plus years are settling down for a long stay in the UK.
"I can't say enough about the people in the community, they way they have treated me and my wife," he said. "This is certainly a good place to be playing."
As a top-flight scorer for MLS' Revolution, Moore took a few moments to reflect on the future of the five-year-old American League.
"I think anyone who would say the MLS is a healthy league would be on the right track," Moore said. "They have to keep increasing the crowds and television presence.
"I think the level of play has increased greatly in the first four years. People pick up on that. They know when they're getting a good product."
As do the English fans, who have embraced Moore with the nickname "GI Joe."
They shouldn't be surprised. Moore always lifted the U.S. level of play (20 goals in 78 caps won). It was never more evident than vs. Germany during the Confederations Cup in Mexico last summer. Moore scored a spectacular goal in a 2-0 victory, raising his international standing that much further. However, when Moore replaced Everton golden boy Francis Jeffers late in that Tottenham match, he heard a few catcalls from the crowd.
"Yeah, I remember there were a few boos at the time," Moore said with a laugh. "I do think the fans were more upset that Walter was removing a forward and not a midfielder.
"And, you've got to remember - he's one of the stars of the team."
Give Moore a few more starts and, in a couple of weeks, he may be repeating those sentiments in front of his bedroom mirror.

One Man's Dedication to Reading FC (With A Little Real Madrid Thrown In)


(Published in print in the United States – August 2000)

READING, England -- Attired in a sweater tied at the neck and neatly pressed slacks, David Keeling appeared the picture of class and reserve while watching Reading FC entertain Premiership new boys Charlton Athletic on Saturday, Aug. 5
But when the underdog home side substituted striker Keith Scott well into the second half, the supporter in Keeling bubbled noticeably to the surface. "Scott may very well be the worst player Reading's had in 50 years," said the 59-year-old Keeling, who had made the long train trek from his home in Sharnbrook to watch his beloved Royals hone their form in this preseason friendly.
Fifteen minutes later, a ball well within Scott's reach ambled by while he stayed firmly planted on the flank, looking quite comfortable, thank you.
That complacency was too much for Keeling to take.
"Come on, Scott, run!" he bellowed, half standing and clutching his game program tightly.
Slightly more composed, he then said, "We've been trying to get rid of him, but no one will take him, not even on a free transfer." Any club would be glad to count the knowledgeable and dedicated Keeling as a fan, but it's Reading -- currently in the Nationwide League's second division (two tiers below the Premiership) -- that won his heart fifty years ago. But more on that later.
A recently retired executive with The Bank of Nova Scotia, Keeling spent time in Madrid, Spain as a student. He enjoyed the rare opportunity to watch Real Madrid -- FIFA's choice as club of the 20th century -- in person on 17 occasions split over two seasons.
"I can only say that they were the best team I have ever seen at club or international level," Keeling said. "Crowds were usually about 100,000. The highest I have recorded (from that stretch) is 127,000."
Madrid won two of its record eight European Cups in the springs of 1959 and 1960 under Keeling's watchful eye. The club's lineup included all-time greats Alfredo Di Stefano Laulhe, Francisco Gento Lopez and Ferenc Puskas.
"That forward line was magic, although only Gento was Spanish," Keeling recalled. "Puskas was one of the Hungarians who destroyed England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and had escaped during the Soviet invasion of 1956. In fact, he was reported to have been killed and his obituary appeared in the British press.
"I always describe Di Stefano (an Argentine) as being like the conductor of an orchestra who would dictate the pace of the game. His skills were incredible. I still rate him as the greatest of them all, even ahead of Pele, on account of his all-around influence on every game he played.
"Gento was very fast and skillful with a shot like a bullet. I cannot think of anyone in world football today remotely like him and I greatly mourn the demise of the (position of) winger in recent years."
Keeling has no trouble choosing that Real Madrid team's on-field apex.
"I suppose their finest hour was when they beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the European Cup final in Glasgow in 1960," he said. "There was a famous cartoon the next day of two old Scotsmen coming away from Hampden Park, one saying to the other, 'So that's football.'
"I lived again in Madrid from 1984-88 and saw a few games but, although they had some exciting players like Hugo Sanchez, the overall standard was nothing like what it had been 25 years earlier."
Although Real Madrid holds a special place in the Englishman's heart, don't get the idea that they're his club. Reading FC clearly enjoys that distinction.
"From the very first time I went to Elm Park, our old stadium, in 1950 I have had Reading in my blood and have never been remotely interested in supporting another club," said Keeling, a father of two.
"Crowds were huge in the 1950s and as a schoolboy I often stood on the terraces in crowds of over 25,000. That was long before the days of all-seater stadiums and segregation of home and away supporters. There was never a hint of any trouble."
Keeling tips Reading's second division title in 1993-94 as their shining moment (the club came within a few ticks of the clock, literally, of reaching the Premiership in the first division playoffs the following season -- "Minutes away from Manchester United and Arsenal coming to our stadium," Keeling rues).
"That was the best team in our history," he said. "(My wife) Marilyn and I were at Elm Park when we clinched the championship. As I stood there watching the pitch taken over by 12,000 or so people chanting 'Campeones, campeones' there were tears running down my cheeks."
Last Saturday, despite some crisp through balls by a slightly overweight midfielder Darren Caskey and a hustling goal by local lad Nathan Tyson, Charlton Athletic outclassed Reading 3-1 at the glittering three-year-old Madejski Stadium on tallies by Shaun Newton, John Robinson and Andy Hunt -- in front of 4,642 fans. The best player on display was Charlton's new Finnish striker, by way of Rangers, Jonatan Johansson.
Keeling, ever the optimist, sees good fortune ahead for Reading, which the bookies tab for third place in the second division. The Royals did lose their season opener to Millwall 2-0.
"What has changed the face of the club forever is the move to Madejski Stadium in 1998," he said. "Together with (Sunderland's) Stadium of Light it is probably the best. Now we need a team to match."
Keeling isn't bashful regarding his affinity for the club.
"How can I describe what Reading FC means to me?" he asked. "It is an integral part of my life. It really, really matters if they win or lose. During the years we lived abroad (1962-88) I must have spent hundreds of hours with a little short-wave radio against my ear, trying to find out how they had got on.
"When I am actually present at a match (as he is five or six times each season) my heart goes at about twice its normal rate. For better or worse, the team in the blue-and-white hoops is, and always will be, mine."

