Roger Bennett: I'm doing something I love to do. Watching a 20-year-old documentary from ESPN. American soccer players, they're in the matching navy blue blazers, and they're boarding a plane at JFK Airport. 14 hours later, thanks to the miracle of air travel, well arrive at their destination, the middle of nowhere.
Male Speaker 1: We went from New York where you walk out a street and there's a million things going on, to here [unintelligible 00:00:40] that the geese cross street's what happening.
Roger Bennett: It's June 5th, 1998, and the 22 men representing the United States into World Cup action. They finally arrived in France. They're jet-lagged, disoriented. They have little sense of where they're going to spend their final weeks of training. As it turns out, they'll be living in seclusion at an elegant Chateau surrounded by 130 acres of vineyards, but not much else.
Male Speaker 2: There's usually a card game or two going on at the time. There's some darts, but it's usually pretty friendly.
Roger Bennett: Watching this ESPN documentary now about the American soccer players back then, first thing that jumps out, they all seem so bloody young to me, like little boys on their first day at a youth soccer camp. Eric Wynalda is floating around fretting to everyone about an injured knee.
Eric Wynalda: I have a week left to feel 100%. I still need time, couple more days.
Roger Bennett: Some look a little dazed, a little terrified even. Others they are wide-eyed, full of hope, just bursting to get out there and give it their all.
Tab Ramos: For me, it's been so special to fight to get back here because I know how much it would mean to me to be on the field that day.
Roger Bennett: Tab Ramos and his teammates didn't have plenty of time to contemplate that kind of thing. Inside the walls of a gated Chateau under heavy security, all that World Cup excitement they craved in Paris, that was four hours away. Another World. The closest thing to nightlife for them was the nearest village. Grab a bicycle, start pedaling.
Steve Sampson: All right boys, good session today. Good work.
Roger Bennett: Of course, their coach, Steve Sampson. Steve, who at one time couldn't imagine even been given the interim job and who is now about to lead the team out onto the field of play at a bloody World Cup. Steve, who thought he'd found the perfect place to reunite a fractured team before they all headed into battle.
Steve Sampson: We wanted this to be ridiculously special for the players. It cost the Federation a lot more money than they anticipated. We were staying at the Château de Pizay, in one of the finest hotels in the world. We must have visited 20 different installations. We did an inspection tour of hotels at each one of the three sites and we had a five-star chef preparing meals for these players. We had a magnificent training ground. France, Brazil, and England all stayed there. I felt it was good enough for our national team.
Roger Bennett: Oh, Steve.
Roger Bennett: This is American Fiasco. The show about the effect of 130 acres of Beaujolais vineyards had on one single US national team. I'm Roger Bennett.
Frankie Hejduk: I remember going, "Man, we're here to be in a World Cup and we're staying at a Chateau." I remember I had a glass of wine, two glasses of wine me and my roomie Jeff Agoos, Agooos.
Roger Bennett: This is Frankie Hejduk, the Californian surfer turned US international wingback. It wasn't long after the players settled into their new Chateau digs that many of Frankie's teammates began to wish they were somewhere else.
Frankie Hejduk: I remember it being very peaceful because I had my guitar, but I also remember guys grumbling about certain stuff.
Roger Bennett: Certain stuff.
Frankie Hejduk: My approach was headphones. Bob Marley, "Don't worry."
Roger Bennett: It was just when it would pop off, you'd just put headphones on?
Frankie Hejduk: Headphones on. Whenever that would happen, I'd look out the window and in my mind, I was in Jamaica. [laughs] Really.
Roger Bennett: Well, if Frankie Hejduk was living his best life in rural France, it seemed some of his teammates--
Jim Froslid: They were out in the main area because there was ducks and geese and all kinds of animals. Farm animals and everything around and roosters. At 5:00 in the morning, there was a lot of noise. This particular night I came out and there's Cobi and Ernie talking to the ducks, they're feeding the ducks, they're naming the ducks. It's almost like they were going batty.
Roger Bennett: This is Jim Froslid, the press officer, recalling the night that he spotted Cobi Jones and Earnie Stewart, two veteran midfielders, and he knew something was amiss behind the Chateau's gilded walls. When you were looking at two elite footballers, one who played in the Dutch League, another who played in the English league talking to ducks, was that a sign to you?
