June 24, 2010
Michael Lewis celebrates 36 years of journalism with a unique interview
It was exactly 36 years ago today that BigAppleSoccer.com editor Michael Lewis started his first professional job as a sportswriter with the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. Since then he has labored for several newspapers and publications, for the past 21 years for the New York Daily News.
To celebrate his anniversary in the business and for surviving that long, Lewis has granted this website an exclusive interview with himself.
Michael: So, exactly what is your background in soccer?
Lewis: Avoided it like the plague while growing up. Actually, I didn't know about it until I was something like 14 or 15. I played the usual sports -- baseball, football, etc. I "discovered" soccer when I saw a piece about the great Pele. I then borrowed one of my sister's kick balls and ran around with it outside. I was winded in a few minutes. And that was the last time I tried to kick a ball – unless it was an American football or ahem, booting a baseball – until college.
Michael: You mean you played soccer in college?
Lewis: Well, sort of. I took soccer as a physical education course in my sophomore year. It was coupled with bowling. I improved my average in bowling average from 89 to something like 128. I got an A in the course.
Michael: And how did you fare in the soccer end?
Lewis: Well, let’s say as a forward I was a great defensive midfielder. I kicked everything in sight, sometimes the ball. I aced the written part of the course, learning about M and W formations; yeah, that’s how far back I played. When it came time for the practical end, I was just like virtually the rest of my classmates – bad. Since I was in the best shape of my life – I was 5-9 and something like 140 pounds at the time – I decided to be midfielder on the right side. After running around non-stop for 20 minutes and with a sharp pain in my side, I decided my career was destined to be a right wing. Less running, heh, heh. At the end of the semester, our phys ed teacher – Richie Speckman (Bruce Arena‘s lacrosse coach at the school, incidentally) – said we were playing a decent brand of high school soccer. Judging the mediocre quality of the game in suburban high schools at the time, today I don’t know if I should take that as a compliment or a criticism.
Michael: So, that was it for you and soccer in college?
Lewis: Not exactly. As sports editor of the college newspaper, I did some re-writes and write-ups of the team and wrote about some interesting players. There was Al Vitiello, who kicked a then junior college record 56-yard field goal for the football team when he wasn’t performing for the soccer team. The soccer team had a couple of other decent players. You might have heard of them -- a goalkeeper named Bruce Arena and another player named Bob Montgomery.
Michael: What a minute! You saw Bruce Arena, the U.S. National Team coach and Bob Montgomery, the Adelphi men’s coach, play soccer in college?
Lewis: Not a minute. Like I said I did some write-ups of the games because it was difficult to get someone to cover the games. I do, however, have several by-lines with Bruce’s name in the story. And I did see Bruce play lacrosse for the NCC team, which captured the junior college title about a zillion times. NCC was so good at one time it beat Division I teams like Hofstra.
Michael: So that was it for college?
Lewis: Well, I transferred to Syracuse University. Realizing that everyone wanted to write about the mediocre football team, I decided to write about another sport – soccer. Honest. I got to cover a couple of football games, but I wanted to write as much as possible. Actually, it was the soccer club, which was funded by student funds. I showed up for the season opener after the final whistle – I was told the wrong time of the game. The coach was in the nearby bushes trying to find one of the soccer balls kicked into the shrubs. Welcome to soccer, I said to myself (laugh).
Michael: How did you become a professional soccer writer?
Lewis: It's a funny story because I had to be brought in kicking and screaming. I covered high school sports my first year right out of college in Rochester. I guess the editors were so impressed with my work, they wanted to give me more responsibilities with a pro team -- the Rochester Lancers, who played in the same division as the New York Cosmos. Of all the beats up there, the one I didn't want to take was the Lancers. Too many headaches off the field, ticket scams, visa violations, that sort of thing. I remember assistant sports editor Bill Parker informing me of my new assignment that night in January 1975 and pushing a stack of files my way. I wanted to slowly push them right back to him. But since I was a 23-year-old less than a year out of college, I didn't think I had the right.
