The World Cup makes children of men

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At half-time in last Friday’s game between Spain and the Netherlands, my 14 year old son Abe rose from his chair, picked a soccer ball up in the hallway and headed outside to play. Through the window, I watched him curl a shot into the giant goal that stands just to the left of our mailbox and then I decided to join him. Fifteen minutes later, I returned to my armchair, a heavy breathing, sweaty, middle-aged mess. I am 43 years old. I should know better but this is the magic of the World Cup. It brings out the child in all of us.

For that fifteen minutes, I was transported back in time from a street in a Long Island town to a patch of green grass in the Cork suburb of Togher, a hallowed venue we lovingly called “the bog”. That was where, at half-time in just about every World Cup match I ever watched as a child, the boys of the neighbourhood gathered to try to emulate our heroes. If the game got intense and the stuff we’d been watching on telly hadn’t been up to much (there were many, many bad matches back in the day), we might skip the second half and keep playing.

If I close my eyes, I still can recall games during Espana 82 and Mexico ‘86 that only ended when our mothers roared from the doorsteps to demand our return or creeping darkness made the ball impossible to see or, all too often, when a disputed goal caused one team to walk off in protest. There was no age demarcation on that field so the smallest of us learned to compete with the big kids or, if we were smart, to hang around the fringes of the action, hoping to pilfer the type of goal that would be denounced as “a sneaky-liner” by our peers.

Those endless summer evenings, a hallmark of every Irish childhood of the 1970s and 1980s, are part of the reason why the World Cup gets so many of us in a tizzy every four years. It’s a rare thing in life in that all of the memories it dredges up are happy ones. Every time I think of trips to the beach in West Cork as a kid, there are clouds on the horizon and a breeze that would cut you in half. Every time I think of our World Cup soccer matches in “the bog” so long ago, the sun is shining into the late evening and we all have our shirts off to try to cope with the heat.

We can and do measure out that part of our formative years in World Cups. I was seven for Argentina in 1978. The first tournament I have any proper memory of. I can recall us getting our first colour television the week before the opening game, a Nordmende that looked like it had been delivered from a space station it was so sophisticated. I can also recall my father swearing at that same television during the final. Like so many others, he’d had a gra for the Dutch since 1974 and was gutted when the hosts defeated them in the final.

Four years later, I had a full-blown case of World Cup fever, replete with a Texaco soccer ball and a half-full Panini sticker album. Even now, I wished I’d wrapped that album in cellophane so I could open it today and run my finger along the names of the Brazil squad that enraptured us all, even in defeat; Eder, Falcao, Zico, Junior, Socrates and the rest. There wasn’t a boy in Ireland who didn’t have his mind blown by the way they played and who didn’t try impossible, long-range pot shots for months afterwards.

Their exit at the hands of Italy, or rather the feet of Paolo Rossi, was memorable for all the wrong reasons. For the first time in my sporting life, it put me at odds with my father. He was cheering for Italy. Fervently. He’d backed them long before a ball was kicked. By the time Dino Zoff lifted the trophy, the house on Clashduv Road was en fete, the winning docket lay under a leg of the big clock on the mantelpiece and all of us, from oldest to youngest, being promised a cut of the winnings.

There was no monetary reward from Mexico 86 but there was the joy of Jimmy Magee pronouncing Josimar as Josie Maher, a Belgian wizard called Enzo Scifo, and, of course, Diego Maradona. To get to see the Argentine genius work his magic, good and bad, in our living rooms was special. See, in an era when every goal scored or every sublime dribble is available online as a Vine within seconds of it happening, it’s difficult for this generation to understand that the World Cup used to be so eagerly awaited because it was so unique.

Back then, we didn’t have a daily diet of live televised soccer from all over the globe. By the time of Mexico 86, we’d been waiting four years to see if Maradona could redeem himself and if he was good enough to win the whole thing for Argentina. He was. Oh, how he was. None of his subsequent transgressions on and off the field will ever diminish him in the eyes of those of us whose boyhoods he lit up and changed forever in those few weeks.

I worry it’ll be different for our children but maybe I shouldn’t. In the moments before Brazil and Croatia kicked off festivities last Thursday, myself and Abe were sitting in the television room when he turned to me in a voice that’s gotten all too deep and teenaged in the past few months, and said: “I just worked out I was in fourth grade during the last World Cup. And next time it’s on I’ll be graduating high school and it’ll be my last summer before college.”

Already measuring out his life in World Cups. Yup, the boy is getting it.

