Commentary

Times have changed for World Cup team

In the 1970s, the U.S. national team couldn't even afford new uniforms for its players

Updated: June 10, 2010, 5:16 PM ET
By Ian Begley | Special to ESPNNewYork.com

It's October 1968 and the United States men's national team is in Haiti for a World Cup qualifier in Port Au Prince. Werner Roth is antsy in the locker room before the game, eager to see the beautiful new red, white and blue uniforms the team would wear that day.

"It's always a big thing to get your jersey and get your number -- especially when you are playing for your country," said Roth, who was a defender on that U.S. team. "You have an immense sense of pride."

Judging by the condition of the uniforms the players were handed, it was hard to tell which side was representing the third-world country that day.

"As soon as we got our jerseys, we realized they were about 25 years old," Roth said. "Our shorts were down below our knees ... and the red on our jersey was faded and bleeding. This was so off-the-wall bad, it was just an embarrassment."

[+] EnlargeShep Messing
AP PhotoMessing (third from left) says the game has not changed, but the U.S. approach to soccer has made the difference.

This incident was typical of Roth's trying tenure with the men's national team in the Dark Ages of the 1970s. A lack of funding, public interest and preparation left the United States lagging behind most of its competition during Roth and Shep Messing's time with the team, which came in the midst of a 40-year period that the United States spent wandering through international soccer's proverbial desert as it failed to qualify for the World Cup from 1950-1990.

Both Roth and Messing, two of the best American players of their generation, pointed to the sport's governing body as major factors in the futility.

"We felt every bit of pride representing our country, but we certainly felt like we were behind the eight ball before the whistle blew," said Messing, who also teamed with Roth on a New York Cosmos team that featured international soccer stars Pele and Franz Beckenbauer.

"I don't think we ever had a clue of the nature of international football at the time," adds Roth, who was born in Yugoslavia and raised in the Ridgewood section of Queens. "Or if we did, we just didn't care much."

Messing, who grew up in the Parkchester section of the Bronx, recalls playing a match in Seattle for the United States and being forced to catch a red-eye flight home right after the game because the team couldn't afford to spring for hotel rooms.

Roth recalls one trip to Italy in which the team convened in New York on a Saturday, flew to Italy on Sunday and played the Azzurri on Monday night. As the team waited on the bus after the lopsided loss, the bus driver instructed the players to duck and hold their heads in their laps. As the bus pulled away from the stadium, fans threw tomatoes and lettuce at it. And you thought the "rotten tomato" bit was just a metaphor.

"When you're a laughingstock in front of [so many] people, it takes something out of you," said Roth, who played for six coaches during a 15-match tenure with the men's national team.

There were also small victories for Roth and Messing. The team beat Jamaica 2-1 and tied Mexico 1-1 to qualify for the 1972 Olympics. Messing also fondly remembers one-goal losses to Poland and Italy.

Roth said the turning point in the United States' commitment to the men's national team started when the U.S. earned the bid to host the 1994 World Cup.

"Once they made the announcement that the World Cup was coming in 1994, the approach to our U.S. national team and our international role in football [improved]," Roth said. "I think we've made up ground very quickly, very aggressively and very proactively.

"Fast forward a bit ... and the uniforms now are the latest and greatest with the best design," Roth added. "It's certainly not a problem of confidence that the U.S. has to deal with going into the World Cup."

No, the team doesn't have to deal with second-rate jerseys or shorts that don't fit these days. They now have plenty of time to prepare for matches and there's enough money to pay for adequate hotel accommodations.

"I take pride in watching the generation of players that are involved with the team today," Messing said. "We felt like we were pioneers for these guys."

Roth and Messing also look back at their days with the men's national soccer team with immense pride. Sure, they took their lumps, but Messing said it was well worth it because "we didn't have great success, but we like to think that we kept the national team alive."

Both Roth and Messing say they look forward to watching the United States compete against the world's best this month, envious only in that they can't be out on the field wearing the red, white and blue.

"You put on that jersey that says USA and you're playing for the national team -- there's no feeling like it," Messing said. "Things may be different now, but they're going to walk out of that tunnel [ Saturday] and they're going to have the same feeling we did. It's unbelievable."

Ian Begley is a contributor to ESPNNewYork.com

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