In Jersey soccer hotbed, fans are 'livin' a dream' WORLD CUP 1994

June 16, 1994|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun Staff Writer

KEARNEY, N.J. — KEARNY, N.J. -- It's a steamy Monday night in this town, a half-hour drive and a philosophical ocean from the Big Apple.

The Yankees are about to begin a big American League East series in Baltimore. It's the day after the Knicks fell a game behind in the NBA Finals, the night before Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, Armageddon for Rangers fans.

Baseball, basketball and hockey, however, are not on the menu at the Scots-American Club, a block from the main road that intersects Kearny -- whose population is 35,000. Perched on a stool halfway down the bar, the gray-haired gent is an authority on the soccer celebration that has engulfed this town.

"They're gonna be hangin' from the rafters Saturday," Jimmy Harkes says. "I won't be here, of course, I'll be in Detroit, but I'm livin' a dream, son. I'm livin' a dream."

Men like Harkes, a former professional in Scotland who came to America in 1961 and coached some powerful boys teams under the auspices of Kearny Thistle Fish and Chips, are behind the sign at the Kearny border that justifiably claims it to be "Soccertown USA."

Harkes' second son, John, is one of the top players on the U.S. team in the World Cup. John Harkes and U.S. goalie Tony Meola have been teammates off and on for more than a decade. A third U.S. starter, Tab Ramos, grew up nearby and also played for Kearny Thistle.

It's understood that Jimmy Harkes is eager to get to Detroit fothe U.S. opener against Switzerland on Saturday, and then on to Los Angeles for its next two Group A games.

Part of Harkes would like to stay in Kearny, however, to take in the Italy-Ireland match Saturday at The Meadowlands, the premier East Coast venue for the World Cup -- which is just 10 miles to the north. It's the first-round home for Italy and Ireland, and a ticket to their match is a prized possession in this festival fueled by patriotism, alcohol and a mania Americans don't understand.

Italy's many followers, still angered by their inability to win the championship in 1990 on their home turf, are fretting over the Azzurri's lackluster play of late.

The Irish backers aren't as numerous, and they're just as far-flung as their team. Similar to the United States, Ireland has worked within FIFA loopholes to strengthen its roster with men born elsewhere, and just about anyone opposed to the crown is on the Ireland bandwagon. Their delight is doubled by the failure of England, the game's inventor and missionary, to qualify.

The Irish consulate in New York is expecting 15,000 visitors to the area from Ireland, and nearly half are looking for tickets. Stools at some of Manhattan's Irish bars have been reserved for months, but an equally enviable viewing base will be Kearny, which was to be visited today by 200 Scots over for the World Cup.

Perhaps they'll go to the Irish Festival on Sunday -- concelebrated Mass at 10 a.m., Gaelic Hurling at 1 -- at the Gunnell Oval, where the humble soccer field is a reminder that funding doesn't breed greatness. Beyond the surrounding baseball diamonds are a landfill to the north and a junkyard to the south.

Actually, Sundays in Kearny have been given over to soccer since the turn of the century. That was the day the blue laws shut down the mills, and the immigrants played and watched soccer, some of the best in the United States.

Fact: The first U.S. entry in the World Cup, in 1930, had two men from Kearny.

The Scots came to Kearny in the late 1800s, then the Irish. The mills eventually closed, but a wave of Italians and Portuguese came in, and many other ethnic persuasions are evident here. The man named Sweeney at the Irish-American Association breaks into fluent Polish when he discovers a patron named Koziol.

"All my friends are first-generation [Americans], and soccer's in our blood here," said Meola, the U.S. goalkeeper. "Our parents brought with them a love of the game, settled in a place where it was important, and taught their kids about it."

Harkes' father played professionally in Scotland, Meola's in Italy. Ramos was born in Uruguay, where his father played. The United States could have a fourth starter from the region if Claudio Reyna of Springfield, N.J., gets the call. Reyna's father played in Argentina.

Tony Meola has purchased more than $40,000 worth of World Cup tickets, and he still doesn't know if he's going to satisfy the needs of his family and friends in Kearny.

"A fella from German TV called to set up an interview," says

Jimmy Harkes, who sounds and looks as if he was on the cast of "The Benny Hill Show." "I thought the boys here at the club were pulling my leg. The man said his name, and I told him 'You're jokin, not Joachim.'

"My boy was named one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world by People magazine. They asked two of his teammates [on Derby County in England's First Division] what they thought, and they asked if it was his back side they photographed."

) The man's livin' a dream.

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