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Meola takes long way back to the World Cup

By BRIAN LANDMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2002


CARY, N.C. -- Don't try to tell goalkeeper Tony Meola he's the old man on the U.S. World Cup team.

CARY, N.C. -- Don't try to tell goalkeeper Tony Meola he's the old man on the U.S. World Cup team.

"I'm not the grandfather,"' he said.

He's only 33 and quick to point out that defender Jeff Agoos turned 34 on Thursday. You see, he's an elder, just not the eldest. Still, unlike his teammates -- younger and older alike -- Meola grew up, then seemingly retired before our eyes on the World Cup stage.

He played well for the United States in the 1990 World Cup, this nation's first trip to soccer's quadrennial extravaganza in 40 years, then helped lead the team to the second round in 1994 when the Cup came here for the first time.

"I do recall when I had Tony as a second-year player at the University of Virginia and he was heading off to World Cup qualifying at that age," U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. "Obviously, I never thought that 12, 13, 14 years later that Tony would be part of a World Cup roster."

Neither did he.

From 1995-99, Meola didn't make a single national team appearance.

"If you would have told me in 1998 I would have been here in 2002, I would have told you not to bet your house on it," he said after a training session.

He's clearly the No. 3 goalkeeper this time around, behind Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel, but don't think he earned a trip to Korea as some lifetime achievement award. Meola shut out Mexico 1-0 in an exhibition April 3 in his lone appearance this year and remains one of the top keepers in Major League Soccer. He has a 0.94 goals-against average in four games for the Kansas City Wizards.

"It's pretty gratifying to get back and play at this level the last couple of years; get a couple shots to play and know that I can still do it," he said.

U.S. CORNER KICKS: Agoos has played 9,999 minutes for the U.S. team, third all-time behind Marcelo Balboa and current World Cup teammate Cobi Jones. ... Defender David Regis, who plays in France, is set to join his teammates tonight. ... Though Arena decided against two-a-day training sessions once the team arrived in North Carolina, don't be mistaken about the intensity of practice. Through three days, the team went through 16 cases (20 16-ounce bottles per case) of Gatorade and 20 cases of water (24 16-ounce bottles per case).

WAIT AND SEE: Fans, and not just from England, continue to hold their breath that star midfielder David Beckham's broken foot will heal more quickly than expected and that he'll be able to play in the World Cup.

In Japan, fans folded paper cranes, an age-old tradition believed to make a wish come true, to help ensure Beckham's recovery. About 6,000 cranes were sent to Osaka, where England plays Nigeria June 12.

RICH GET RICHER: Defending World Cup champion France seemingly will get younger and potentially even more talented if forward Djibril Cisse, 20, is added to the squad. He scored 20 goals in 28 games in the French first division this past season.

IT'S IN THE BAG(GIO)?: Though he injured a knee in January, longtime Italian star Roberto Baggio, 35, could earn a spot on his fourth World Cup team. He scored two goals in his first game back last week for his club team.

NETTING THE CUP: Fans have another, purely modern way in which to follow the World Cup. Video highlights from all 64 games will be available -- for a price, of course -- via the internet at FIFAworldcup.com. A $19.95 premium package will provide about four minutes of action (posted a few hours after the game), commentary in six languages and additional non-game video including post-game interviews.

"This is particularly significant for fans in different time zones to Korea and Japan; for example, Europe is up to nine hours behind," FIFA president Joseph S. Blatter said. "By launching this video highlights package, FIFA has listened to the voices of football fans across the globe and has responded by providing the ultimate way to stay in touch with the action."

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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