When the U.S. men’s national team departed JFK International Airport for France on June 5, 1998, many players assumed they were headed straight into the heart of World Cup action.
Fourteen hours later, they arrived in the middle of nowhere.
It’s common for elite national teams to train in isolation during the final days before the World Cup. Argentina was holed up in the town of L’Etrat, in the Loire Valley. The English were hiding out on a golf resort an hour west of Nantes.
U.S. head coach Steve Sampson wanted the same thing for his players. “We were staying at the Chateau de Pizay, in one of the finest hotels in the world,” he tells Roger Bennett in episode 5 of American Fiasco. “We had a five-star chef preparing meals for these players. We had a magnificent training ground. France, Brazil and England all stayed there and I felt it was good enough for our national team.”
However, the Chateau de Pizay was surrounded by 130 acres of beaujolais vineyards in Saint-Jean-d'Ardières, four hours away from Paris.
Defender Marcelo Balboa remembers his frustration. “You're like, 'We're isolated up in a mountain, in a vineyard where I have to ride a bike into town 10 minutes just to get out and go do something.' We were like, 'Why are we being isolated? Why are we being secluded? Why are we being put by ourselves out here?'”
Jeremy Schaap, then an ESPN reporter embedded with the team, explains: “Look, mostly these were guys who were expecting something out of the World Cup akin to what Olympic athletes get out of the Olympic Village.”
“We wanted this to be ridiculously special for the players,” says Sampson. “It cost the Federation a lot more money than they anticipated.”
But his players just couldn’t -- or wouldn’t -- hack it. In the Chateau, their gilded prison, the inmates were going a little batty.
“It looked great from the outside,” remarks forward Eric Wynalda. But inside? “It was Hotel California, man, and we were inside those walls trying to figure out how we could just get through the next day.”
Everyone had their way of coping. High-stakes poker games were popular. Midfielder Radosavljevic Preki soon amassed enough cash to fill a sock he slung over his shoulder. (“Most of it was mine,” notes Wynalda.) Once, press officer Jim Froslid saw a pot that was about half his salary. Needless to say, he didn’t join the game.
Forward Brian McBride read the New Testament cover to cover for the first (and only) time. Midfielder Brian Maisonneuve told a reporter he was reading les pages jaunes … the yellow pages. Meanwhile, veteran midfielders Cobi Jones and Earnie Stewart were spotted having conversations with the local ducks.
Each of these men, everyone on that team, had devoted his professional and personal life to this moment. They’d all made enormous sacrifices to be here, had beaten out every other American to make the squad, and then competed against each other to lock down starting roles. They’d desperately tried to impress their coach even when they did not understand what he wanted from them.
They had lost their captain. And now, they felt they were losing their minds.
On June 14th, 1998, the first kick-off was just a night away. Come morning, the U.S. would battle Germany on the football field. The whole world would be watching.