Monday, October 29, 2007

The John Spencer Interview


(Published in print in the United States – July 2001)

There are players who score and there are goalscorers. Certain forwards seem born to put the ball in the back of the net. Think Roma's Argentine Gabriel Batistuta, Liverpool's Englishman Robbie Fowler or even injured MetroStars frontman Clint Mathis.
Add striker John Spencer to that list. The 30-year-old Scottish import has added life to a Colorado Rapids team that has spent most of this Major League Soccer season sleepwalking. With a 4-9-6 record and just 18 points entering Saturday's match at Tampa Bay, the Rapids' playoff hopes are slim at best. Not that Spencer hasn't been carrying his weight.
The 5-foot-6, 160-pounder donned the No. 7 shirt when Colorado signed him as a senior international and has impressed with 11 goals and four assists entering Saturday. Spencer credits a heightened drive for his output.
"I had two former (European) teammates playing in MLS -- Mo Johnston in Kansas City and Juergen Sommer with New England," the Glasgow native said Tuesday via teleconference. "Both these guys told me it was a difficult league to play in.
"They said that it was very physical. I came over here with open eyes and with a work ethic that I was going to work as hard as I possibly could for the team. I feel if you do that, you earn the respect of your teammates and then you can start to do well. I've been pretty impressed by my teammates and the opposition. They have a very high standard in MLS."
Rapids coach Tim Hankinson cited Spencer's enthusiasm as a springboard for the rest of the squad. "He's just a firecracker of a guy," Hankinson told the Rocky Mountain News. "He keeps the fires burning around here."
For all his attributes as a motivator, Spencer's main talent is scoring. Originally a Glasgow Rangers player, he first showed his penchant for goals while on loan to Hong Kong club Lai Sun - in the form of 20 in 24 appearances. A 1992 move to Chelsea yielded 43 goals in 96 runouts. His star now shining, Queens Park Rangers paid fellow English club Chelsea a $4 million transfer fee for Spencer's services and he didn't disappoint. At Loftus Road, he netted 24 times in 53 appearances. A brief spell at England's Everton was followed by a move to Scotland's Motherwell, then to MLS.
Spencer, the subject of an in-depth feature Monday on "MLS Extra Time" (11 p.m., ESPN2), is in a position of authority to evaluate MLS' growth. "You've got to remember these world leagues have been going for a long, long time, whereas MLS is just in its sixth season," he said. "I feel there are a lot of players here that could do very well in the Scottish Premier League. I feel that they try to play a much better passing game here and keep the ball on the ground, whereas in the Scottish game -- and a lot of the English teams -- tend to play a longer ball, which I don't think is a good way to take soccer ahead."
Spencer's feats haven't gone unnoticed by the league. "John has made a huge difference," MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis said during the teleconference. "Most amazing to me is that he has scored 44 percent of Colorado's goals this year. That's a remarkable achievement for a new player."
Spencer, who's won 14 caps for his country, has struggled a bit to adapt to America's summer temperatures. "The biggest adjustment has been the weather I've had to play in," he said. "Some of the cities we've been to have been hot."
The Rapids' play has improved after the recent acquisitions of Colombian midfielder Carlos Valderrama and striker Raul Diaz Arce of El Salvador. Their Latino presence has spurred a revival at the gate for Colorado as well. For a recent 3-1 win over D.C. United -- in which Spencer scored a hat trick -- 60,500 fans came through the turnstiles of Denver's Mile High Stadium.
"Carlos has been excellent; everybody knows what Valderrama can do," Spencer said. "He's been a famous player for a long, long time. Being a striker, you know you are always going to get chances from him. He always plays the little threaded passes through the defense, so if I and Raul can get on to some of those at our feet I think we're going to score a lot more goals this season."

A Local Indian Restaurant That Reminds Me Of East London


(Published in print in the United States – February 2006)

Walking along Green Street in the Newham section of East London, a diner literally has the world on a plate from which to choose.
West Ham's soccer games bring an influx of suburban families to Newham on Saturdays, but a stroll along Green Street any other day of the week reveals the sights, sounds and smells of those who make their homes there -- immigrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The best Indian food I ever tasted was from a six-table, nondescript Bengali storefront on Green Street tucked between the Islamabad Halal Butchers and one of the few remaining bangers-and-mash English eateries.
But thanks to Royal Albert's Palace at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City, you don't have to travel to the Indian subcontinent or visit a multicultural corner of East London to sample succulent, authentic Indian fare. This Atlantic City version of Indian food can rightfully take its place on the "global" menu.
The food at Royal Albert's, which opened in May 2005 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony graced by famous Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai, melts enticingly in your mouth. The decor -- a mix or ornate marble statues, a towering replica of India's Taj Mahal situated at the head of a flowing, rectangular water fountain, and a dazzling blue-and-gold color scheme -- delights the eye. This is a restaurant that demands a curious palate, but makes Indian food accessible.
And that's just the way co-proprietor Praveen Vig, a 34-year-old native of India who came to Atlantic City at the age of 18, wants it to be.
"We want to dispel the popular notion that Indian food is something that's only spicy or fried," Vig told me while sipping water at one of Royal Albert's corner tables on a recent Monday afternoon. "In England, Indian food shops are as prevalent as Chinese food shops are in America.
"We are confident that Indian food can make that same kind of impact in the United States. The health benefits of cooking with ginger, garlic and turmeric (which is found in curry powder) are becoming more well known."
Royal Albert's certainly plays to its strengths. One delicious aspect of Indian cooking is its liberal use of lamb. The texture and flavor-retention characteristics of this meat work extremely well with the spices that Indian chefs have at their disposal.
At Royal Albert's, be sure to try the Tawa Boti Kabab from the non-vegetarian Tandoori menu. This entree is made up of cubes of lamb sauteed in onions, bell peppers and tomatoes -- with a touch of the chef's special sauce. Tender and tasty, the lamb combined for a pleasant taste explosion when paired with a glass of Geyser Peak Pinot Grigio.
Also at that Sunday lunch, my wife and 8-year-old twin sons loved the Banjara Chicken -- chicken cubes with ginger garlic cooked with Indian spices. We also shared a filling appetizer of Assorted Pakora -- mixed-vegetable fried fritters containing potato, onion and cauliflower.
A plate of Basmati Rice and two orders of Tandoori Naan Bread complemented the meal perfectly. To finish it off, the four of us shared an incredibly rich Kulfi ($7.95) for dessert. This ice cream is typically found in North Indian villages, and my boys were buzzing about how great it was for the remainder of the afternoon.
One very cool feature of Royal Albert's is how the Tandoori ovens, which cook at temperatures of up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit, are on full display for the diners. Set behind a glass partition, the chefs gladly put on a show for any interested onlookers.
Marble statues of Indian elephants and maidens, as well as the massive, detailed replica of the Taj Mahal round out the dining experience. The tones of tasteful Indian music and the gentle, gushing sounds of the water fountain bounce off the meticulously decorated tiles and trims, transporting any diner with a fertile imagination into the heart of an Indian palace. It really is an awesome dining experience.
"We wanted to make it a place where people wanted to come back to," said Vig, who runs Royal Albert's with co-proprietor Albert Jusani. "We could have expanded our capacity to 125 (diners), but we decided to go with 99 in order for us to lay out and shape the restaurant with the aesthetics in mind."
A 25-year-lease is a testament to Vig's commitment to the Atlantic City restaurant landscape.
"I'll be here when my hair turns gray," said Vig, who is active in Galloway Township's local cricket league and will talk about the sport with all comers. "New Jersey is my home now."

