Cup Memories Mixed for Wynalda

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was still some frustration in the voice on the telephone, the voice of a man who had been to Italy and back chasing a dream that would turn into a haunting memory.

Eric Wynalda has returned from the World Cup. He spent four days at home in Westlake last week before heading north to play for the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks in the Western Soccer League.

They were good days, he said, days he spent getting reacquainted with his home and his girlfriend. They went to the beach and out to breakfast and rested. He saw friends from home that he hadn't seen in a while. He even ran into his old high school principal.

They all congratulated him for being on the U.S. World Cup team, smiling and shaking his hand. Hey, nice going. Attaboy.

Wynalda smiled back and enjoyed the attention. He only wished he could have felt a little better about the whole thing.

You've heard of Eric Wynalda. If you haven't, you've heard about him. You know, the U.S. player who was ejected from a World Cup game.

After a lifetime of preparing for the Cup, it is suddenly over, and no matter how hard he tries to scrub away certain memories, he can't. So instead of feeling exhilaration, or maybe a little bit of satisfaction in something that he and his mates accomplished, there is only frustration, anger and the feeling that some of it is not real.

This is what you get when you take a team and stick it with three consecutive losses and when you take an individual, a 21-year-old who didn't even finish his years at San Diego State, and he gets booted out of a game.

"It was a dream for my entire life, and now to be tossed out of the first World Cup game of my life . . . " Wynalda said, his voice trailing off. Worse, the ejection brought with it a suspension for the next game.

Of course, Wynalda did have some good experiences, in particular the soccer hysteria that bathed the U.S. team for three weeks . . . the rabid fans, the flags they waved, the pageantry.

"It's really something," Wynalda said. "You walk through the streets and you have to have armed guards. (The Italian fans) don't want to hurt you. They just want to see you."

Ah, memories . . .

One that is vivid is the United States' game with Italy, the game they lost, 1-0, in front of 73,423 fans, mostly Italian. Wynalda can't forget his teammates' faces as they took the field for the game of their lives. The noise from the crowd still rings in his ears. And, from his vantage point, Wynalda could see the frustration in the Italians' faces as the game wore on.

Problem was, his vantage point was the bench. This was Wynalda's lost game, the one in which he served his suspension.

The red card had come in the second half against Czechoslovakia, two days earlier. The United States was on its way to a 5-1 loss. It was June 10, the day after Wynalda's 21st birthday.

The way he remembers it, a Czechoslovakian player--Jozef Chovanec--backed into him and stepped on his foot. Wynalda said he saw it coming and claims he stuck his arms out to brace himself. Chovanec hit the ground, and the linesman called Wynalda for a foul. Then the referee booted him. Wynalda claims the referee didn't even see it.

"I just kind of went, 'Wow,' " Wynalda said. "It was pure shock. I really didn't understand what happened. In soccer, it's kind of like in baseball. You can go argue, but the referee won't change his mind. The only thing I could do was be a man about it and walk off the field."

Wynalda thinks now that he was set up, and he said his coaches agreed with him after watching films. The motive? Earlier in the game, Wynalda was elbowed in the stomach, so he retaliated--but his elbow hit the face of a Czechoslovakian player. And he believes the Czechoslovakians got him for it.

"The Czechs, they know what they're doing," Wynalda said.

The ejection carried an automatic one-game suspension and a $7,000 fine, which Wynalda said the U.S. Soccer Federation will pay. John Polis, director of communications for the USSF, said the organization is still awaiting word from FIFA, soccer's governing body, regarding the fine. Since Joseph Blatter, FIFA's general secretary, has publicly said the ejection wasn't warranted, the USSF is hoping the fine won't be as steep.

Wynalda also was criticized publicly by U.S. Coach Bob Gansler after the game but says he didn't blame Gansler.

"I think in his situation, he had to criticize me," Wynalda said. "It wouldn't be right for him to praise me. But he was great about it. He told me, 'I know what you're going through. You're going to get a lot of attention you don't want. Keep your head up.' "

But Wynalda is still bitter about comments by team captain Michael Windischmann, who called Wynalda's red card "dumb."

"Wynalda, he's younger," Windischmann said after the game. "He has to learn. You have to wait until later to retaliate if you feel you must. To outright push somebody, right in front of a linesman, I think it's dumb, and it doesn't help us. And now he doesn't get to play in the next game. It's just dumb."

Said Wynalda: "After the game, he blamed me for my inexperience, but he was the guy who brought somebody down in the penalty box for a penalty kick. I wasn't."

Windischmann's penalty cost the U.S. team a goal.

Wynalda was already frustrated when the World Cup opened because he had been shifted from his regular forward position to midfielder. The switch came during the U.S. team's final half-dozen games before the World Cup.

"I've maintained all along I'm not a midfielder," Wynalda said. "I'm a forward being asked to play defense against some of the best players in the world. I would have rather sat the bench and come in during the last 15 minutes each game than play 45 minutes of pure running and defense."

He didn't have to worry about that in the Italy game. And by the time the United States played its final game, against Austria, it didn't much matter anymore.

"It was a great feeling to at least walk into the locker room and see my uniform hanging again," he said. "I wish the game were 20 minutes longer. The way we were playing, and the chances we were creating, I think we would have won."

But Austria won, 2-1, and the rest of the World Cup for Wynalda and his teammates would take place in front of the television.

Now, there he was, talking on the telephone with the Yugoslavia-Spain game on television in the background. He said he hadn't missed a game on television since returning home.

"You were just there a couple of days ago," he said. "Now, you sit on the same old couch and watch the same TV . . . It was like we were never there."

He talked about things that happen on the field in front of thousands of people but still are so private that nobody notices, except the players. Moments in practice, games . . . exchanging words with foreign opponents, straining to understand them.

The more he thought about it, the more disappointment and anger he felt.

"I think it would be wrong for any of us on the national team to be satisfied with what happened," he said. "We lost. Some people say we earned respect. That isn't the case. We went into the situation believing we could win. Now that that's the case, we shouldn't be satisfied with losing. . . .

"We wanted to give the U.S. something to be proud of. Everyone was looking to us to prove that the U.S. can be competitive. To lose three games is not being competitive."

Since he returned home, he said, people have been great. He hasn't heard much condescending talk regarding the losses, but still . . .

On Tuesday, he left for San Francisco and another soccer life. The atmosphere with the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks won't be the same as a World Cup, but Wynalda will have some fun, work on his game and look forward to 1994.

"As far as my World Cup went," he said, "it's going to have to be a hell of a lot better in 1994 for me to forget about this one."

And then he told a story. When he got home from Italy, he had a belated birthday celebration--and his girlfriend's mother gave him a birthday card. It had a red card in it.

He laughed.

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