Jim Froslid: Yes, we were all going nuts.
Roger Bennett: Forward Brian McBride, he polished off most of the New Testament. The first and only time he's read it from cover to cover. Midfielder Brian Maisonneuve told a reporter what he was reading, [French language] the Yellow Pages. I guess if you take a bunch of male athletes, lock them up inside the grounds of a palace for about two weeks, it's natural they'll get a little jittery.
Jim Froslid: I'm sure there's somewhere in this world, a wonderful psychiatric hospital. That's what it felt like, it looked great from the outside, it was Hotel California, man. We were inside those walls trying to figure out how we could just get through the next day.
Roger Bennett: Then again, don't you think you could take another bunch of elite male athletes, lock them up inside the grounds of a palace for two weeks, and tell them they have just that amount of time to prepare themselves both mentally and physically for an elite tournament on the global stage that only happens once every four years, a tournament that will define them and expect them to, you know, buckle down?
Jeremy Schaap: The Germans and the Italians and the English and the French and we could go on, were world-class professionals. Not to insult the American teams, but they're a completely different level of expectations, of training.
Roger Bennett: Jeremy Schaap, a reporter assigned to cover the US national team for ESPN. He was with the players from the moment they landed in France. Day in, Day out.
Jeremy Schaap: Yes, we spent a lot of time at the lovely Château de Pizay. For us, meaning the ESPN crew, it was idyllic. We were staying in Lyon, which is one of the great underrated cities in Western Europe. [chuckles] The cuisine is outstanding. Every day we take a half-hour drive up to Saint-Jean-d'Ardières, this beautiful Chateau. We would be delivering interviews with the big players on the team.
I remember playing pool with the third-string goalkeeper Jurgen Sommer one day. They made a very nice club sandwich. You don't know how good mayonnaise can be Roger until you've had homemade mayonnaise in a 15th century French Chateau.
Roger Bennett: Okay, Schaap, I got it. The mayo, it was amazing. Let's get back to the subject at hand, what the American players had in mind for those crucial final training days, versus how other elite teams operated, the squads from Europe and South America because the guys on those teams--
Jeremy Schaap: Their whole lives were rock and roll. They're superstars. Their whole life from the beginning of the season through the end of the season is living it up and go to Mallorca and that kind of stuff. Whereas the Americans had never experienced the great things that are available as a star of the World Cup. These are guys who are playing in the fledgling MLS in front of crowds of 35 or 40 ardent supporters who might have gotten free tickets.
We're going to the World Cup in France. Naturally, they would want to experience the atmosphere, the enthusiasm, and they were prevented from doing so because Saint-Jean-d'Ardières is in the middle of nowhere. It's lovely. The wine is very nice, it's a Beaujolais that they sell, and young wine is nice.
Roger Bennett: The big players, the big teams, their whole lives were the big dance. This was, in the American's mind, their three weeks at the big dance.
Jeremy Schaap: Right. Look, mostly these were guys who were expecting something out of the World Cup akin to what Olympic athletes get out of the Olympic Village.
Roger Bennett: Let's get this straight. Your average American soccer player, he has to toil away in relative obscurity. Your European or your South American, they're used to the limelight, and when that World Cup rolls around, they know it's time to get serious. Argentina for example, they banished the press and then holed up in the town of Loire et Cher in the Loire Valley. The Americans, they were similarly isolated, only difference being they wanted out.
Male Speaker 3: The only thing that we could watch on our TV in the room was soccer because everything else was in French.
Male Speaker 4: When you turn on the damn TV and you see Brazil out by the water, you see Italy, they're not isolated up in the mountains. They were in a nice hotel overlooking water, you start looking at all the teams and you're like, "We're isolated up in a mountain, in a vineyard, where I have to ride a bike into town 10 minutes just to get out and go do something." We're like, "Why are we being isolated? Why are we being secluded? Why are we being put by ourselves out here?"
Hank Steinbrecher: Our players are different than other players around the world. They happen to be very entitled.
Roger Bennett: US Soccer Federation's Hank Steinbrecher, he's the guy who'd approved the budget for the bloody Chateau, to begin with.
