Friedel dreams of World Cup while fighting relegation

American goalkeeper hopes to enjoy success on two football fronts after making journey from Ohio to Blackburn via Liverpool and Turkey
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The Independent Online

Blackburn Rovers (last line of defence Brad Friedel) this evening take on Chelsea (first line of attack Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink) knowing that only three points will do if they are to exorcise the spectre of relegation.

With a game still in hand over fellow-strugglers Derby, Fulham and Ipswich, and a vastly superior goal difference, a win tonight should all but guarantee Premiership football at Ewood Park next season. Defeat, and the jitters will continue. "But there are still 18 points to play for and we could easily finish mid-table," says Friedel, the eternal optimist. "If we do, having also won the Worthington Cup, it will have been a very successful season for a team coming up from the First Division." Friedel, the United States of America goalkeeper, might then compound a very successful domestic season with a very successful World Cup.

"We have a decent chance of progress out of our group," he says. "We have Portugal, Poland and South Korea, and everyone's looking at Portugal as favourite, then Poland, but Poland is a game we can win, South Korea we can win, and Portugal, who knows? We're a workmanlike team, but we've got some good players and a great team spirit. It would be great if we can get into the second round and maybe further. It would be fantastic for the sport in America." It would, just as it would be fantastic for me to win the Lottery. In fact the odds, especially as I don't do the Lottery, must be about the same.

Still, there is something wonderfully cheering about this 30-year-old's optimism. Moreover, it is combined with a tendency for po-faced understatement that I so enjoy, I deliberately play into his hands. Would he rather win the Premiership with Blackburn, I ask, or the World Cup with the US? "I'd have to be greedy and say both," he says. "And you never know.

"Blackburn could stay up, consolidate, and it could happen. As far as the World Cup is concerned, winning it, in my playing lifetime, might be a stretch." As stretches go, it's one for Torquemada to oversee. But what of the more distant future? Might the US have a genuine chance in, say, 2022? After all, football – soccer – is the most popular sport in America among under-16s. And of those who played alongside Friedel in the University of California, Los Angeles first XI, several went on to play professionally in Europe, including Cobi Jones (Coventry City) and Joe-Max Moore (Everton). I don't suppose that's true of any university team in Britain. So the grass roots are in place.

"But as we've seen here with ITV Digital, it's all about television money," says Friedel. "Traditionally, TV monies in the States go to American football, basketball, baseball, and more recently ice hockey. Until soccer gets a lucrative TV contract it will remain a second-tier sport. But if the money's there, then they'll get better players, coaches, facilities, and they won't have to use arenas built for other sports. And things are changing. Columbus has its own stadium, so does Washington, and I believe Los Angeles and Chicago are getting their own. It's not so good getting a 10,000 crowd in a 50,000-seat stadium. But 18,000 in a 25,000-seater, then you're getting somewhere."

For Friedel to get somewhere in the sport he has played since he was six, he had to leave America for Britain, then Denmark, then Turkey, before settling here again. He grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, part of a large German-American community, in which those interested in soccer tended to follow the fortunes of Bayern Munich. "Later we started following Liverpool. But the player I admired most was the Bayern goalkeeper, [Jean-Marie] Pfaff. Our styles were completely different. He was as eccentric as they come, and I wasn't. So it wasn't that I wanted to be him, but I liked him for playing that way."

In 1992 – after playing in the Olympics – Friedel was invited for a trial with Nottingham Forest. They wanted to sign him, too, but not even the persuasive Brian Clough could secure a work permit. The same problem bedevilled him at Newcastle United. "So they signed his brother," he says, nodding at the young Trinidadian sitting next to me.

This is Kona Hislop, brother of Shaka, and player liaison officer for Pro-Active, who manage Friedel. I have come to their offices in Wilmslow, Cheshire, where a disconcertingly lifelike model of Peter Schmeichel stands guard at the bottom of the stairs. "Jeez, that always freaks me out," says Friedel, as he passes it. Imagine, I mutter, what the real thing must do to opposing forwards, when dashing hell-for-leather at them.

Friedel has never been that sort of goalkeeper. Indeed, his goalkeeping is an extension of his personality, reliable and uncomplicated, qualities greatly valued by his manager, Graeme Souness, who has declared that he would not swap his man for any other keeper in the Premiership.

