Roger Bennett: America's 1998 World Cup was over, Marcelo Balboa, that meaty, mulleted, 6' 4'' one big unit of a defender, US soccer athlete of the year twice over, a man with over 100 international appearances and played just 13 minutes in the entire tournament. The final 30 minutes of the final dead rubber game.
Marcelo Balboa: To be told that you're going to be on the World Cup team, but you're not going to play. I tell you what, you can see emotional, but it killed me, killed me. Did I wake up at night? No, I wouldn't sleep at night because I was so angry that I didn't get the play. I was so angry at that time. I'd rather have not played those 13 minutes than to have been given a courtesy 12 minutes in a game.
Roger: Do you have any idea how insane it is to give just 30 minutes of play? Not even real play, but token gesture, patronizing, throwaway play to a guy like Marcelo Balboa. It's madness and it very nearly broke the man.
Marcelo: I like closure, I like knowing why I fucked up, I like knowing what I did wrong so I can fix it, and I couldn't figure out from a soccer aspect of what I did wrong in '97, '98 to not deserve to play. What did I do to piss off Steve Sampson? What did I say to off Steve Sampson to have a personal thing against me to not even consider me as a player to be on the starting 11?
Roger: Then one day, not long after he'd returned home from France--
Marcelo: I got a letter.
Roger: It was from Steve Sampson.
Marcelo: A letter that I did not open for almost two and a half years, it just sat in my drawer. I didn't want to open it, I didn't want anything to do with it.
Roger: What did the letter say, Marcelo?
Marcelo: I just remember the quote that said, "Hindsights 2020." I just sat there going, "Okay, this is the way you apologize?"
Roger: What did it feel to read that letter?
Marcelo: I never got closure, I never got told what wasn't good enough about my game. He inserted madness to everybody's life, not just me. I think he did it to Lexi, and I think he did that to a lot of guys. I think that at that time- like I said, now not a big deal, but at the time, I go back and I just say he screwed mentally with me like no other coach has ever done to me.
Roger: Did you ever write a letter back to Steve Sampson?
Roger: If you were going to write a letter back, what would you say?
Marcelo: [laughs] I think I would've just wrote, "Why," that's it, just a why. Why?
Roger: How many letters did you write, Steve? To how many players?
Steve Sampson: Oh, very few, very few. I only wrote a letter to Marcelo Balboa, I didn't write to anybody else.
Roger: He said there was a phrase in it, you said with 2020 hindsight, you would have done something different with it.
Roger: What would you have done differently?
Steve: 2020 hindsight, I should have found a way to get him on that field because I think his experience and his veteranship would have affected the team in a very positive way. To this day, I feel badly that Marcello Balboa didn't play more than what he did.
Roger: This is American Fiasco.
This is American Fiasco, a show about people who communicated their feelings in writing in the days before emojis were a thing. I'm Roger Bennett. US coach, Steve Sampson, he was smart enough to know that he was only as good as his last win, and he hadn't won jack at the World Cup. It wasn't a question of if he'd whacked, but rather of when. Hank Steinbrecher, Secretary General of the US Soccer Federation. Did you speak to Steve after the game?
Hank Steinbrecher: Yes, of course.
Roger: What did he say?
Hank: I was devastated. There are times when you hit hard and there are times where you hug. At that time we just needed a couple of hugs. We'll face the realities in a little while, but right now you just let it sink. The last team in the World Cup 32 of 32 teams, some things have to change.
Roger: I can only think of the godfather where they put Friedel on the boat and go fishing.
Hank: [laughs] I don't think it was quite as bad as that.
Roger: A day after they lost to Yugoslavia, Steve told The Washington Post he wanted to remain head coach and that he wouldn't let a few disgruntled players dictate his future, but things changed quickly after his boss, US soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg, invited him to breakfast in Paris. Ominously, that breakfast was first thing Monday morning.
Steve: I offered my resignation because, one, I felt it was the right thing to do because I had lost three games in a world championship, and I didn't want Alan to feel as if he needed to fire me. Before he could get it out of his mouth, I offered to him to resign from the national team.