Michael: Then when did you start loving the game?
Lewis: At first it looked like a Chinese fire drill – in fact, some pro games still look exactly like that today. I got a rule book, read as much as I could about the sport and I became a student of the game. It wasn’t until my third season – 1977 – that I felt comfortable asking a question that the coach might disagree with. I was ready to stand up for my opinions – right or wrong. Besides, I became a sportswriter to see the United States. As a soccer writer, I have been able to see the world.
Michael: So, what do you enjoy about being a sportswriter?
Lewis: Being a journalist is a privilege and a responsibility I take seriously. Many people distrust us because they feel we distort the facts on purpose. I don't. There are a lot of bad and lazy alleged journalists out there that try short cuts, even some who write about soccer. Most of the writers do an earnest and honest job. I won't go into the details, but you would shake your head on some of the unusual stories I have heard and even witnessed through the years about some other writers.
Michael: So, what has been the most insightful question you've ever asked?
Lewis: Tough question to answer because everyone is different and you ask questions in different ways to different people to elicit responses. Sometimes a general question will find what you seek. Sometimes you have to put it under a microscope. Saying that, I do keep asking Freddy Adu a similar question every time I interview him: What have you learned? It's a very simple, but an effective one. He always gives me a different answer because he is going through a learning process.
Michael: What was the most ridiculous question you've asked?
Lewis: I think you just asked it (laughs).
Michael: OK, let's get into some hard-ball soccer-related questions. Were you ever in awe of anyone you interviewed?
Lewis: Had to be Pele. I was barely 23 and I was up close and personal with him before and after the Cosmos played the Lancers in Rochester. Being so new to the game, it was a very special moment for me. A year later I was invited to a writers’ lunch with Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia in Rochester and talked about soccer and life on and off the record. That’s another highlight.
Michael: What was your most memorable match?
Lewis: Man, now you're really taxing my memory. . . . Hmm . . . Let's see . . . OK . . . I've got two, although I wish we had more time and space to list my top 20. The first one has to be the Nigeria-Brazil men's Olympic semifinal in 1996. Brazil had the Africans dead-to-rights with a 3-1 lead with about 15 minutes remaining. Then, all of a sudden, Nigeria wakes up, scores two goals to force extra-time, where the Africans tally again for a highly unlikely victory. Several days later Nigeria defeated Argentina in the gold-medal match, coming back from the dead again.
There are others. I remember how Yugoslavia -- before the break-up -- wowed the Chilean soccer fans at the Under-20 World Cup in 1987 with the likes of Robert Prosinecki and Davor Suker, two youngsters who were destined to become major players for Croatia years later. There was a quarterfinal against Brazil in which Prosinecki drilled a free kick from 25 yards into the upper corner with about a minute remaining to give his team a victory. They were so excited and elated they took a victory lap around the stadium -- that's National Stadium in Santiago, where people were held and killed about 15 years earlier. Anyway, several days later, the Yugoslavian side took another victory lap around the stadium to celebrate winning the title. The U.S. participated in the tournament and didn't get out of the opening round. But the Americans had a few players you might recognize -- Tony Meola, Kasey Keller and Marcelo Balboa.
Earlier that year I watched a pair of Under-19 teams go at it in the State Cup of the Eastern New York Youth Soccer Association championships on Long Island. Seventeen years later, I still feel it is the best youth soccer game I’ve ever witnessed. It pit B.W. Gottschee against the Oceanside Navahos, who won. There were some interesting players on each team. Gottschee had Roger Chavez and Maicol Antelo, who were at LIU. Oceanside had Adrian Gaitan, who was on the U.S. U-20 team at the time, and Meola.
Michael: What's your most forgettable match?
Lewis: Unfortunately, there is not enough room on the internet for me to talk them.
Michael: Your most memorable goal?