(This piece was first published in The Irish Echo, June 18th)

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The Portadown linen salesman who sold America on soccer

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In January, Jurgen Klinsmann brought a squad of 26 American players to Brazil for a 12-day training camp so he and his staff could acclimatize to the facility that will be their base in this month’s World Cup. What was significant about the trip was that the majority of those who travelled back then aren’t in the squad that takes on Portugal, Germany and Ghana. They were, if you like, just guinea pigs, going along to test the place out ahead of the main event. As an illustration of how much money the United States Soccer Federation has invested in its team, it was telling.

This wasn’t always the case. Time was when the federation was engaged in a constant financial struggle just to survive. In 1934, Jimmy Armstrong, executive secretary of what was then known as the United States Soccer Football Association, decided he’d had enough of the impossible job of trying to balance the books and to keep the game alive. He called up an Irishman called Joe Barriskill, told him it was a full-time job without pay, and asked him if he was interested. For the next four decades, though his title sometimes changed, Barriskill bestrode the game in America.

When he stepped down as executive secretary in 1971 at the age of 82, the federation issued the following statement. “The United States Soccer Football Federation announced this retirement with regret and pride. Pride that our game, in general, and our association, in particular, have been associated with such a man – a man who has given more than a normal lifetime to a sport he loves. Regret that at last it is time for Joe to relinquish the office which has been his for four decades, to take a rest which has never been better earned.”

He gave more than a normal lifetime to the sport he loved. Although he lived on until the age of 93, that was the epitaph Barriskill deserved. Nobody in the history of the sport in America did more for soccer. When it was neither fashionable nor profitable, he put his shoulder to the wheel and pushed.

“I conducted business with an iron hand,” said Barriskill in Tony Cirino’s excellent book US Soccer vs. The World. “People who did not like it could leave it because I was working for nothing. The government never gave us a penny. Nobody helped us. We had to fight like hell and we went around begging. The officials did a lot of fundraising, we sent out notes to our friends who were interested in soccer football (sic). Between you and me, I paid plenty.

“We always had enough to come from behind and say, well, go ahead, I’ll help you. And they did. They loaned us some money and they didn’t expect to get it back. And they did not get it back. I myself put money into it and never expected to get it back and I never did.”

According to the legend, Barriskill used to depart a tiny, Dickensian office in midtown Manhattan each evening, climb on his bicycle and make his way to his second job at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Some accounts have him shilling peanuts in the stands at the baseball, others reckon he was a ticket-taker at the gate. The archives of the New York Times describe him as press box custodian, so beloved that when he was heading off to manage the United States soccer team at the 1948 Olympic Games, the baseball writers clubbed together to buy him a travelling bag.

Born to a family of farmers in Portadown, County Armagh in May, 1893, he grew up with a passion for cycling rather than football. At 18, he was working in Turtle Brothers’ Linen factory when he emigrated to New York where he got a job as a stock clerk for the same company. He took night classes at Brooklyn Central and ended up becoming one of the best salesmen in the organisation. At one stage, he was drawing down $10,000 a year and had such standing he convinced his employers to allow him use a spare room in their building as the offices of the USSFA. From that tiny space, he somehow cobbled together the money to send American soccer teams to Olympics and World Cups, often employing his unpaid wife as stenographer.

At a time when so many European powerhouse clubs now view America as a lucrative location for pre-season tours, Barriskill was a pioneer in that regard too, albeit under slightly different circumstances. When Bill McConnell, chairman of Liverpool, came to New York in 1945 as part of a British trade delegation, he met with Barriskill and they concocted the idea of the club touring the States the following summer. While Barriskill saw it as a great promotional event for the sport, McConnell saw an opportunity to get his underfed squad out of ration-stricken England.

“If I could bring my team to play a few games while sampling American malted milks and ice cream, American meats and vegetables,” said McConnell, “they’d go back to Liverpool and win the first division championship.”

Liverpool played ten games in America, went home and were crowned champions the following spring. It wasn’t all sweetness and light though. Barriskill’s autocratic leadership style brooked no dissent and he was somebody you crossed at your peril. When Landon Donovan was left out of the US squad last month, the old Irishman’s name came up in media dispatches because back in 1949, he’d controversially ended the international career of the great Jack Hynes, one of the most gifted American players of that generation.

Hynes had questioned the quality of the national squad that went to represent the country in a qualifying tournament in Mexico.  Once he heard about the criticism, Barriskill called up Hynes, tore strips off him and assured him he’d never wear the shirt again. When the USA secured its most famous victory over England in the 1950 World Cup the following year, Hynes wasn’t even in the squad. You crossed Joe Barriskill at your peril.