Roger: You told the media this was not Steve's fault, this was not the player's fault, they played their hearts out. You're a very diplomatic man, Alan, but what were you really thinking at that moment?
Alan Rothenberg: Bitterly disappointed. I really, really was, and deep down, I guess, upset. Right or wrong, I was second-guessing myself about the decision to keep Steve. It was like all the fears that I had all along had just been realized.
Roger: You were angry yourself.
Alan: I was angry, but my moment of reflection was, this is what I was afraid of.
Roger: Your worst-case scenario had come true.
Roger: Now, I interviewed nearly 2,000 people for this story, and I only met one. It felt anything even near relation after the 1998 World Cup was done. Can you guess who that is?
Frankie Hejduk: I'm fine with that. That we lost, fuck, that sucks. I'm mad so I'm cussing so much, guys.
Roger Bennett: Frankie Hejduk.
Frankie: Even though as a team we were last place, for me it wasn't a bad cut.
Roger: God, you've got to understand his defeated teammates, they are burning their jerseys, smashing beer bottles, railing at the heavens about which gods they must have offended to be laid so low, and this guy, he's just smiling.
Frankie: I was just "happy go lucky" Frankie. That's how it just was throughout the whole thing. That moment, for me it was perfect. I'm fine. What are you guys complaining about? You guys are the ones that freaking caused this whole thing. If you're getting mad at me signing the contract-- God.
Roger: It wasn't just Frankie's innate ability to meet lemonade out of lemons that got him through, it was the job offer he got the night after the Yugoslavia game.
Frankie: Right after dinner I got a phone call from my agent who was at the hotel, and Bayer Leverkusen--
Roger: Just explain who they are.
Frankie: Bayer Leverkusen, I would say, is probably one of the top five German teams. I don't know about all time, but over the last 25, 30 years they've been pretty much in the top five, top eight in the Bundesliga. I ended up signing the contract that night, pretty much, I think. I was making 30 grand in the MLS a year. I was being offered 1.4 million. It was a no-brainer.
Roger: Just to be clear on this, everyone is getting mad, players are popping off, players are self-destructing, players are burning down. It feel like, "I'm doing great guy." You were like at a wedding, everybody else was at a funeral.
Frankie: Totally, 100%, yes. It's crazy how that works out. It was such a bad thing for so many people, and for me, it ended up changing my life in probably the best way ever, because I wouldn't be fishing, I wouldn't be hitting golf balls off my back deck.
Roger: All that's your failure?
Frankie: Yes, though, really. That's crazy. If you think about it, yes, and I never thought about it that way.
Roger: Hejduk is now the local icon for his Major League Soccer team in Columbus, Ohio. It's a land lot nowhere near the ocean. He still surfs when he can on a local lake. Press officer, Jim Froslid, he left France with a slightly sour memory that he's never been able to shrug off.
Jim Froslid: The dumpsters, the garbage cans were overflowing with suits that were just complete disrespect for what they were given.
Roger: These were fancy clothes given to the players by a proud US soccer Federation back in more optimistic days. Navy blue blazers all tailored with the US national team crest sewed on the breast pocket, they were meant to be worn proudly on game day before the players changed to go on the field, but instead, the team trashed them.
Jim: It's almost like the- to me, like the American flag. That was showing you were a US national team player, and you decide to throw it away? The mood was so bad.
Roger: Jim Froslid stayed in the game of football. He's just decided to avoid all football players. These days, he works in the world of artificial turf. Alexi Lalas, he never represented the United States again. He played out his career in MLS, then tried his hand at being a general manager, finishing with the LA Galaxy. Still, Lalas remains a familiar face of US soccer to this date. He's Fox sports lead broadcaster for the World Cup in Russia. Lalas has also found time to keep recording the hits, this new album, Sunshine, it just came out.
John Harkes, the captain for not quite life, retired from MLS in 2003 and became an analyst for television and radio. This year, Eric Wynalda, he mounted an outsider campaign to become president of US soccer, and he attracted a lot of attention, but ultimately not a lot of votes. David Regis became the general manager of the national team in his native Martinique, still dreams of coaching in America one day. You do know that the US men's national team needs a head coach, David.