Barons Provide A Kick In Ocean City


(Published in print in the United States – June 2006)

If you happen to be walking along the Ocean City Boardwalk between Fifth and Sixth streets one evening this summer, you might want to crane your neck away from the ocean.
Down on the field at Carey Stadium behind Ocean City High School, the Ocean City Barons men's soccer team just might be the entertainment bargain your family has been looking for.
The Barons are a Premier Development League club and are a member of the United Soccer Leagues. The players do not have professional status. With this arrangement, elite men's college players are allowed to be on the roster without losing their NCAA eligibility.
Combine that high quality of play with reasonable ticket prices of $6 per adult and $4 per child, and you have a winning combination of soccer by the seaside.
"Ocean City has a great family atmosphere," Neil Holloway, a native of England who serves as the coach and general manager of the Barons, told me. "We try to attract fans to the game by doing unique things like halftime shootouts and throwing balls into the crowd whenever we score goals. We're part of a resort community and we like to show people a good time, whether they're on vacation or are one of the locals coming out to watch the match."
The Barons host the Albany (N.Y.) Admirals 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 23. The team is coming off a 2-2 tie last Saturday night against the host Delaware Dynasty. In that game, the Barons trailed 2-0 before Ocean City High School alumnus Rich Baker scored twice to rally the visitors. The Barons enter Friday's game with a record of 3 wins, 1 loss and 4 ties.
But Barons games are about more than just soccer. There is a full-service concession stand and souvenir station, and area youth teams play games on the field prior to kickoff. Youngsters in the crowd also are picked to be ballboys during the actual Barons game.
For the May 13 game against the Williamsburg (Va.) Legacy, the Mainland United local youth club out of Linwood brought more than 100 players and parents to the match to watch a coed game of Under-8s and Under-9s on the Carey Stadium field.
"It was a great experience for the young players," said Linwood resident Carole Weidman, the president of Mainland United. "They were excited to play on such a big field in front of their family and friends, and then they were able to stick around and get a glimpse of what high-level soccer looks like by watching the Barons play."
Formed in 1996 as the South Jersey Barons, the men's team was rebranded the Ocean City Barons prior to the 2005 season. The umbrella organization, which is based in Winslow Township and is made up of women's and youth clubs, still uses the South Jersey name.
The Ocean City Barons are now run by club president John Granese of Ocean City and vice president Russ McPaul of Washington Township.
Granese, a native of Italy and a huge fan of Italian club Inter Milan, is the Barons' biggest supporter.
"I've played soccer all my life," Granese said. "I've been a coach in Ocean City and have organized adult leagues. This is a great organization. I live here, and Russ (McPaul) has a summer home here. We want this team to be part of the community."
To that end, the Barons have lined up a significant number of sponsors. More than 30 on-field advertising signs line the field at each home game. That kind of local support makes a big difference to the squad.
"For two years, the team was without a permanent home venue and the franchise did not have a community to identify itself with," Holloway said. "We are very excited to have formed a relationship with Ocean City and to be called the Ocean City Barons."
That bond with the community was on full display on a Monday night in early May at Girasole restaurant in Atlantic City. Owner Gino Iovino, a sponsor of the team, opened his eatery to the team and its local backers to celebrate the kickoff of the 2006 season.
As Holloway reeled off a litany of the team's accomplishments, the applause coming from the more than 200 in attendance was genuine. These weren't corporate suits but real fans who will take their children to the games. It's that kind of committed, involved fan base that makes Barons games a great night out for kids and parents alike.

