Football / World Cup USA '94: Harkes embarks on mission improbable: 94: Derby County's American midfielder prepares to educate his countrymen. Phil Shaw reports

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The Independent Online
ONCE upon a time in America, one of the ball-boys at the local soccer club decided he wanted to be like his home team's No 10 when he grew up. John Harkes would not claim to have emulated Pele, but he embarks on a second World Cup campaign today as arguably the most successful footballer the United States has produced.

Others have more caps but few, if any, have operated consistently at such an exalted level for club and country. Curiously, Harkes's wife, Cindi, also has a claim to the title. A Japanese-Irish American, she was a striker in the US team who lifted the Women's World Cup in 1991.

While the man of the house's medal collection might, to American eyes, appear less impressive, in some respects Harkes has been too successful for his own good. In the 1992-93 season he was in the Sheffield Wednesday squad who reached both League Cup and FA Cup finals. In the former, which he had helped Wednesday win two years earlier, he became the first American to score at Wembley.

After 12 days' rest he joined the US squad and played in seven

internationals, including the 2-0 embarrassment of England. Then it was back to Hillsborough, whereupon Harkes joined Derby County for pounds 1m and started the 10-month slog known as the First Division. That culminated in another trip to the twin towers for the play-off final against Leicester - with the greatest show on earth still to come.

When the 27-year-old midfielder was not playing or training, it was odds-on he was being interviewed. Numerous television crews from the old country beat a path to the Baseball Ground, doubtless wondering where the pitcher's plate was, while everyone from the Daily Express Magazine (a modelling assignment) to Newsweek (the cover picture) also made calls on his time.

Harkes found it hard to say no. He felt a sense of duty: to the game, which needs all the help it can get in a nation where tractor- pulling and beach volleyball are allegedly more popular; to the competition which could alter such perceptions; and to his country, for which he sees himself as a sporting ambassador.

After an injury-blighted season which left him 'very tired. . . a bit burned out', not to mention frustrated at missing out on promotion, Harkes then had barely a week's rest before beginning preparations for today's opener with Switzerland. 'It catches up on you,' he said.

Not that Harkes is complaining. The son of a Scot who emigrated to Kearny, New Jersey - the town which also gave the US squad their goalkeeper-captain, Tony Meola, and the Spanish-based forward, Tab Ramos - he has appreciated the importance of the World Cup almost since he could walk.

'I was 4 1/2 when I first played competitively in my dad's team for eights and unders. I asked for a shirt, which came way down past my knees, and took it from there.'

As a ball-boy for the New York Cosmos, who played 20 minutes away at Meadowlands, he was able to study Pele and Franz Beckenbauer, Dennis Tueart and Steve Hunt ('the best crosser I've ever seen . . . he had rubber ankles') at close quarters. 'They were my role models, whereas the kids today only have us, the national team. So the more exposure we get, the more likely we are to produce good American players.'

The skills are there, he maintains, though not the environment in which they can be harnessed to tactical awareness. The universities do their best - Harkes, Meola and the US midfielder Claudio Reyna all attended Virginia - but they are no substitute for a professional league. The World Cup is supposed to encourage such a set-up, but Harkes is under no illusions as to the magnitude of the task.

'It's not going to happen overnight. People are saying: 'Yeah, let's go for it', but it will need billions of dollars - someone to say: 'Here's dollars 20m, here's a stadium, go and get it started'.'

The worst-case scenario, in Harkes's view, would be a repeat of 1990, when Bob Gansler's naive young side lost all three group games. 'Americans are used to getting most medals at the Olympics and thinking the world revolves around them. They want winners. So there's a danger the public will turn its back on football if we do badly. If we don't reach the second phase it'll be considered a failure.

'We only lost 1-0 to Italy, but back home that was seen as a disaster. The rest of the world's been playing this game since time began, but we haven't. That's why Fifa gave us this tournament. Children are going to take their parents along to educate them.'

Gansler's successor is Bora Milutinovic, the former Costa Rica and Mexico coach. A multi- lingual Serb, he has tried to compensate for the lack of a league by putting those players not attached to clubs under contract to the US Soccer Federation, and working with them through the winter in California.

While Harkes was becoming acquainted with places like Peterborough and Southend, his compatriots were on an endless round of friendlies. 'We play almost as regularly as a club team, which is why everyone's got 75 caps]' he said, overseas commitments having limited him to a mere half-century. 'Moldova, Norway, Iceland, Russia, Sweden, Saudi . . . they all came over. Hopefully, that's given us a sharp competitive edge.'

Results were patchy, but with their 'Europeans' reinstated, the US have, in recent years, held Italy and beaten the Republic of Ireland as well as England. A fortnight ago they overcame Mexico 1-0 before 91,000 in Pasadena with a goal by Coventry's Roy Wegerle. Harkes, coming virtually straight from Wembley, was excused.

'Players may come in from abroad only days before a match, but Bora tells us the style he wants and we're professional enough to do it,' he said. 'We've also got a great spirit, as England discovered. Building up to that game I took a lot of stick from Carlton Palmer and Chris Woods at Sheffield and a wager was struck. Afterwards it was closed mouths from them and I had bragging rights all year.'

Harkes cannot be tempted into bragging about what the US will do to the Swiss, let alone Colombia or Romania. He feels 'positive' about American prospects, yet is realistic enough not to countenance the idea that he might match Pele - and Cindi - by actually winning the World Cup.

So who will? 'Brazil. It'll be a Brazil-US final. No really, I see Brazil and Italy in the final. Or it could be Colombia and Italy. We've just got to do the best we can.'