Interpreter: Yes, I heard that and it's a dream that I would like to touch before leaving this earth.
Roger: You and Agoos, again.
Interpreter: [foreign language]
David Regis: Oh, yes, no problem.
Roger: You might recall Steve Sampson started Regis, not Agoos in the 1998 World Cup. Agoos spent his entire time in France on the bench. He got his revenge in 2002. Regis was actually the man he beat out for the starting lineup. Maybe karma does exist after all. Agoos played for 10 seasons in Major League Soccer, and then transitioned into a front-office role. He's now a senior vice president for the league.
Jeff Agoos: --Of improving the game in the United States.
Roger: We are in the inner sanctum. We're in the Jeff Agoos' office.
Jeff: This is where all of the coaches and GMs will call me on a Monday describing the pain they've undergone with either poor officiating or poor discipline-
Roger: Or both.
Jeff: Or both, yes.
Roger: I'm looking at an incredibly clean desk, clean desk, clean mind-- Next to a picture of his children, there's a framed photo of that notorious red card he got playing against Mexico in 1997.
Jeff: I have it up to remind me that you can control things about yourself, but you can't control what other people do, and the only thing you can do is control what you can. I don't believe it was a red card, but that doesn't matter. It was a red card and I hurt my team, and there were ramifications because of the red card, professionally and personally.
Roger: Which brings us back to Steve Sampson. The gentleman always lived his career in reverse, front-loading the big dream job before drifting back towards the roots of the game. After France, Sampson went on to coach the Costa Rican national team and then spent some time at the club level coaching the Los Angeles Galaxy. Today, Steve is head coach at the California Polytechnic State University.
Steve: This is the jersey that was worn in the FIFA World Cup in France, 1998. This was presented to me prior to the term in beginning.
Roger: We're in Steve Sampson's modest office and he's showing us the jerseys that hang on his wall. One, in particular, has a place of honor.
Steve: Red, short sleeve jersey signed by all the players that participated in the World Cup and France. Again, very proud to have had the opportunity to coach these men.
Roger: This is not conjure even a hint, a hint of a dark memory of challenging times when your eyes look at it.
Steve: Oh, certainly, it's like I've told people, I've experienced the highs of highs and lows of lows, and it's all part of the journey, that jersey represents to me the entire lead up the qualification phase, all the great moments that we had over the years leading up to the World Cup. Yes, of course, it conjures up some disappointment of not achieving what we set out to do, but in the end an enormous amount of pride.
Roger: Even in the darkness, Steve, and I'm going, to be honest, Steve, you have endured more than most managers that I have engaged with, despite the darkness. Is that 1998 World Cup, is it still a life high point?
Steve: The 1998 World Cup wasn't just about those three weeks in France. It was about probably a period of time that was one of the most dramatic, important moments in US soccer history, and to have been a part of that was a great honor and a great privilege. I don't dismiss my responsibilities at all, or my sharing the responsibilities, but I think that all of us, everybody, should share in the responsibility. I think there were factors that unfortunately didn't give us our very best chance of being successful, and that's what has made me angry over the years. That's what has made me disappointed over the years, the what-ifs.
Roger: Do they haunt you in your dreams?
Steve: Do they haunt me in my dreams? To be honest, every once in a while, yes. I find myself thinking about those moments and those days on many occasions. It's less frequent now than it was 10 years ago, but yes, it still happens.
Roger: Now, 20 years on off to the petty grievances, the outside's vanities, the rank embarrassment and the soul-crushing future defining big what-ifs of those days are pretty much burned away. What remained? For almost everyone I spoke with it's the game of soccer in the US, the fight for respect, for legitimacy and belonging, both within the United States and externally, in the eyes of the world. More than anything, 1998 was supposed to be the year that this group of guys playing this game finally went over the great and carrying American audience to establish the game they loved, soccer, long derided in the United States, as a truly major league sport, and they blew it.
Jeremy Schaap: We could be mercenary about this and say, "They lost the commercials, they lost the Wheaties boxes." They did. They certainly lost all that, but they also lost their pride.