The David Ginola Interview


(Published in print in the United States -- April 2000)

A stellar member of soccer's royal house is a bit tired of life around the castle, it seems. What else can explain it? Frenchman David Ginola, the mercurial midfielder for Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League, plans to join Major League Soccer when his multiyear deal expires.
"It would be nice to end my career in America," Ginola told me during a telephone interview Friday from London. Ginola had been asked about ex-Tottenham player Juergen Klinsmann's recent praise of the five-year-old American league.
That's when he volunteered insight into a future the brass at MLS' New York offices could only dream about. Roberto Donadoni, Hristo Stoitchkov and Lothar Matthaeus were key signees, but Ginola lives in another stratosphere.
"I have been thinking about it for a while," Ginola said. "Why not? Right now, I am a player for Tottenham Hotspur, but this Major League Soccer -- the quality is very good.
"I don't underestimate any country's football, including America. I have seen these Major League Soccer matches on the TV. Who knows? I take it day in, day out.
"I played (for a FIFA world all-star team) at Giants Stadium years ago, and we saw the Western Conference vs. the Eastern Conference before us. There is a high level of play in the United States."
And Ginola knows of what he speaks. Since his arrival at White Hart Lane in North London in the fall of 1997, the Gossin-born Ginola has thrilled the Spurs faithful with a batch of spectacular goals.
His form in 1998-99 earned him the Premiership's Player of the Year award. He has struggled to maintain that level of excellence this season, but, every now and again, the 33-year-old Ginola reminds his peers how dangerous he can be.
On Monday, April 3, Ginola almost rallied Spurs from a two-goal deficit vs. Middlesbrough in a driving rainstorm. With a Sky Sports audience domestically and FOX Sports World viewers tuned in overseas, Ginola electrified White Hart Lane with an 82nd-minute goal for the ages.
His wild hair flowing, Ginola pounced from left midfield and held the ball near the top of the goalmouth. He dribbled across the pitch, creating space for himself like the great scorers do. His right-footed shot twisted and hovered a foot off the ground until it found the back of the net. Spurs lost 4-3, but attacking soccer won a moral victory, at least.
Ginola downplayed the significance of his individual presence in the Premiership the past few seasons. He's more interested in team success.
"We haven't reached our target, which is to be top five in the league," he said. "We want to do well in cups and in European competition, and we've been eliminated early. There is much disappointment."
As a Frenchman known for flair playing in the once rough-and-tumble Premiership, Ginola is a natural target for opposing fans, who often question his nationality, personal appearance and perceived penchant for diving.
The French abuse has affected Arsenal's Emmanuel Petit noticeably, but Ginola has been able to weather the storm.
"You have to make it a positive, the way the fans treat you," he said. "It is just part of the game. When I watch your NBA on television, when the player stands to shoot you have the fans waving the sticks. It is the same thing here."
Many close to the sport wonder if the television money pouring into the English, Italian and Spanish leagues is changing the sport irrevocably -- taking the match seats away from the workaday fan and placing them firmly in the corporate sector.
Ginola's viewpoint?
"It is very bizarre someone from your country is asking me that question," he said with a laugh. "Money rules the world now, especially in America. I say this as a sportsman. We are just trying to be as good at it as you are."
He then focused his comments to reflect the cash influx's effect on UEFA's clubs: "European football is investing a lot in the players, not just those playing now but those who will play in the future -- the next generation. We have to be careful for them as well."
Ginola has extended his reach beyond Britain's soccer medium. The former Newcastle United, Paris Saint-Germain and Toulon player has been active as an International Red Cross spokesperson against landmines, which still litter locales in the Balkans and other theaters of war.
He feels no obligation to act on such weighty issues, but Ginola lets his humanity rise to the core.
"I do not do this as a footballer," he said. "I do this as a person. If someone comes to me and asks me to speak out, I will do it if I feel this way. People need to know of these things."
It is that outspokenness that has sometimes haunted the Frenchman, especially where playing for his country is concerned.
His well-known feud with current Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier about wearing France's famous blue shirt even involved Ginola's father.
The tawdry affair is well behind the Tottenham player now.
"I don't think of the past, even though this is part of my life and journalists keep talking about it to me," he said. "Life is like a river flowing by; sometimes it is clean, sometimes filled with rocks."
Rocky is one way to describe Ginola's introduction in the press to Tottenham manager George Graham. The Fleet Street tabloids speculated the ex-Arsenal boss would reject Ginola's style upon his arrival, in favor of the Gunners' defensive blueprint.
According to Ginola, the truth is far from the perception.
"Since his arrival, the manager and I have wanted nothing more than to make the club successful," he said. "Spurs belong at the top. It's only a question of time and quality players being added to the squad."

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Hanging Out With The Fox Soccer Channel Crew & New York Red Bulls

Once again, I must give heartfelt thanks to a few individuals who combined to make a trip to the MLS Cup playoffs to see the New York Red Bulls host the New England Revolution at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Saturday night a great experience for the lads and me. First up is Max Bretos of Fox Soccer Channel. I had interviewed Max some time ago for EX magazine in England about him being a Hammers fan who enjoys a high profile on American TV (scroll down this blog for that Bretos interview). Max and I had been trying to coordinate our schedules when he was on the East Coast -- we had a near miss a while back at the National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention in Philadelphia -- but this time everything came off. Alex, Ben and I met Max near the Fox TV trucks at the West Gate of the stadium about 5 p.m., well before the 7:30 kickoff. Max and his colleagues, Mark Rogondino and Todd Grisham, were phenomenally gracious. They engaged the lads and I in conversation for a good 20 minutes, making us feel right at home. They also asked us if we wanted to appear on camera for an 'Ask the Announcer' segment involving their colleague Christopher Sullivan. The lads asked about the health prospects of Red Bulls captain Claudio Reyna over the course of the playoffs, while I asked whether 19-goal scorer Juan Pablo Angel would stay in MLS for the long term. Both segments aired on the pregame show nationally, which was extremely cool. Again, you couldn't meet a nicer bunch of guys than Bretos, Rogondino, Grisham and co. They are top-notch people. The night got even better after the game, which finshed 0-0 (leg 2 of the series is next Saturday). As most of the crowd of nearly 15,000 filed out of the stadium, the boys and I were given access to the locker-room area for the second time this season thanks to the cooperation of Red Bulls official Remy Cherin and the continuing generosity of Red Bulls assistant coach John Harkes. As I'm sure you can imagine, the boys were on Cloud 9 as player after player, as well as coaches, from both teams stopped to sign shirts, pose for photos and have a chat. Among the players and coaches Alex and Ben met were Jozy Altidore, Claudio Reyna, Mike Magee, Dema Kovalenko, Juan Pablo Angel, Ronald Waterreus and John Harkes from the Red Bulls, and Taylor Twellman, Matt Reis, Shalrie Joseph, Steve Ralston and Steve Nicol from the Revolution. Again, the time these players and coaches have for the fans should be commended, as well as their good humor. The Revolution players all laughed when I asked them to score 'own goals' vs. the Red Bulls next weekend, and Steve Nicol -- who was a Liverpool legend in his playing days -- gave Alex some good-natured ribbing about being an Everton fan. Jozy Altidore, just a kid himself at 18, always has time for young fans and Claudio Reyna even handed his baby to his wife to sign shirts and talk to the boys. That's real class, and when you think how some of the athletes in the so-called 'big sports' in our country charge for their autographs, Major League Soccer can hold its head high. Well done to the league and Fox Soccer Channel for keeping the humanity in the sport and realizing that, in the end, it's just a game.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The John Harkes interview


(Originally appeared in EX magazine in England in 2005.)

