Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Brazil World Cup stirs memories of '94

Story by Elliott Almond
Noelly Russo doesn’t remember it this way. 
But our first encounter was on the stairs at the Cotton Bowl two decades ago at the World Cup.
I was heading into the bowels of the vast, empty stadium on my way to meet the Bulgarian soccer team before its upcoming game against Nigeria. Coach Dimitar Penev agreed to let a Los Angeles Times reporter enter the locker room to talk to the team, including star striker Hristo Stoichkov.
The only other person in the stands that moment was a dark-haired beauty with a determined look on her face. Noelly was coming my way.
“Are you a Bulgarian official,” she asked when we crossed.
“No,” I said.
I was about to offer her the opportunity to join me for an exclusive interview with the Bulgarians because she looked so frazzled.
Before I extended the invitation Noelly summarily dismissed me with a wave of her hand.
A chance meeting ending like that usually doesn’t lead to an engagement four years later. But that’s how it started for us.
In 1994, I was sent to Dallas to cover FIFA, which set up its headquarters in the Big D. Hot, sticky, Cowboys-loving Dallas.
Most soccer writers were dispatched around the country following their teams. A few of us bunkered down in North Texas to write enterprise and news stories about the World Cup.
One of those reporters was Jorge Luiz Rodrigues, a young writer from O Globo in Rio de Janeiro. Even then Jorge was superb. He’s now one of Brazil’s pre-eminent sports journalists.
It didn’t take long for Jorge and I to become fast friends. Two days after meeting on the stairs, Noelly joined our small band. She worked at Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest paper and a rival of O Globo.  In her eyes, this is when we first met. Not on the stairwell. Not with a quick dismissal.
The Brazilians and I enjoyed the ensuing weeks covering the World Cup and exploring Dallas while enduring the oppressive summer heat.
Then the journalist roof came crashing down when the L.A. Times learned Argentine star Diego Maradona tested positive for ephedrine. My story sent the soccer world into a frenzy.
Argentina just happened to be in Dallas to play Bulgaria. After the game, I stood in the mixed zone where reporters can talk to players as they leave the field.
I couldn’t find Maradona as the dejected Argentines passed through the area after their stunning defeat. Then one of the players told me Maradona was speaking at a Dallas hotel.
I rushed through the media workroom with my computer bag and laptop while American reporters typed out their game stories. About 60,000 fans were leaving the Cotton Bowl causing L.A.- type congestion. But I happened into a taxi driven by an African. I offered him 40 bucks to get me to Maradona.
“Maradona?” he asked loudly. “I love Maradona.”
He drove around, through and over any barrier in the way.
As I reached the hotel lobby I found a teary Maradona in one of his Oscar performances. Noelly also was there, generously translating. She spoke five languages.
With Dallas two hours ahead of Los Angeles, I still had time to write a complete story. But these were the days before wireless connections. I had to return to my hotel to write and send the story.
Noelly gave me her car keys, and somehow got to my hotel later that night to retrieve her rental.
Four years later, she was going to join me in my beloved Seattle. Our friendship had grown into something more.
But the World Cup again would play a central role in our lives. Noelly wanted to cover the 1998 competition in France. I encouraged her to lobby for the assignment before moving to the Pacific Northwest.
The letter came postmarked from Paris that summer. Inside was a scribbled note by way of explanation, and my apartment key.
Noelly never contacted me again.
With the World Cup opening Thursday in her hometown, I can’t help but smile. I hope she’s happy and well in Sao Paulo. I hope this World Cup fosters as many good memories for her as it does for me.