Hank Steinbrecher: How do you manage an entitled player? They go out when they're a youth player, and their mum in the Cadillac drives them to training, or the Mercedes Wagon, drives them to training. They have a $350 pair of boots, they've got great shin guards, they've got a Nike top of the line ball-
Roger Bennett: Compared to if you grew up in [crosstalk]--
Hank Steinbrecher: -compared to an El Salvador guy who's walking to the pitch in bare feet for three miles because he doesn't want to wear his boots out.
Roger Bennett: For Steve Sampson, who at this point should have known his team pretty well, their simmering discontent came as a shock. One of the players complained there was no pizza delivery.
Steve Sampson: Can you believe that? There's no pizza delivery. Quite frankly, we're there to play football. We're there to do a job.
Alexi Lalas: I think Steve took the approach of we want concentration, we want that type of that insulation and isolation that at times can be good.
Roger Bennett: Alexi Lalas, self-admittedly the biggest grump of the bunch.
Alexi Lalas: For the group that he had, that was already pretty fractured, and was problematic, yes, I was probably an asshole. I was probably a malcontent, and I probably was giving people the evil eye and doing all the things that a child does, and I own it, and I take full responsibility for it. I was not happy.
Roger Bennett: Neither was Eric Wynalda.
Rob Stone: Eric had shaved his head, and he was way high and tight, and he had this deathly stare of just complete anger.
Roger Bennett: Rob stone, then a young ESPN reporter, was covering the team along with Jeremy Schaap.
Rob Stone: He had lost his mind. He might have had a lobotomy back there. I was legitimately afraid of him with his stare and his haircut, and he was angry as hell.
Roger Bennett: One of the players I interviewed said within 24 hours it had turned into a scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Brian McBride: It was pretty dark.
Roger Bennett: Striker Brian McBride.
Brian McBride: It turned into, "What do we do in our free time?" We [chuckles] had VHS tapes, there was a poker game that got huge, and really was probably the main attraction of being at the Chateau.
Roger Bennett: Oh, the poker game. So many of the players I spoke with mentioned the poker game, the one that went on for nights at a time, that nearly bankrupted some of the guys.
Eric Wynalda: True, and at one point, I lost a couple thousand to Preki, and I had to buy him a suit. That was my way out of that.
Roger Bennett: Eric Wynalda.
Eric Wynalda: I think the suit was about maybe $800 less than what I owed him, but thank God he let me slide on that one. Those games got out of control and that they shouldn't have. They were just dollar games and then all of a sudden, you had a couple of guys with a big wallet and then the next thing you know, it got out control.
Roger Bennett: I heard a story that Preki was just walking around with a sock stuffed with cash.
Eric Wynalda: True, and most of mine.
Roger Bennett: Press Officer, Jim Froslid. He was living at the Chateau too.
Jim Froslid: Well, I remember card games. I remember massive, massive pots, money in the middle of the table. I remember the guys saying, " Hey Frosty, do you want to get in on this?" I looked at the pot and I go, "It's about half my salary." I go, "I can't play with you guys." There were players that won a lot of money, and there were players that lost a lot of money. I don't care what you say, that affects a team.
Roger Bennett: Nerves were fraying at the Chateau. Money was being lost. Grievances publicly aired. Through it all, our hero the coach, he persevered. How did Steve Sampson carry himself?
Rob Stone: Very powerful, in charge, emperor-esque.
Roger Bennett: ESPN reporter, Rob Stone.
Rob Stone: The way he spoke, it was always kind of these pauses in his sentences. "Guys, today we're going to give it our all. We're going to go with six in the midfield, six in net. We're very strong." He was scribbling stuff all over and arrows are going here and this, then he'd flip another page, and even for me, I'm like, "This is great, this access is awesome. I'm trying to scribble stuff down but none of it's really registering fully with me, boy, I sure hope it is with the guys." [chuckles].
Roger Bennett: In that period, was it just a lack of respect for Steve manifesting itself?
Jim Froslid: It built.
Roger Bennett: It's Jim Froslid again.
Jim Froslid: Yes, it's probably built but again, keep in mind there was optimism. It wasn't really as super negative. People were going nuts, but we were still optimistic that we were going to perform.
Roger Bennett: Hey, they had perpetual optimist Frankie Hejduk to keep their spirits buoyed if they cared to keep them buoyed that is.