John Harkes took the long flight from suburban Washington, D.C., to Glasgow in mid-November to offer his take on the ever-evolving United States men’s national team for an American television audience.
The occasion was a pre-World Cup friendly at Hampden Park against Scotland, which eventually finished 1-1. The medium was Fox Soccer Channel, which has established itself on the USA’s satellite-TV airwaves as a reliable arbiter of the pulse of international football.
The world’s game is finding a solid niche in the U.S., and it’s only fitting that the 38-year-old Harkes is at the forefront. The ultimate American soccer nomad, Harkes found his journey winding its way through East London back in the 1995-96 English Premier League season.
Harkes – the midfielder/right back who found unprecedented glory for a Yank by leading Sheffield Wednesday in the early 1990s and thus shattered the stigma that American-born players had little to offer on the game’s highest stage – joined West Ham for a brief loan stint before joining up with D.C. United for Major League Soccer’s inaugural 1996 campaign.
“Harkesy” started nine games and came on as a substitute on four occasions for the Hammers, totaling 13 appearances in all. Harkes, who also played for Derby County while plying his trade in the UK, did not score while with West Ham.
Speaking recently by telephone from his office at D.C. United, where he serves as youth development officer, Harkes fondly recounted his brief spell wearing the claret and blue.
“I only wish my spell with West Ham could have been longer,” Harkes said with genuine regard in his voice. “Those were some very special times for me. I have great memories of playing for (manager) Harry Redknapp and (assistant manager) Frank Lampard, both of whom made me feel welcome from the first day I arrived at the club. It was a great place to play football, and a really good time to play at the club.”
Harkes, a native of the soccer hotbed of Kearny, New Jersey, quickly bonded with some of the Hammers’ English lads who formed the foundation of a squad that seemed to assume a heavier foreign identity with every passing week. He reserves particular praise for a set of names many Hammers supporters still hold near and dear.
“The Ian Bishops, John Moncurs and Iain Dowies … they were the heartbeat of that squad,” Harkes recalls. “Here were a bunch of lads who could really play football, but they knew how to keep things light and enjoyable on the training ground.”
It was that sense of camaraderie among the English speakers in the team that illuminated the typically grey winter days and gave everyone a sense of proper perspective that football is still very much just a game.
“I don’t know what kind of poles they had laying around the training ground at Chadwell Heath,” Harkes said, “but every day I trained, I would find my clothes hung up higher than I could ever hope to reach. And, I would look over at ‘Moncs,’ ‘Bish’ and Iain, and they would just be snickering and barely trying to hide their guilt. But the thing is, they were relentless. They would do this to me every single day. They turned it into an art form.”
Harkes, who was part of a swashbuckling, Redknapp-led Hammers side that often left the details of careful pregame planning for another day, remembers being slightly puzzled by the lack of preparation in the dressing room ahead of matchdays.
“I distinctly recall one Friday night, going out to dinner as a team, and I asked the lads if Harry ever showed us film of an opponent or mapped out what sort of shape we were meant to keep on the Saturday,” Harkes said. “They all just looked at me for a minute and just burst out laughing. One thing was for sure, Harry liked (the team) to just go out and play football.”
And it was that torpedoes-be-damned attitude that quickly found its way into Harkes’ psyche as he sussed out what being a Hammer was all about.
“The Hammers supporters liked to see a positive approach to the game due to the tradition at the club, and Harry definitely gave that to them,” Harkes said. “One of the best aspects of playing for West Ham was realizing how knowledgeable the crowd was. The fact that they would applaud you for something that was geared toward getting the ball forward – while still maintaining a high work rate – would give you an extra bounce in your step.”
Harkes’ time at West Ham was a small blip in a career filled with pioneering achievements. He played in two World Cups (1990 and ’94) for the USA and was controversially dropped from the squad ahead of France ’98. The title of his autobiography is “Captain For Life (And Other Temporary Assignments),” which comments on the transitory nature of a footballer’s place in the sporting pantheon.
More recently, the photogenic Harkes appeared in the film “The Game Of Their Lives,” which chronicles the USA’s 1-0 upset win over England in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. Harkes was also inducted into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame this past summer.
Harkes’ short tenure with the Hammers will never leave his consciousness, and he is one Jersey guy who is keen to pass the East End mindset on to his children.
“My son, Ian, and my daughter, Lauren, have Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County and West Ham jerseys,” said Harkes, who keeps tabs on Alan Pardew’s current crop of Hammers via satellite TV and the Internet. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

(James Clark is the USA-based correspondent for EX.)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

In the Red Bulls' locker room ...

A huge, heartfelt thank you to John Harkes, the pride of Kearny, New Jersey who was USA captain and is now assistant coach of the New York Red Bulls. I interviewed him a few years ago about his stint as a player for West Ham for EX magazine in England. At a recent Red Bulls match, he got us locker-room access and Ben and Alex and their friend, Zach, met the whole team. They had a blast. Here are some of the pictures: Jozy Altidore with the lads and Juan Pablo Angel signing an autograph.

The Jim Sturman, QC interview (aka, the 'Tevez lawyer')


(Originally appeared in EX magazine in England.)

