WORLD CUP USA '94: SEMIFINALS : The Nut in the Nets : Sweden's Ravelli Seems Like a Normal Fellow, but the Truth Cuts Holes in That Scenario

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Goalkeepers, no matter their nationality, have traditionally been a bit, well, peculiar.

In South America, it is no surprise that many of them are nicknamed "El Loco."

England's Brian Glanville once wrote a book entitled "Goalkeepers Are Crazy." No one argued the point. It comes with the territory.

You have to be a little strange to do what goalkeepers do. The want ads for keepers read something like this:

"Tired of your everyday job? Why not try goalkeeping? Requirements include not objecting to having your fingers broken consistently, an aptitude for diving headfirst into a melee of flying soccer cleats, a willingness to put your body in front of 70-m.p.h. shots. The ability to fly is a plus."

All of which is by way of introduction to a certain Thomas Ravelli, who these days can be found secretly cutting holes in the underwear of his teammates on the Swedish World Cup team.

Or reading poetry.

Or risking life and limb to put Sweden into the semifinals of the World Cup for only the second time.

Does Ravelli qualify as peculiar? You bet.

Does he rate right up there with the world's best goalkeepers? Sure thing.

But about that underwear business?

To get to the, uh, bottom of the story requires a bit of history.

Ravelli was born in Vimmerby but grew up in the small town of Vaxjo in southern Sweden. Until he and his twin brother, Andreas, came along, the place was best known for its matches--the kind you light, not the kind you play.

The son of an Austrian immigrant, young Thomas endured the typical Swedish childhood--plenty of snow and too many Ingmar Bergman movies--so it was not surprising that he became a wire-brush salesman and part-time soccer player. Working in the match factory didn't strike his fancy.

By the time he was 22, he had established a reputation as something of a nut and was thus perfectly positioned to become Sweden's national team goalkeeper when Ronnie Hellstrom retired in 1981.

That was the same year Ravelli won the Golden Ball, which is presented annually to the nation's best player. He didn't drop it, so his place on the national team was assured.

He has been there ever since. When Ravelli took the field in Sunday's quarterfinal against Romania at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, he was playing his 115th game for Sweden, tying the record set by Bjorn Nordquist.

Before the game, which Sweden won on penalty kicks thanks to Ravelli's two penalty saves and all-round excellent play, Nordquist sent him a good luck fax, saying "It's about time somebody broke my record."

But Ravelli said the record was the last thing on his mind.

"I didn't think of that at all," he said. "If this had been a friendly game or something else, I would have thought more about playing for my 115th cap. But this game was so important for us, I didn't think about Nordquist."

Ravelli is not easily mistaken for anyone else on the field--Andreas, his twin, also played for Sweden as a defender but has since retired. Thomas Ravelli's receding hairline and almost demonic glare are trademarks.

So is the intensity of his game. Goalkeepers are supposed to be loud. They are supposed to shout at their defenders and keep the lines of communication open. Ravelli can almost be heard by the other keeper more than 100 yards away.

"I am very competitive," Ravelli said. "I want to show everyone that I am in command of my area. Anyway, I hate losing."

"He is very loud," defender Joachim Bjorklund said, then joked, "but we don't hear him anymore."

Added striker Martin Dahlin, "He's a crazy man and talks a lot, which is really important."

And something of a wild card in the Swedish pack, it seems. Ravelli likes to keep things loose in the locker room, Dahlin said.

For instance?

"For example, you might come back to the locker room and find holes cut in your underwear."

Does this sound like a happily married man of 34 with three children? Or does it sound like a goalkeeper? Even Ravelli is not sure.

"I have this primitive thing about being a goalkeeper," he said. "That takes over. I don't like to think too much. During the game, I'm another person."

So far in World Cup '94 that other person has been at the top of his game. After a shaky start in Sweden's 2-2 opening tie against Cameroon, Ravelli has been spectacular.

Pontus Kamark, one of the defenders on the Swedish team, is 10 years younger than Ravelli and remembers watching him as a child. Kamark said that in this World Cup, Ravelli has rediscovered his youth.

"I would rate him very high," Kamark said. "But a few years ago we thought that the job should go to the second goalkeeper. Thomas was lazy. His training was not very serious.

"When I was little, I would watch him on television, making saves, jumping high for the ball. He's playing like that again. I haven't seen him play better than this for the last five years."

There is a reason behind Ravelli's newfound enthusiasm. He has never played abroad and has never made much money from the game in Sweden, where he has starred on four championship-winning teams, including his current club, IFK Gothenburg.

Now, in the twilight of his career but still very much at the top of his game, he wants to make a dollar or two off the sport. His hope is that a Major League Soccer team in the United States will come calling, or that the J-League in Japan will want a goalkeeper with a sense of the absurd.

Plus, he'd like to keep playing.

"Soccer is the most funnest thing for me to work with," he said after the victory over Romania. "I feel like that. It's my hobby. Some people play golf, I do this. I love it."

Times staff writer Randy Harvey contributed to this story.

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