In return, Friedel sings the praises of Souness. "He has his own style. He runs the changing-room. It's his, and the players know that. He's not in your face any more, like he used to be. He's gotten more mellow. But he is no less determined. And he doesn't let players take advantage. When they start to take advantage, he deals with it. You can't make everyone happy at a club, but the players know where they stand with Graeme. You don't like being lied to as a player, and Graeme always tells you straight how it is, which is better than a manager telling you one thing and doing another."

Souness has bought Friedel before, when he was manager of the Turkish club Galatasaray. That was after Friedel had left Newcastle and joined Brondby in Denmark. From Denmark to Istanbul must have been quite a culture shock for a kid from Ohio, I venture.

"Yeah, it was the first place I'd been where English wasn't spoken," he says. "But I was single then. It was easy for me to settle. I could understand how guys with families might struggle, but my theory is that you're there to adapt to the country, the country's not there to adapt to you. Some great things happened to me there, and some not-so-great things."

What were the not-so-great things? "Well, after we had won the Turkish Cup against Fenerbahce, I got home to find that all my windows had been smashed in by Fenerbahce supporters. Those kinds of things you can do without. You just check into a hotel and get your windows fixed. But I can understand that if you have a wife and kids at home, that might not be so great."

As a goalkeeper, he is particularly vulnerable to missiles thrown from the crowd. Did he suffer much of that in Turkey? "It happens more in Central America, qualifying for the World Cup," he says. "You get coins and things thrown at you, and when you get a coin on the top of your head that doesn't feel too good." Musing that if prizes were handed out for understatement, Friedel would not be able to get in his house for silverware (and I don't think that's overstating it), I ask whether anything more sinister than coins has been chucked at him?

A wry smile. "In Central America they throw bags of urine. I haven't suffered a direct hit, but a few people have. And when the ball goes behind the goal the ball-boys won't get it for you, so when you go to pick it up, the fans spit at you. That's not too nice, but I've never been one to complain. It's part and parcel of their version of gamesmanship. That's just how it is."

In any case, Friedel's most testing experience in football (he has no problem referring to it as football rather than soccer, incidentally, observing that "even growing up I wondered why American football was called football when it is played with the hands") has not been dodging spit and bags of urine. Rather, it was his three years at Liverpool, where he was frequently on the sidelines, and when he did play found himself in an underachieving side assailed by criticism. "But you learn more through setbacks and animosity than good times," he says. "I don't regret going there because I learnt so much. It was the best learning experience of my life."

He declines to elaborate on precisely what went wrong. "It's a chapter of my footballing life that's closed," he says, then promptly opens it slightly, enticingly. "The way the team was, we weren't capable of winning. Most of those players are still there, and they have collectively corrected what was going wrong. Others of us had to leave to correct it."

I press him on what life was like during the doomed Gérard Houllier-Roy Evans exercise in joint management. "Gérard is very... how should I say it... very shrewd. And very regimented. He has a scientific approach which obviously works, because Liverpool are back to being one of the best teams in the world. He has had to restructure the whole club. If people from 10 years ago walked through the doors at [the Liverpool training ground] Melwood, they would hardly recognise the place. But both ways were successful.

"The people at Liverpool really wanted Gérard and Roy to succeed together, because everyone really liked Roy, and I think the signs were there that the team was improving no matter what. But Gérard has his way, and his way works, and it's very difficult when someone has that mentality for them to work with someone else who has the same authority. Obviously I wasn't privy to any of the meetings between Roy and Gérard, when Roy told Gérard what his philosophy of football was, and vice versa. So I don't know whether they were on the same wavelength."

Exhausted from trying to read between the lines, I focus on firmer ground. How does the British attitude to sport differ from the American? "It's completely different. In America, say if you go to a big basketball game, they need to put things up on the scoreboard to get people to sing a song or clap their hands. In football, whether it's a good game or a bad game, the fans watch every second. It's much more exciting over here.

"When you go to the NBA [National Basketball Association] finals, then at the last game of the series there will be a great atmosphere. Here there is a great atmosphere every weekend. Besides, I might have found it harder to adjust if I'd come to the north of England from somewhere sunny, but I'd rather play in the rain than in Florida where it's 100 degrees on the pitch." No wonder he's happy in Blackburn.

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