When West Ham supporters filed into Upton Park on Aug. 11 for the season opener against Manchester City, they had many heroes to thank for preserving the club’s Premier League status: Carlos Tevez, Robert Green, Bobby Zamora, Mark Noble, James Collins, Yossi Benayoun, Alan Curbishley and Eggert Magnusson.
Those were the key names who helped the Hammers win seven of their last nine fixtures of the 2006-07 campaign and jump from a bottom-of-the-table side with just 20 points from 29 matches to a team that finished in 15th place with 41 points.
But as the usual strains of “Bubbles” reverberated around the ground v. Man City, little did the supporters know that another name to add to that list of heroes is that of Jim Sturman, a 49-year-old Queen’s Counsel from the Hampstead section of Northwest London. He’s the man who argued Hammers’ case in the Tevez legal affair, and never mind that he only kicks a football in earnest with his three sons, Michael, Jonathan and Mark, or that he’s been a loyal Tottenham supporter for the last 41 years.
We owe the man, big time.
“You do develop a soft spot for the teams you represent legally,” Sturman said on Aug. 16 while summering in southern New Jersey with his sons and his Philadelphia-area native wife, Mara. “It sort of becomes a feeling of ‘us against the world.’ Quite frankly, it’s a privilege to work for a club like West Ham. Eggert Magnusson is a lovely man, and his chairmanship is a good thing for your football club. He has the best interests of the club and football very much at heart.”
While the ongoing machinations of the Tevez affair prevent Sturman from commenting on specific aspects of the case, he nonetheless has strong feeling regarding the ever-blurring lines between football and the legal sphere. But first, he shed some light on how he came to be in the employ of West Ham.
“There’s a code of conduct that prevents us from commenting on any case on which we’re currently instructed, and I’m currently instructed (in the Tevez case),” Sturman said. “I presume Mr. Magnusson found out about my work based on past dealings. I’m a barrister, a QC. The solicitors recommend barristers to lay clients. I don’t know how West Ham were pointed in my direction. You don’t really ask. I had no contact with Kia Joorabchian or Tevez, Professionally, the barrister would have no contact with the other side. You would obviously meet your own client, but you never meet the other side.
“I have worked regularly for Chelsea FC and Roman Abramovich for 10 years, but barristers are instructed on a case-by-case basis, so I could argue a case for any club.”
That’s not to say Sturman’s role in the Tevez case was antiseptic in any way. Quite the contrary. He spoke about English morning conference calls that he was dialing in for at 3 a.m. U.S. Eastern time. It seems odd that a QC’s computer based in Ocean City, New Jersey, would have such a profound effect on an East London football club, but that’s the new reality in 21st-century football.
“In terms of lawyers getting involved in football, there does seem to be an emerging trend of clubs seeking to use the disciplinary process as a weapon against each other rather than leaving it to the regulators – the FA or the FAPL – to bring charges,” Sturman said.
“It’s a very dangerous and disturbing trend. When a club invokes the disciplinary process against another, they set running a process that can lead to disciplinary sanctions. But they are in danger of creating a trend where clubs may look to do this all the time. And then it’s not about football. Then, it’s about law.
“And if you go on all the Web sites and read about the West Ham-Sheffield United case, one of the great things people seem to realize – and I hope the EX readers will understand that I mean this when I say it – is that the only people who gain from it are the lawyers. And it should be about football.
“And those clubs that sit in boardrooms thinking ‘We can gain an advantage over another club if we make an allegation of X, Y or Z’ … well, one day they could be on the wrong end of that,” Sturman said. “I don’t think it’s a healthy thing for football. They should leave it to the FA and the FAPL rather than seeking to use the disciplinary process as a sporting tool. The thought within any of the concepts of running the game – FIFA’s motto is ‘For the good of the game’ – and it’s not for the good of the game for one set of expensive lawyers to be acting on behalf of one club against another set of expensive lawyers acting for another club.
“That’s not talking about West Ham, it’s talking about a host of arguments that are out there at the moment. I think it’s a disturbing trend and not one that’s good for the game at all.
And Sturman certainly knows of where he speaks. Besides West Ham, some of his football-related cases have involved the likes of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Ashley Cole and Jens Lehmann. He’s also done quid pro bono work for the Spurs fans beaten by police in Sevilla, Spain, and AFC Wimbledon, which Sturman helped get a points deduction dropped from 18 to just 3 regarding the illegal registration of a player.
“I’ve been involved with football-related cases about 10 years, and I’ve been practicing as a barrister for 25 years,” Sturman said. “My first football-related case was defending Chelsea’s Graeme Le Saux for hitting Liverpool’s Robbie Fowler on the pitch after Fowler had been insulting him, and it’s just moved on in leaps and bounds from there.”
Even though Sturman is prevented from commenting on the particulars of the Tevez case, he certainly has some opinions on the healthy rivalry enjoyed between Hammers and Spurs. He especially rates the Hammers’ “Great Escape” of last season after watching West Ham’s 3-4 loss to Tottenham at Upton Park that left us marooned to the foot of the table with just 10 games left to go and with the sinking feeling that the season was done and dusted – especially after blowing a 3-2, 88th-minute lead.
“I would have thought the whole country was surprised at how West Ham recovered,” Sturman said. “Everyone thought their season was over. To win 7 of 9 after that loss speaks testaments to the spirit in the dressing room, the manager, the chairman and all the staff. What West Ham did was amazing.
“It is a tragedy that this fantastic achievement on the pitch has been overshadowed by the legal case and the furor surrounding it. I think Eggert Mangnusson made this assertion – the sore point is that the legal wranglings deflected attention away from what was a truly remarkable performance. When Paul Stalteri ran the length of the pitch to score the tap-in, West Ham were truly finished, but they proved everyone wrong.”
Sturman has seen his share of Spurs v. West Ham games at White Hart Lane, including when Anton Ferdinand leveled late on two seasons ago to give Hammers a draw. There were also the games when Ian Pearce scored a late goal to earn Hammers a draw at the Lane under Harry Redknapp, as well as last season’s biting incident involving Jermain Defoe and Javier Mascherano in a Hammers’ loss.
