U.S. national team prepared for the hate
HAMBURG, Germany -- In the heart of this city's bustling shopping district, where locals and tourists move at a pace only New Yorkers would appreciate, flocks of uniformed Polizei stand amid metal barricades, blocking the cobblestone road in front of the Park Hyatt Hotel. Inside, a metal detector and x-ray machine greet lobby visitors. Beyond that, suit-wearing secret-service-esque officials demand passports and World Cup credentials.
Welcome to life on the road for the U.S. men's soccer team. Here, Kasey Keller, Landon Donovan and the rest of the American team ride in the only World Cup team bus without a flag on its side. Here, streets are closed and traffic rerouted as 20 police vehicles deliver the team bus to and from practice. And here, everyone from team security members to state department officials keep a wary eye on interview sessions.
Yet, this is nothing. Although preparing for the World Cup in an air-tight safety bubble has been a popular topic for international journalists, Team USA can only yawn.
• Monday, June 12 -- vs. Czech Republic at Gelsenkirchen, Germany, noon ET(ESPN2)
• Saturday, June 17 -- vs. Italy at Kaiserslautern, Germany, 3 p.m. ET (ABC)
• Thursday, June 22 -- vs. Ghana at Nuremberg, Germany, 10 a.m. ET (ESPN)
Try playing with chants of "Osama bin Laden! Osama bin Laden!" raining down, the Americans say. Try getting ready for kickoff with uniformed militia guarding the field holding ready-to-fire machine guns. Try scoring a goal with rocks, batteries and bottles flying toward you. And try falling asleep the night before a match while fans drive by your team hotel, honking horns, setting off cherry bombs and blasting music.
A little extra security for the World Cup in Germany? C'mon. Try being a visiting U.S. soccer player in Central America during World Cup qualifying.
"The players [in Europe] deal with a lot of pressure, but I'm not sure they fear for their lives and well-being," midfielder Landon Donovan said. "And we certainly do."
A recent Gatorade commercial highlighted the rocky road that brought the U.S. to Germany. In one clip, fans stomped on the stadium floor so hard that the ceiling tiles shook in the U.S. locker room. In another clip a fan held a massive sheet that read, "Yankees Go Home." And in another clip, a fan held a sheet that depicted a U.S. player as the devil.
It's all part of what U.S. soccer officials believe is one of the best-kept secrets in all of sports: The tough road their teams face to qualify for the World Cup through CONCACAF, the collection of 40 North American, Central American and Caribbean countries that comprise their FIFA qualifying group.
Part of it is gamesmanship, such as when Guatemala changed a venue 10 days before a match to a remote jungle village accessible only by a dangerous three-hour bus ride through the mountains. But part of it isn't.
"The anti-American sentiment is the biggest thing," said goalkeeper Tim Howard, who plays club soccer in England. "As Americans, we play the big brother role. People either resent that or appreciate it. They either thank you or hate you."
More often than not, they hate. Imagine the Red Sox playing at Yankee Stadium a week after Derek Jeter took four Curt Schilling fastballs to the earhole. Or the Denver Broncos visiting the "Black Hole" after John Elway told reporters that Raider fans are all "degenerates" and they should "bring it on."
Imagine all this repugnance. Times about 10.
Yet it's not entirely a bad thing. Several players say they thrive on such an "us against the world" mentality. In fact, the team is confident that overcoming the trials and tribulations of qualifying -- with a giant red, white and blue target on its back -- has helped prepare it for soccer's grandest stage.
"Anytime you face adversity like that, it's going to help you grow as a team," Howard said. "For that 24-hour period, the only thing you can rely on is yourselves and each other. And you have to get points. No matter what is going on around you, you have to steady the ship and make sure everything is right. And that takes a strong mind."
Said defender Carlos Bocanegra: "When you're in a situation like that, you stick together all the time. You feel a unity with the guys who go through that with you. And that can only help us."
Over the last decade, at matches in Latin American countries such as Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica, U.S. players have been pelted with everything from batteries and coins to screws and saliva. In one match, former coach Steve Sampson said his players were bombed with bags of urine and animal blood. In the mid-90s, defender Paul Caligiuri was treated for welts on his back after being sprayed with a chemical substance, presumably acid.
The unwritten and unspoken motto is to expect the unexpected. Lost luggage. Fire alarms at 2 a.m. Bus drivers getting lost. And no running water at the stadium, making postgame showers nothing fancier than pouring a couple bottles of water down your back.
"It's an experience, to say the least," said defender Oguchi Onyewu. "Just going into an environment where you are genuinely, passionately hated. It takes a bit of getting used to."
Individually, the majority of U.S. players are strangers to foreign fans. But when they put on the jersey with "U.S." stitched on the front, everything changes. The unknown becomes the hated. Part of that is soccer. Part of that is politics. The United States is a growing force in the sport, a move that frustrates fans of smaller countries, who love seeing the world power struggle in the world's game. On top of that, it's no secret that the White House's stance on weapons of mass destruction and on invading Iraq doesn't set well with much of the international community.
And then, just in time, here come these 20- and 30-year-old U.S. soccer players, providing a perfect avenue for opposing fans to express their frustrations.
"When you're an American, it doesn't matter," DaMarcus Beasley said. "They see that uniform, and then you're the enemy."
Goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who plays professionally in Germany, is able to separate politics from fan passion.
"The way we are treated and the way the country is perceived is different," he said. "Yes, some people are critical of Americans as a whole or critical of our policies, but nobody is mad at me personally. Most people treat others as a person -- they either like the individual or they don't. Never has somebody come up to me and said, 'Oh, you're an American. I disagree with the war in Iraq. I don't like you.' I've never had that."
Which is why, combined with the tight security, the Americans have all the freedom they could want here in Germany. On Tuesday, Marcus Hahnemann enjoyed an early-morning jog around the city's Alster Lake. Donovan went for dinner at a local sushi restaurant with a few friends. And Keller, who lives just outside Dusseldorf, wouldn't hesitate to go out in public or taking his family to the zoo.
"It's probably more dangerous for my family to drive with me on the Autobahn every day than it is to be [in Hamburg] with me," Keller said. "If they can deal with that, they're fine."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.