USA today

Mike Woitalla profiles the coach who successfully steered the US to France 98

President Ronald Reagan had returned from a tour of Latin America and revealed, “You know, they’re all individual countries.” Unfortunately, Reagan made that discovery after making a toast to his “Bolivian” hosts – while in Brazil. During his eventful stint as vice president, Dan Quayle visited Central America and gave the crowd what in the USA is an okay sign – index finger to thumb to create an ‘o’. But there, that means arsehole. Bill Clinton, conscious that US rulers often get cold receptions in Latin America, had a plan to ingratiate himself to Brazilians. He juggled a soccer ball with Pelé in a Rio de Janeiro favela, as they call the shantytowns that produce players like Romário.

Yet the best US ambassador to our southern neighbours may be Steve Sampson, the coach who has guided the USA to the 1998 World Cup. He even resembles Clinton. But Sampson speaks fluent Spanish and can’t be accused of tampering with anyone’s sovereignty. Less than two decades ago, we had a national team coach, the late Walt Chyzowych, who in his own book described an Ethiopian referee as a “dwarf”. And Chyzowych once screamed at Qatar’s Brazilian coach to take his team home on his “banana boat”. In Costa Rica Sampson does a slew of TV interviews before unpacking his bags. In El Salvador, he saves face for the US by criticizing the US State Department after its insulting advised Americans not to attend the match because of safety risks.

Latin Americans aren’t used to white visitors from the USA speaking Spanish, and their reaction when it happens borders on reverence. Sampson displays great knowledge of the nations he visits, and he often refers to the contributions that Latinos have made to US soccer. And while he had some rough times during the 16-game qualifying phase, Sampson has kept progress alive for a nation that went 40 years without a World Cup appearance between 1950 and 1990.

He is a 40-year-old Californian who first made his name in US soccer circles as a coach in the college game . From there his rise came from good luck followed by some unprecedented results. Relieved from an administrative position with the 1994 World Cup organizing committee in early 1993, the severance deal made him assistant coach to Serb Bora Milutinovic, who charged him with scouting Colombia. On one scouting trip, Sampson checked in with his boss. Milutinovic asked him where he was calling from. The Colombian federation office, Sampson replied. “They’re not supposed to know you’re there!” replied Milutinovic. Fact is, Sampson makes friends at a dizzying rate, and the US would win the battle with Colombia, perhaps the nation’s most important victory ever because it led to a second-round World Cup appearance.

The US Soccer Federation fired Milutinovic in April of 1995. Sampson was the only one of three US assistant coaches not busy with a team of his own. That unemployment status allowed him to step in as interim coach. While the federation was negotiating with big-name foreigners who would shun it, Sampson was winning. The US beat Nigeria, Argentina, Chile and Mexico (twice) in the summer of 1995, forcing the federation to hire Sampson, who had never head coached a professional team. In November of 1996, Sampson embarked on the campaign from which three teams would qualify from the CONCACAF region. Porfirio Diaz, the Mexican dictator who ruled from 1877 to 1910, gave us the most famous saying about the USA and Mexico: “Poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States.” But proximity to the USA had always made life easy for the Mexican national team.

That the biggest, richest nation in the region was a weakling on the field made Mexico CONCACAF’s only consistent World Cup participant. “Before 1990, Mexico could have used a B team and beat us 4-0,” says US midfielder Tab Ramos. But since Sampson took over, the US have lost only once to Mexico, and the teams have drawn four times, including twice in this qualifying phase.

In a recent episode of The Simpsons, international soccer debuts in Springfield. Homer is convinced by a commercial in which a cowboy barbecues a soccer ball and yells, “Open wide for some soccaaaah! It’s all here! Fast kickin’, low-scorin’ and ties – you bet!” Games that finish without a winner still puzzle the average American sports fan, but when the USA pulled off a 0-0 draw, playing with 10 men for 68 minutes at 2,450 meters above sea level in Mexico City, the significance wasn’t lost on anyone.

Mexico – now managed for a second time by Milutinovic – had defeated the USA 17 straight times in Mexico City since 1937. The draw clinched a World Cup spot for the Mexicans, but it was a major blow for their Serb coach, who like Sampson was under great pressure. Before the Mexico game, federation president Alan Rothenberg said Sampson’s job wasn’t safe even if the team qualified – mainly because the USA had only drawn 1-1 at home with Jamaica.

Mexico had just been held 2-2 by Canada and Milutinovic had been taking a beating in the Mexican press. A common sight before the match: Sampson surrounded by Mexican reporters – his smile and his quotes filled newspapers – while Milutinovic fraternized with the American press. No man is a prophet in his own land’s media?

But Sampson was on the rise again. The USA won in Canada 3-0 the following week. He still hadn’t received a vote of confidence, but fielded mostly reserves and beat El Salvador 4-2 in the last game. Jamaica booked the final spot by drawing with Mexico in Kingston. “This is the weakest region in the world,” said Mexico striker Luis Garcia. Indeed, the USA now leaves its small pond for France.

When Sampson took fourth-place at the 1995 Copa America, his players were based in Europe and Mexico. Almost all of his current players play in Major League Soccer, with the notable exceptions of Leicester’s Kasey Keller, and Claudio Reyna, now a bona fide Bundesliga star at Wolfsburg. The team isn’t deep in talent, though defender Eddie Pope and striker Eric Wynalda are two MLS players of exceptional quality.

And there is a sense that the USA plays better against European teams – within three weeks last summer the USA beat Scotland and Ireland, while losing to Bolivia and drawing with Mexico. So far, Sampson has always managed to overachieve. Maybe he can even charm the French. ❍

From WSC 131 January 1998. What was happening this month