“I don’t have many happy memories of Spurs games against West Ham,” Sturman said. “Most of the games I’ve been at we’ve lost, and then there was the incident of the ‘food poisoning’ on the last day of the season in 2006. I was at Upton Park as a guest of (Hammers legal director) Scott Duxbury. It was a truly depressing day for me as a Spurs fan. If we had won, we would have pipped our great rivals Arsenal for a Champions League spot.”
But there was a happy visit to Upton Park for Sturman, a 3-2 Spurs win in the FA Cup quarterfinal which still rankles with Hammers supporters.
“I stood in the away end at your ground for that game during George Graham’s last season, when Sergei Rebrov scored two goals. I was underneath your old stand, right in the back, so the roof was over me,” Sturman said. “Being with the away fans, who are always the hardcore singers and chanters, the noise was deafening. It was absolutely fantastic as a Spurs fan. To have left that ground having got to the semifinal against Arsenal was a fantastic feeling.
“Spurs were having a pretty ordinary, in-and-out season,” Sturman continued. “George Graham was sacked just before the semifinal. It was a good win, and it was good to see Rebrov score those goals.”
Of course, Rebrov ended up playing for Hammers, scoring just one goal in the Championship.
“I don’t know what happened with him, really,” Sturman said. “I did watch him a lot in his first season at White Hart Lane, when he never gave the ball away. He was fantastic. He didn’t score very many goals, but he was great to watch. Probably those two goals that day (v. West Ham) were the highlight of his Spurs career, which is a shame, really.”
One aspect of that day that all fans – whether Hammers or Spurs – remember was the sheeting rain that came down.
“That’s why I was so pleased I was under the cover,” Sturman said. “I also remember a very terrifying trek away from the ground, when the West Ham hardcore faithful didn’t take very kindly to losing, and there was a lot of trouble at the tube station. And we walked through the blinding rain – myself and my friend Chris, who I’ve known all my life; we’ve supported Spurs together and we’ve been to a World Cup final together. We walked for about 20 minutes until we found what looked to be a deserted pub. We were going to call for a minicab to come and collect us to get us away from the aggravation that was going on.
“We opened the door of this pub and it was bedlam, all football fans screaming and shouting,” Sturman continued. “And they were all Spurs fans! They basically all walked as far away as they could with the same idea, and they’re all in the same pub and one by one, minicabs arrive from throughout East London and North London to take people home. I don’t remember which pub it was, but the landlord got a real windfall from the throng of Spurs fans. We were very excited and spent a lot of money in there.”
Another issue that strikes a vein with someone as informed as Sturman is how contracts and wage levels are not always as accurate as they should be when reported in the press. Recent examples include Hammers players such as Lucas Neil being reported as being on 70,000 quid a week.
“I think the only people who ever really know what’s in the contract is the player, his agent and the club,” Sturman said. “Sometimes, with all due respect to the fourth estate, the truth gets in the way of a good story. Whether it’s deliberate or not, I think sometimes footballers ‘big it up,’ either to look good with their peers or it’s an agent thinking about the next contract he negotiates for a player of similar standing.
“Then, if it’s reported that a midfield player can earn 70,000 pounds a week, well, that’s good news for the next player he’s trying to negotiate a contract for. Until I see it in black and white – I always take it with a pinch of salt -- but I think when a chairman of a club says his wage structure is ‘X’, then the chairman of the club is right. And other people might have their own interests served by saying something different.
“The chairman’s not going to get that wrong, as a general rule. If the club has a wage policy, as soon as they break that policy, then it’s bedlam. Every club – whether it’s a West Midlands club, for instance – as soon as they bring in a player on treble what established players have got, the established players are immediately asking to double their wages. It’s a recipe for disaster.”
The ongoing dispute between West Ham and Sheffield United brings to mind the situation in Italy last summer, when Juventus threatened to bring its quest for reinstatement to the Italian Serie A to the courts before being rebuffed by FIFA. Sturman watched that scenario with a keen eye.
“FIFA’s statutes do not completely remove the rights to go to the civil courts, particularly in relation to an employment dispute, because you can’t take away a worker’s rights regarding fair treatment by his employer,” Sturman said. “But FIFA’s statutes do discourage and, on the face of it, outlaw civil cases between one club and another and I think FIFA’s stance in that case is a very sensible one.”
And what does Sturman think about the Jean-Marc Bosman ruling, which changed the face of football forever, and the inclusion of the European courts in some footballing matters?
“FIFA’s statutes preserve the contractual stability of football. But an employer has to treat his employee in a way that’s compliant with FIFA statutes and, indeed, civil-law standards,” Sturman said. “You can actually cancel a contract for sporting just cause if you’ve not played more than 10 per cent of the games in the previous season.”
I reminded Sturman of how ex-Hammer Rio Ferdinand, when angling from a move away from Leeds to Manchester United, cited “psychological” concerns when refusing to tour Asia with Leeds under new manager Terry Venables.
“No one can force you to work for anyone. But what the statutes can stop is you walking away while under contract to play for a rival,” Sturman said. “In the same way as if you were an estate agent in East London, you couldn’t quit and take your services to a rival, say, 60 yards down the road. There are restrictive covenants that cover a situation like that. And football’s rules would prevent ‘John Smith’ leaving Spurs to go and sign for Liverpool just because he feels like it.
“The FA would not issue the registration, and if he wants to go abroad, FIFA might not issue the international transfer certificate,” Sturman continued. “So, it’s not as easy to say they have identical employment rights to other people.
“Part of the quid pro quo of not having identical employment rights is that they are paid sums of money that compensate them for the fact that they are not free to go and work for whomever they want tomorrow.
So when a manager says someone will “rot in the reserves,” it’s not as simple as that, correct?
“If someone decides that he’s absolutely had it at a club, you don’t want him rotting the dressing room,” Surman concurred.
While many fans in England determine their loyalties based on catchment areas, the romance of a bygone era regarding the FA Cup final also played a part. That certainly was the case with Sturman.
“My Uncle Phil, at the time I was 8, was a big Spurs fan, and the first Cup final I remember watching was ’66-’67,” Sturman said. “I was asked on the playground who did I support, Spurs or Chelsea? I said neither. I had to choose, and I watched that Cup final with my uncle and I have supported Spurs ever since. My father was a Manchester United fan
