FwB #16: Alexi Lalas, the “Clown Prince”

Soccer - FIFA World Cup USA 1994 - USA v RomaniaOne whole month of football awaits. There is no better time to resurrect Footballers with Beards.

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Our first new post will be on ALEXI LALAS, the poster boy of USA 94.

USA 94 was meant to hail a new era. It was meant to bring ‘soccer’ to a whole new nation. A nation more familiar with baseball, basketball and their own particular brand of ‘American football’. It was, however, remembered by football fans – at least here in the UK – for a series of bumbling failures.

Firstly, England failed to reach the tournament in the first place. Failure to reach a major tournament for the first time in 10 years was seen as an abomination not only for England and their avid fans, but also for the organizers who saw England playing in the finals as necessary to its future financial success. Some of our most famed international heroes such as Hurst, Moore and Banks had played in the North American Soccer League in the 70s, and a handful of other stars such as Best, Lorimer and Giles who had previously plied their trade in England, headed to warmer climes for teams such as the LA Aztecs and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Our absence proved what many had feared: that US ‘soccer’ would fail before it had even begun.

Secondly, Diana Ross. USA 94’s opening ceremony was the sign of terrible things to come. No one enjoys these bombastic displays replete with Partridge-esque glitter bursts, oversized mascots and dance troupes. Still worse are the musical interludes. The organizers of USA 94 thought it best to combine all of this into one total horror show, of which Diana Ross assumed prime culpability. Her laboured penalty-kick run-up between banks of all-white, sun visor-wearing, disk-twirling extras, consisted of her singing her 80s classic “I’m Coming Out” whilst dancing her way to the ball, and ending spectacularly badly with her spunking it wide of the goal. Which then split in two. As per the theatrics of the whole performance. Again, it’s quite conceivable this moment captured in just a single moment the shear hilarity of the US hosting a global football competition. However, there’s more.

Thus, thirdly, we turn to Diego Maradona, who, consistent with the overall theme of the tournament also failed. A drug test. For ephedrine; a weight loss drug he’d been taking to combat his various addictions, including cocaine. The slo-mo clip of Maradona emphatically but somewhat crazily screaming into the camera is now, for infamous reasons, rather memorable. It was symbolic of Maradona’s demise. Seeing that USA 94 was the stage upon which he chose to acrimoniously exit the football scene for good, was yet another failure for the tournament as a whole.

And, finally, the final itself. An abject affair that culminated in a missed penalty by the very man who had heretofore lit up the whole tournament: Roberto Baggio. In many ways he had been one of its few successes, ‘the saviour’, even. Five goals in all, Baggio was on fire. His two against Nigeria had sent them into the Quarters, his winner against Spain had sent them into the Semis, and his brace against Bulgaria had seen them win a berth in the final. Yet, even Baggio was found wanting at the end. His sky-high penalty gave Brazil the victory. It was the first World Cup Final to be goalless in both normal and extra-time.

Arguably, however, there is one other single individual – greater than any of the England team, Ross, Maradona or Baggio – who encapsulated the failure of USA 94 most supremely. That man is Alexi Lalas. No other player, coach, pundit or celebrity quite made as much of a mockery out of international football as him. He was, by all accounts, the poster boy of US soccer, winning the US Soccer Athlete of the Year in 1995 due mostly to his performance during the tournament. As a newspaper report from the time suggests, Lalas was a massive hit with the fans being the “one surrounded by youngsters seeking his autograph”. He also was singer/songwriter/guitar player in a rock band called ‘The Gypsies’ – proving that soccer could also be ‘cool’ in that All-American way.

The only problem was that Lalas wasn’t really that good at playing football. At 6ft 2in tall, he was never destined to be a diminutive attacking midfielder or a pesky winger. He would be no Maradona, no Baggio, no Stoichkov. Instead, Lalas embodied all those supposedly true American characteristics: hard-work, determination and passion. In the words of the New York Times he was “a patriot” necessary to represent the US on the world’s biggest sporting stage. And, well, I guess he did. Kind of. He played over 90 games for the US national side and became the first American player to star in Serie A. He blazed a trail for the Donovans and the Dempseys. But he did so with the poise of, well, a 6ft 2in ginger goateed Van Halen-loving centre-back. He was goofy. And still is. Part of his ‘iconic’ image was his ‘beard’ – if indeed you could really call it that.

Current US coach Jurgen Klinsmann recently got mauled in the American media for stating the obvious: that his US team wouldn’t win the World Cup in Brazil. Fans went mad; including Lalas himself, continuing to play the role of the US patriot by suggesting that without belief no side could ever win the tournament. However, there’s a fine line between belief and wild delusion. US soccer has always veered towards the latter. In 1994 Lalas – complete with comedy goatee and bumbling style – encapsulated the US’s blind faith in their own footballing qualities. 20 years later seemingly nothing has changed. Lalas was the face of failure in 1994. He remains it today. The image of a goateed Lalas above – hand on heart – is iconic for all the wrong reasons.

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One thought on “FwB #16: Alexi Lalas, the “Clown Prince”

  1. Pingback: FwB #17: Charles Itandje | Footballers with beards

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