Football: World Cup: Pope aims to lay down the law in France

A `true American' defender is in confident mood as he prepares to make World Cup debut against Germany tonight
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The Independent Online
EDDIE POPE used to fly straight from Washington to North Carolina after playing for DC United in order to be back in college the next day. His ambition was to pursue a legal career. As part of the United States defence in France, he intends to lay down the law to some of the world's best strikers - starting with the German front line in Paris tonight.

In a US squad which contains players born in eight countries, Pope is, in his own words, "about as American as it gets". He was born, raised and educated in the southern city of Greensboro, which is better known for the deeds of the Ku Klux Klan or Jesse Jackson. And before committing himself to "soccer", he played baseball, basketball and "football".

There have been fine US-born players before. Yet they have generally been goalkeepers, such as Kasey Keller or Brad Friedel, or of migrant stock, like Claudio Reyna, who has an Argentine father, or Pope's club- mate John Harkes, whose father is from Dundee.

Pope is different in more ways than one. The left-sided marker is the first product of the fledgling Major Soccer League, as well as the first from the US Soccer Federation's three million-strong youth scheme, to cut it internationally.

More significantly, he is the only high-profile black man in a sport still associated with the white suburbs in the US. As the country's motto puts it, albeit in a different context: E pluribus unum. Out of many comes one.

So rapid has been his rise that he already features in a television advert for adidas in the US. Pope is seen standing firm as players in various national strips swarm towards him and the slogan "Defender of American Soccer" flashes up.

If and when he completes his degree, Pope's defending may be of the courtroom variety. It may be a long time before the game lets him go. Standing 6ft 1in and nearly 13st, he is fast, strong, composed and reads the game well. Moreover, he has not attracted a yellow card in 23 caps for the US, no mean feat for one whose profession is prevention.

At 24, an outstanding World Cup could make Europe his oyster. But how did it all start? "We didn't see international soccer on TV, so my role models were my parents," Pope says. "I started playing as a six-year-old in the back yard. My dad was my first coach."

Harkes, controversially dropped from the roster for France, used to observe Pele at close quarters as a ball boy for the New York Cosmos. Pope had to catch up with the great Brazilian via video. "When we watched soccer tapes at college I always thought he was special. He was the first player I really admired."

His other sporting idol is Michael Jordan, with whom he shares a North Carolina pedigree and even a basketball team, the Tar Heels. As a gridiron player he once kicked a 48-yard field goal, but decided to specialise in soccer at university. He did so well that he made the US Olympic team two years ago.

Pope's potential was noted by his coach at the Atlanta Games, Bruce Arena, and the pair were soon re-United in Washington. He climaxed his rookie year by heading the goal which sealed the inaugural MLS championship.

Then, having put his studies on hold following 12 months of dashing between airports, stadiums and lectures, he was named Defender of the Year (with three times more votes than third-placed Richard Gough) as the title stayed in the capital.

"It was a huge leap from college soccer to DC United, let alone the US team. I was kinda thrown in the fire, which is the best way. You have to get in there, make your mistakes and learn from them."

He made his US debut in the World Cup qualifying campaign, in which he was to score twice. In February he helped to rein in Romario as Brazil were beaten in Los Angeles. Across the Atlantic, managers and agents began to take notice.

"I'd be very interested [in going abroad] if the situation arose and if things were right for myself, my family and the club," admits Pope. British interest had already been awakened before his cool display in furnace-like heat against Scotland at the end of May.

"I like the Premiership. It's fun to watch on TV and probably my favourite league. I really like Ian Wright - it's a great shame he's out of the finals - and David Beckham too. Plus of course Eric Cantona. When Manchester United had their last run to the championship, we almost wore out at the tape at college."

Right now, France 98 is all the challenge he needs. He understands that Germany, their opponents tonight, are traditionally slow starters. Yugoslavia beat the US 9-1 in their only previous meeting, and the collision with Iran is overloaded with political sub-texts.

"It may be more than a game in the stands or in the media," Pope says. "But once we're on the pitch it turns back into a sport. Once we kick off, it's just guys playing soccer."

Having reached the second phase on home turf four years ago, the US are confident of going at least as far this time. Pope insists that they can "definitely" advance, and a combination of four consecutive shut-outs and just three defeats in 17 matches backs up his optimism.

Being the event freaks they are, the American public are sure to take more notice of the World Cup than they do of MLS, where progress has been steady rather than spectacular. But whatever befalls the US, Pope is convinced that the prospects for American soccer are bright.

Part of his adidas endorsement stipulates that the sportswear giant provides equipment for the Eddie Pope Community League, in which 400 inner-city boys and girls compete in Washington.

"There are so many more playing now than when I started. The numbers are incredible. Soccer's going to be a part of these kids' lives forever as spectators or players."

The need to tap into black youth and for a soccer version of Jordan to emerge is, I suggest, all too plain. The star-spangled stopper agrees: "We've got to create heroes who the children can look up to and model themselves on. That's the future."

While DC United's clean-cut and quietly articulate No 23 is too modest to say so, he is the nearest so far. Pope's contribution to the lore of France 98 should confirm whether he graduates with honours.