“In the ’70s, there were some good Spurs teams, although when I first began to go to matches in ’77 we were in the second division,” Sturman continued. “We were relegated in ’76. The first players I remember watching were John Duncan and Colin Lee. That was hardly a great Spurs side, but you support the good and bad and I believe you should never boo your team.
“Then in the early ’80s, the team of Chris Waddle and Glenn Hoddle and Paul Gascoigne was a fantastic team to watch. Jurgen Klinsmann was quite a bit later.
“I’ve been a season-ticket holder for about seven years. I have two season tickets and my best friend has four next to me, so that way I get to take the kids.”
Many Hammers supporters have such fond memories of the ’64, ’75 and ’80 Cup finals, as well as the ’06 version which saw us lose, albeit in a gallant manner, to Liverpool. But has the Cup lost some of its magic?
“It was in danger of doing so, but I don’t think it has,” Sturman said. “Everyone predicted when Manchester United missed the FA Cup to go and play in South America, it was the beginning of the end of the FA Cup. I don’t think so. I think it’s still got its glamour.
“I think Millwall getting to the Cup final was a good thing for football, or if it had been Crystal Palace or a team like that – the same situation. There’s nothing more frustrating than watching your team get knocked out by a minnow two or three divisions below, and as a Spurs fan I’ve seen my fair share of that over the years, as indeed have West Ham.”
Surprisingly, Sturman has a rock-and-roll alter-ego. He’s known as a ‘punk barrister,’ and the many Hammers supporters who love the Cockney Rejects would appreciate the fact that Sturman you wanted to be a bass player in The Ramones.
“I was a music nut, and I particularly loved that era of music – the punk, new-wave and two-tone stuff,” Sturman said. “I remember going to see the Ramones for the first time back in 1978 or 1979 at the Hammersmith Palais and just being gobsmacked at how fantastic they were. No songs more than two minutes, no pauses between the songs. Finishing the gig with a ‘Thank you, we’ve just broken our record for the fastest we’ve played 23 songs.’ And thinking ‘This is great, bite-sized pieces of music.’
“Unfortunately, I had absolutely no musical talent,” Sturman continued. “And some might say I wouldn’t really need much musical talent to have been a punk-rock musician, but I would have loved to have done that if I hadn’t become a lawyer.”
Sturman relayed a great anecdote involving his sons, Manchester United and the concept of “speaking truth to power.”
“My kids and wife were in Philadelphia in the Four Seasons hotel a couple of years ago when Manchester United were over for a four-sided tournament,” Sturman said. “And they’re in the lift with Alan Smith, who was a relatively new signing, a couple of other players and Sir Alex Ferguson, The conversation came round to football, and Alan Smith remarked that he was a player for Manchester United. My 5-year-old at the time said, ‘Manchester United are rubbish.’
“There was great laughter in the lift and Sir Alex laughed as well and said, ‘Who do you support?’ Jonathan said ‘Spurs’ and Sir Alex said, ‘Why do you support Spurs?’ and Jonathan said, ‘Because my father does.’ And Sir Alex said, ‘That’s a good reason, don’t change your team.’
Sturman saw that exchange as a reaffirmation of all the good things about football.
“I think a lot of people think footballers have lost touch with their fans, but I don’t think footballers have lost touch with kids,” Sturman said,
With pride, Sturman related how his professional contacts rendered him fortunate enough to attend the 2006 FIFA World Cup Final in Berlin.
“Arsenal goalkeeper Jens Lehman, who I’ve gotten to know very well as a client and friend, arranged three tickets for the World Cup final, so I took my father and my 9-year-old, Michael, and it was a fantastic experience as a football fan,” Sturman said. “It would have been much more fun to see England play Germany, which would have been fantastic with the England fans singing ‘Three Lions on a Shirt’ and the Germany fans who had adopted it and ‘Germanicised’ it for that World Cup.
“It was an eerie atmosphere in the England-Portugal quarterfinal when the German fans were singing their World Cup song to the same tune as ‘Three Lions on a Shirt,’ with the lyrics rewritten in German. It sounded like all the Germans were supporting the English. What was truly fantastic about that event was that the Germans wanted the English to get to the final as well. They really wanted it to be an England-Germany final and I think, by and large, everybody I met who went to Germany came back with a completely different perspective of Germany and the Germans.
“It was a great feeling to see the English and the Germans happily draping arms around each others’ shoulders, laughing and joking and singing,” Sturman continued.
And, what about witnessing firsthand the infamous headbutt by France’s Zinedine Zidane against Italy’s Marco Materazzi?
“I knew something happened, but from where I was, which was near the corner flag, what happened took place in the middle of the pitch,” Sturman said. “Seeing the replay afterwards, it was a clear red card. It was a shame to see the spectacle ‘ruined’ by that, but I don’t think I would say it was shocking, because I’ve seen worse things happen on the football pitch. But it was a pretty good headbutt to knock someone the size of Marco Materazzi over.”
And it’s that kind of fandom that prevents a lawyer like Sturman from becoming part of the soulless culture that seems to be devouring football in modern times. His credentials are especially evident when it comes to discussing the atmosphere that singing and chanting brings to football grounds.
“When Spurs went 2-nil down against Sevilla in the second leg of the UEFA Cup inside of seven minutes last season at White Hart Lane, there was a stunned silence for about 30 seconds, and thereafter there was 82 minutes of noise that make the hairs on your neck stand up,” Sturman said. “It was fantastic. They talk about the 12th man, but there was a 13th man that night. The fans didn’t stop, and the players gave it their all after seven minutes of being caught out by great football by Sevilla. I think what’s great about it is that it’s not stage-managed, it’s not rehearsed.
“There’s wit and humour at a football ground, and West Ham fans are fantastic at it,” Sturman continued. “I remember the chants last season were wonderful. Liverpool fans, West Ham fans and Spurs fans come out with some great ones. I think the Barcelona players were taunted by Liverpool in the Champions League with ‘Cilla wants her teeth back’ in reference to Ronaldinho and Cilla Black.
“It never ceases to amaze me how quick a genius in the crowd can be to get a chant going that is just hilarious. When my wife first started coming to football, she said, ‘How on earth did they come up with that?’ and she’s right. It’s part of the power and allure of going to a football match.”
(James Clark is the USA-based correspondent for EX.)