From foe to friend in a year

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After a Hansa Rostock soccer practice 30 years ago, an 11-year-old kid asked Paul Caligiuri, a defensive midfielder for the U.S. national team and exotic new addition to the Ostseestädter, Can I like you?

It was the final season of the East German Oberliga. The Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain might have started crumbling 11 months earlier, but decades of suspicion and secrecy had not evaporated overnight.

In fluent German, a puzzled Caligiuri asked the kid, Why not?

“Because you come from America.”

The mug of the kid’s dad turned crimson, but Caligiuri dropped to a knee and asked, Do you like Hansa Rostock?

“Yes.”

Who’s your favorite player?

The kid pointed to Caligiuri and said, “You!”

“I said, ‘Then you can like me,’ and we high-fived,” says Caligiuri. “His dad was so happy. They’d been told for so long that Americans are not good, that they’re not supposed to like us. I changed it all around.”

Caligiuri, then 26, altered mindsets, infusing a group of ambivalent players with a winning mentality, transforming the 29,000-seat Ostseestadion on the Baltic Sea into a showcase venue.

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Rostock, established in 1954, had never won anything. But in 1990-91 it added a charismatic American and won the last Oberliga title, capping a magnificent campaign by also winning its final domestic tournament, the FDGB-Pokal.

Caligiuri (pronounced cal-i-JUR-ee) started 26 of 27 matches for West German coach Uwe Reinders. He tallied a penalty-shootout goal in a tourney semifinal victory at FC Lok Leipzig.

It had been a whirlwind stretch for the native of Diamond Bar, Calif., who captained UCLA’s national-title team in 1985. In 1989-90, he had played in the West German second division for SV Meppen. On Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell.

Ten days later he launched a 30-yard screamer — the “Shot Heard Round the World” — at Trinidad and Tobago to give the U.S. its first World Cup berth in 40 years. On June 10, 1990, against Czechoslovakia in Florence, Italy, Caligiuri scored the first American World Cup goal since 1950.

He landed in Rostock, which bought his services from Meppen, in early September 1990. Rugged, dark and dreary is how he first found the city, gray-metal market shelves sparsely stocked.

He and pregnant wife Dawn would stroll the Warnemünde Strand, on the beach, and note peculiar followers who’d stop, even “hide” behind a tree or dune, when they stopped. They were either Stasi, from the East German secret police, or KGB, spooks from the USSR, probably both.

Dawn returned to the States, suffering a miscarriage. Their marriage dissolved. Paul had a $50,000 contract to honor. His teammates didn’t just follow him to the Oberliga crown, the California kid served as their conduit to democracy.

“They made it about me,” he says. “They’d never witnessed the mentality I brought to the practice pitch every day. ‘What is this American doing here?’ I’d look at them and say, ‘I want to win soccer games. I want you to want that, too.’ And we won everything.”

Caligiuri’s rich Deutschland connections keyed U.S. teammate Eric Wynalda playing in the Bundesliga. Rostock, bounced from the Bundesliga in 2005, currently resides in Germany’s third division.

In 2001, Caligiuri’s playing career ended with the L.A. Galaxy of Major League Soccer. He was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2004. Today he coaches a semi-pro club in Orange County.

He knew Hans-Georg Moldenhauer, the Oberliga chief, had been a Stasi agent. Caligiuri also knew current Russia president Vladimir Putin then operated out of Dresden, about 200 miles south of Rostock, for the KGB.

Putin compiled a dossier on him, he says, and he wants that file. But that doesn’t dampen his fabulous season in East Germany.

“One of the fondest memories that soccer has given me,” Caligiuri said.

Friday

Sampdoria at Fiorentina, Total 2.5 Ov -120: These two have registered 26 goals in their past six meetings. OVER

Saturday

Torino +100 at Genoa: Torino has not dropped a match to Genoa since May 21, 2017, a stretch of seven in which it is 6-0-1, with a 10-3 goal edge. TORINO

Sunday

West Brom at Southampton, Total 2.5 Ov -123: WBA’s Sam Johnstone entered the week allowing 3.67 goals per 90 minutes, worst among Premier League regular goalkeepers. His defenders are atrocious, too, having allowed 23 shots on target in their first three matches. Alex McCarthy, for the home side, has a grotesque 45.5% save percentage. OVER

Last week: 1-2

Season: 6-7-1

About the Author

Rob Miech

Veteran sportswriter Rob Miech covers soccer and does features for Gaming Today. He has written about college hoops for the Las Vegas Sun, CBS SportsLine and the Pasadena Star-News. He is the author of four books, including Sports Betting for Winners.

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