Easy. The one Diego Maradona scored minutes after his "Hand of God" goal at the 1986 World Cup. I was at Estadio Azteca when he scored both that day against England. The minute he knocked the ball into the goal with his hand, I yelled “Hand ball.” I looked toward the linesman and he never moved. Then in the second half, Maradona went on that incredible jaunt through the English team. I can still see him slaloming around the players. Maradona, incidentally, is the only player who dominated a World Cup with his force of playing personality. As good as Pele was, he never dominated a cup like Maradona did. Pele had a great and talented supporting cast, Maradona didn’t. It’s a shame about Maradona and his drug problems. I fear he may go well before his time.
By the way, I feel quite fortunate. I was able to see in person Maradona’s fabulous run, Michael Owen’s great run against Argentina in 1998 and even Clint Mathis’s jaunt in 2001. And I did see England-Argentina, Part III at the Sapporo Dome in Japan in 2002, when David Beckham converted the penalty kick that helped eliminate the South Americans from the first round.
Michael: Who's the most difficult interview you've had? Bob Bradley? Bruce Arena?
Lewis: Not even close. When you speak with them one-on-one or in small groups, they are very candid. Actually, it was a non-soccer person I had the most trouble getting quotes out of -- former Rangers coach Mike Keenan, when he was coach of the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League some 20 years ago.
Michael: What do you think of MLS?
Lewis: Multiple Listing Serivce? Great if you're looking for a new house . . .
Michael: No, no, you fool! Major League Soccer.
Lewis: Ah ha . . . Well, it's great it has been alive and kicking for some 13 years. But by now I expected more from the league. Attendance has been languishing around 15,000 a year. I had hoped that average crowds would be above 20,000 by now and that more newspapers -- especially in the New York area -- would give the sport its due.
I'm also disappointed in fans who won't attend any MLS matches because games are not as good as the ones over in Europe and South America. Euro snobs, I think they are called. Well, TV can be a blessing and a curse at the same time, getting an opportunity to watch the best players in the world, but then comparing them to the home-grown product. But you know what? These fans should take in games and support the product here. Yeah, it is not as good as the Champions League or the English Premiership. But it's our league and many young players who are developing have become good enough to play across the Atlantic. These are the same fans who will complain if the league ever went out of business: There's no national league.
But slowly, but surely it has gotten more traction. The list for possible expansion teams seems to go on forever and more and more clubs have stadiums they can call their own.
The most important thing is that the league is developing players. Outside of Keller and a handful of others, virtually every player worth his salt on the National Team or playing in Europe has gone through MLS. The list is a long one. Landon Donovan -- he wouldn't be anywhere near the player he is today if he was still with Bayer Leverkusen languishing on the bench. DaMarcus Beasley. Tim Howard. Brian McBride. I see the league as a great springboard league, where up-and-coming players go overseas. I also would like to see the league sign foreign players with higher profiles, not ones near retirement.
Michael: Speaking of which, have you thought about retirement?
Lewis: See me in 20 years and then I might talk about it.
Michael: Next year you celebrate your 35th anniversary covering soccer, right?
Lewis: Uh . . . yes. Does that mean I have to put up with yet another interview?
Michael: There’s a good chance.
Lewis: Well, then you better not misquote me or you’ll hear from my attorney in the morning! . . . And one more thing: I'm just astonished that there is anyone out there still reading this opus. They should get prize just for that.
Michael: Is there anything else you would want to add?
Lewis: Yes, but my thank-you list is so long that it would make some of those Oscar speeches look like small talk. So, I will give you my Reader's Digest version of my speech: "I would like to thank all of the typewriters, word processors and computers on which I pounded millions of words on and all of the editors who made sure my words were more or less in the right order. And I hope I can write for another 30 years. It's been a lot of fun and a privilege. Thank you."
Michael Lewis would like to hear from you. If you have a comment, drop him a line at email.