Roger: ESPN reporter, Jeremy Schaap.
Jeremy: They were a proud bunch of guys. These guys, it's a big country, they were the best we had to offer, pretty much, and they were terrible. They didn't just lose. They lost to Iran, and they finished last in the tournament. 32nd out of 32nd. That's not what Americans do. That's not what we're accustomed to. We don't lose like that.
Roger: The ramifications for soccer.
Jeremy: As we found out, you don't even get these chances every four years, and when you get them, you have to take advantage, especially in a culture in which they're not paying attention the rest of the time, the way they are during that month. By going out in ignominious fashion, humiliating fashion, I think this is, in some ways, usually too strong a word to apply to sports, but this was disgraceful fashion, they hurt soccer.
Roger: That means to the profile of the game.
Jeremy: You had people watching who were like so--
Hank: I put that damage in excess of a billion dollars.
Roger: It's Hank Steinbrecher again.
How long did it take you to get over in 1998, by the way?
Hank: Oh, I'm not over it. I'm not over it. That was the lowest point of my career. I'm not over it. You live with that. What mistakes did I make that affected that game? Some people may not care as much as I did, but I care. We failed and I don't like the failure, even though I know that we can go on.
Sports Commentator 1: It also means that the US could win the World Cup on it's next kick. Chastain will take it.
Hank: Nobody ever says this out loud, but I'm going to, not until Brandi Chastain saved it in 1999, did we have a good feeling about the sport, but the boys had blown it. We had really lost a lot of respect from the world and internally.
Sports Commentator 1: Goal.
Roger: In 1999, the US Women's National Team, they exploded into America's consciousness. One year after America's most dismal failure, soccer once again was breakfast table conversation across America, because players like Brandi Chastain and Mia Hamm, they were plastered all over our Wheaties boxes.
Yes, while it's dark that the US men's failed to even qualify for the 2018 World Cup, worry not, the US women will please God once again with Demas at the 2019 World Cup. Ultimately, it doesn't matter because, America, you've got to face it, soccer's here. It's in your heart. The honest truth is, I can watch more soccer in the US than I ever could when I first arrived.
Remember, back then I could only hear a big game in England by having my dad to hold up the phone to his own television back in Liverpool. Now, I can watch the action from dozens of leagues, from major to obscure, and scream at them at my own television in my own home in New York City. I'm not alone. 72,000 people pack to stadium in Atlanta this season to set an MLS single game attendance record. You know who set the two previous attendance records? Atlanta. Yes, Atlanta people.
The video game, EA Sports FIFA, it's become more than just the bestselling video game. It's a tool that's introduced a generation of Americans to the teams and the stars that play the game. Proof? Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, they now regularly poll in the Top 10 when Americans are asked to name their favorite sports stars, outstripping most of their NFL Major League Baseball, and NBA counterparts.
Soccer is now everywhere in America. Whether you like it or not, your country is a soccer country, but for your men's national team, there's still one thing missing.
Hank: Go for it. We're Americans. I can. Let's climb Everest. Let's go to the moon. Let's cure cancer. Go for it.
Roger: Let's win a World Cup.
Hank: Let's win a World Cup.
Announcer: American Fiasco is a production of WNYC Studios. Our team includes Joel Meyer, Emily Botein, Paula Szuchman, Derek John, Starlee Kine, Kegan Zema, Ernie [unintelligible 00:23:53], Eliza Lambert, Jamison York, Daniel Guillemette, Matt Boynton, Jonathan 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.
Reporter: Steve Sampson, thank you for your time.
Steve: Thank you.
Roger: It's Rog. Before you go, I want to ask you a favor. I know, you're doing me favors all of the time. I know how that feels, but this one, it's quite important. If you have loved the American Fiasco story, please tell your friends. It's the only tried and true way to make a hot like this one get heard, get out there into the world.
Please tell your friend who loves soccer, who's just getting into football because of the World Cup and is about to fall head over heels in love with the sport, or that friend of yours who just lives for disaster stories. Could all be the same person, to be candid, but tell them, tell them about American Fiasco. I, Roger Bennett, will forever be in your debt. Again, courage.
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