The first recollection Ralph Perez has of a soccer World Cup is of the 1966 classic won by England on its own Wembley Stadium turf.
Now, after closely following all the tournaments since, he won't have to catch the games on TV or read the fine details in the papers.
This time he'll be smack in the middle of one.
Perez, 38, is an assistant coach on the U.S. squad that will make history in Italy next month when it competes in the sport's quadrennial extravaganza for the first time in 40 years.
He became a full-time assistant to head coach Bob Gansler in January, after serving on a part-time basis since last summer.
"In my wildest dreams I never thought they would offer me a full-time job," Perez said. "I feel very fortunate to be in the situation I'm in. . . . I always believe that to play or coach for your country is the pinnacle."
Perez, a former soccer standout at Oneonta State College in New York, reached those heights at a young age with impressive coaching credentials. He headed winning programs at Whittier College from 1974 to 1976, moved to Cal State Fullerton the next year and to Cal State Los Angeles in 1978.
In 1981, Perez took over at the University of Santa Clara and won the West Coast Athletic Conference three years later. He coached the Cal State San Bernardino women's team last season, a position that gave him flexibility to travel with the U.S. team. He has more than 100 victories at the collegiate level.
That track record, and his work with the U.S. junior teams, didn't go unnoticed.
"His teams were always well-prepared and he seemed to have good rapport with the players," commented Gansler, who guided the U.S. Under-20 team, with Perez as co-pilot, to fourth place at the 1989 World Championships in Saudi Arabia. "When I got my wish to have a permanent assistant, I immediately asked Ralph.
"He's got good knowledge of the game and an ability to analyze and break down what the other team is doing and what we are doing. . . . We understand each other well on and off the field."
What many have noticed is that the Americans have as good a chance to win in Italy as the Christians did against the lions. They are paired with the Italian hosts and Czechoslovakia and Austria in preliminary Group A. But Perez subscribes to the anything- can-happen theory.
"The thing that makes our group very, very tough is that we are playing the favorites at home. You can't ask for a worst scenario. Czechoslovakia had a very good run in the qualifying matches," explained Perez, who was born in the South Bronx, N.Y., to Puerto Rican parents.
"Every bookie, every fan is saying that if we score a goal it'll be a miracle. We are going to draw from that psychologically. The pressure is on the other teams. Deep in my heart, I know we can advance. But we have to play to our optimum level."
Among other things, that means putting the ball in the net, something the team was able to do only six times in eight qualifying matches. Salvadoran-born Hugo Perez is the most creative offensive weapon on the U.S. side, but he has missed various games with an assortment of injuries. Ralph Perez sees that as a major obstacle.
"Injuries to key players is always a problem, especially in lesser powers like ourselves. Teams like Brazil have bigger pools of players to choose from," Perez said. "The soccer fans don't understand that when we play those countries, we are playing their best athletes, because that's their main sport.
"A lot of other teams are having trouble scoring, too. That's because everybody has become more defense-conscious and goal-keeping has improved in the last few years. Compact defenses have made it more difficult to score."
After the Cup, Perez said he will evaluate his coaching career. He doesn't enjoy living out of a suitcase and being away from his wife, Leann, and two children.
"I've been away from home 140 to 150 days (each year) for the last three years," Perez commented. "My son was born March 2 and I left on March 5 for a two-week trip."
However, Perez might feel differently when the U.S.-hosted 1994 Cup draws near. That event will be the clincher for those who have worked to give soccer credibility in this country, and he is already looking forward to that tournament.
"It's important that we put our best team on the field by then," he said. "I think the next few years are going to be very exciting."