Frankie Hejduk: I was like, "This place was cool. It's peaceful." Got my guitar, I can concentrate on soccer, the food was good. Like I said, I wasn't there for a vacation. We were there to freaking try to win a World Cup and work. This is work, it's not play. My dad taught me a life lesson, that was it. It was an easy one. Keep your head down, shut your mouth, and work hard.
Roger Bennett: June 13th, 1998, two days before their first World Cup game, the US team took a bullet train headed back to Paris. Jim Froslid kept a detailed journal of activities. The train arrived at 4:09 PM. Dinner was at 7:00 sharp and was followed by a short city tour. The next day, June 14th during final preparations, Froslid noted that Steve gave 50 minutes to his players to "work on their own."
Steve actually believed players could find their own internal motivation if they walked around the field in silence. That night, the night before the Germany game, the single biggest match of many of his players' lives, Steve gathered his squad around for one final huddle.
Alexi Lalas: I think that there was-
Roger: Alexi Lalas
Alexi Lalas: -a -- Well, from my perspective, there was a fatalistic type of mood.
Roger: Steve Sampson took you outside, made you all hold hands in a circle. What did you feel in that moment? Honestly.
Alexi Lalas: Honestly? I was like, "Okay we're doing a team bonding thing." [laughs] We had never prayed before.
Steve Sampson: A lot of that was because I felt that our chemistry was an issue. I felt that I needed to do everything possible to bring this team together and to unify them with a common goal of making a statement, with a common goal of understanding there's going to be millions of people across the world watching us.
Alexi Lalas: Everyone was like, "This is a little creepy."
Roger Bennett: Steve was just getting started. After the prayer, he gave a toast. He popped a bottle of champagne, and then as his pièce de résistance, played a video of highlights of the team's past few years together.
Jim Froslid: The video, it was a phenomenal video. It would move a mountain. It was really a cool video. It was a highlight video of all the players-
Roger Bennett: Jim Froslid.
Jim Froslid: -, and the guy that made it was a really good friend of Steve's. He did it really with the mindset that, "Okay, I'm going to capture every player. I'm going to make sure we got a great highlight of every player, and I'm also going to make sure we got a couple of highlights of Steve." There were a couple of these where he's shaking his fists and celebrating a goal, and you could just feel it was like air coming out of a balloon in the room.
We didn't need to see that. It's this is about the players, and Steve, it's not like he went and edited it, but it was a nice piece. It just didn't need clips of him, it really didn't.
Roger Bennett: With that, it was done. The road to the World Cup over. The team, they'd arrived at their destination, the tournament that had filled their dreams since they were kids. Each man had devoted his professional and personal life to this moment. They'd all made enormous sacrifices to be here, beaten out every other American to make the squad, then competed against each other to lock down the starting roles. Desperately trying to impress their coach, even when they didn't understand what he wanted from them.
They'd lost their captain, occasionally felt they were losing their minds, but now kick-off was just a night's sleep away, and the whole world would be watching them.
Steve Sampson: We're anxious to experience this. I don't think anything is going to distract them from what their focus is, and that's to do well against Germany on Monday night.
Roger Bennett: The next morning, the team departed for Parc des Princes stadium. "Bus ride here was expedited by a five-vehicle police escort," wrote a giddy Jim Froslid in his diary, "which parted the bumper to bumper traffic like a hot knife through butter. This," he continued, "will be one of the most monumental days of my life."
Announcer: American Fiasco is a production of WNYC Studios. Our team includes Joel Meyer, Emily Botein, Paula Szuchman, Derek John, Starlee Kine, Kegan Zema, Bernie [unintelligible 00:22:29], Eliza Lambert, Jamie York, Daniel Guillemette, Matt Boynton, Johnathan Williamson, Brad Feldman, Bea Aldrich, Jeremy Bloom, Isaac Jones, and Sarah Sandbach. Joe Plourde is our technical director, Hannis Brown composed our original music.
Our theme music is by Big Red Machine, the collaboration between Aaron Dessner of The National, and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. This episode included audio from ESPN. For more about this story, including a timeline, and more, go to fiascopodcast.com.
Roger Bennett: Hey, it's Rog, and I know you're moving on to the next big episode, but before you do, please take a moment, one moment, and leave us a review on iTunes. Leave us some stars, five is very, very nice. What it does, that tiny minute that you take out of your life, it helps other people find out about American Fiasco, find out about football, find out about dark human stories, which is a good thing, right? We all agree. Godspeed.
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