The wrong place at the wrong time

Smoke bombs thrown onto the field. Ho-hum. Hooligans in the streets? Yawn. There are American soccer players who have seen far worse, like tear gas in the stadium. The players who have experienced that are those who played for the U.S. national team on a trip to South Korea in 1987.

The U.S. team visited South Korea in the spring of that year to play in the President's Cup tournament. It played Egypt, South Korea and Thailand in its round-robin group in the first round of the tournament. It arrived in South Korea just as a string of pro-democracy demonstrations (ultimately successful ones), broke out on college campuses across South Korea. One of those campuses was at Dong-A University in Pusan, a few blocks from Kudok Stadium, where the United States played South Korea on June 12. Here is a description from the Los Angeles Times of some of that day's events:

"Tear gas fired by police to quell anti-government protestors in Pusan, South Korea, Friday interrupted a game between the United States and South Korea in the 16th President's Cup international soccer tournament. The first half had just ended in Pusan, South Korea's second-largest city, 205 miles southeast of Seoul, when the tear gas drifted across the field from nearby Dong-A University.

"Officials said that more than 20,000 students protested on 37 campuses, 17 in Seoul and 20 in provincial cities across the country. About 1,000 spectators at the soccer game hurled objects at the police and leaped to the field."

The United States team was headed for the locker room anyway when the tear gas drifted into the stadium, but not everyone completely avoided it. "It stung your eyes," says Bruce Murray. The United States team was never really under major threat, and the game eventually was completed (South Korea won, 1-0). However, Saprissa at its worst has never involved tear gas.

The Americans had another case of unfortunate timing on a trip to the Soviet Union in 1991, but managed to get out of the way of events in time. The United States national team's trip to Moscow to play the Soviet Olympic team nearly coincided with a coup d'etat attempt in which Communist hardliners tried to overthrow the government of Communist reformer Mikhail Gorbachev.

The United States lost to the Soviet Olympic team, 2-1, at Lenin Stadium in Moscow on Saturday, Aug. 17, and flew on to Austria on Sunday. By Monday morning, the coup was in full swing, with the plotters claiming that they had taken control of the country, which to a good degree was true. Although the U.S. team was safely out of the country, two members of the American delegation, USSF president Alan Rothenberg and his wife, had stayed behind in Moscow to do some sightseeing. They got out on Tuesday, but not before they'd seen a few sights that had not been on their schedule, such as tanks surrounding Red Square (above) and trolley cars overturned to block traffic.

In the end, the coup attempt failed, but it came within a whisker. Public backlash against the coup ended up giving the cause of democracy in the Soviet Union a big boost.

The U.S. national team has had a few other brushes with history, such as being in Berlin in 1990 when a portion of the Berlin Wall was being torn down and being one of the sacrificial lambs for Mussolini's demonstration of supposed Fascist might at the 1934 World Cup. The tear gas in Pusan may have been the most uncomfortable of them, however.