Rapids: World Cup rocks

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - MARK KISZLA Denver Post Colum­nist

The big lion roared and changed the life of a 9year-old boy for­ever. Dom Badji never would have watched a sun­set over the Rocky Moun­tains, never stepped on a soc­cer pitch for the Rapids and never shared laugh­ter with me if not for a sin­gle goal scored 16 years ago.

“It changed ev­ery­thing for me,” said Badji as we stood out­side the Rapids’ dress­ing room, more than 5,000 miles and an ocean away from Dakar, the city where he was born on the west coast of Africa.

Such is the power of the World Cup, the big­gest sport­ing event on the planet.

May 31, 2002, for­ever al­tered the path taken by a skinny kid named Dom. Sene­gal, mak­ing its first ap­pear­ance at the World Cup, was play­ing Thierry Henry and de­fend­ing world cham­pion France at a sta­dium in Seoul, South Korea.

And Badji as watch­ing on tele­vi­sion from his sofa from Africa, cheer­ing the un­der­dog na­tional team of his home­land, fondly nick­named the Lions of Teranga. In the 29th minute of a score­less match, huge mid­fielder “Papa” Bouba Diop came charg­ing up­field, lunged at a loose ball in the box, saw it de­flect of the hands of the French goalie and poked a shot in the net for the most beau­ti­ful ugly score any­one from Sene­gal has ever seen.

“I was run­ning down the hall­way, scream­ing,” said Badji, re­call­ing a joy so loud he had it let it out.

The 2018 World Cup be­gins to­day in Rus­sia. Sene­gal is back in the 32-team field for the first time in 16 years, and Badji will watch every game wrapped in his na­tional flag, which will feel as a warm a hug from home.

The 2026 World Cup is com­ing to North Amer­ica, quite pos­si­bly with Denver as a host city for as many as six games.

No sport­ing event in the world re­veals so much of the world’s heart as the World Cup (sorry, Olympics). So I asked five mem­bers of the Rapids, from every corner of the globe, to speak on how the World Cup has shaped them.

Ask Badji the player to watch in Rus­sia and he doesn’t name Lionel Messi or Ney­mar but goes full, un­abashed homer and picks Sa­dio Mane. Asked which team

will win the tour­na­ment, and Badji shouts “Sene­gal all the way!”

Then, truth be told, Badji con­fesses he’s pick­ing Ger­many as cham­pion.

Marcelo Bal­boa, United States

In a Bron­cos town, Bal­boa is our bona fide soc­cer star. Great de­fender. Even greater hair. And the first player in United States his­tory to earn 100 caps for the na­tional team.

A man never for­gets his first start in the World Cup. Bal­boa got his in 1990, on a June day awash in blue, against Italy, at a sta­dium so loud he could barely hear him­self think.

“My heart was beat­ing out of my chest,” re­called Bal­boa, who took the field in Rome with 90,000 Ital­ians wav­ing flags and scream­ing. “I was try­ing to say some­thing to my team­mates stand­ing next to me and they couldn’t hear a word.”

His pick to win the 2018 Cup: Bel­gium or France.

His player to watch: An­toine Griez­mann, France.

Tommy Smith, New Zealand

What lengths will an ath­lete go to reach the World Cup stage? Smith was born 28 years ago in Eng­land. But he rep­re­sented a rugby coun­try, New Zealand, dur­ing the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

The cham­pi­ons club is re­served for soc­cer snobs, as only eight coun­tries of elite pedi­gree have taken home the tro­phy in 20 tour­na­ments, in­clud­ing Brazil (five times), Ger­many (four) and Italy (four).

But any­one can crash the party. And isn’t that cool? This year, the happy up­start is Ice­land, a coun­try where wa­ter­falls out­num­ber soc­cer fields by

10-1. Eight years ago, it was New Zealand. The All Whites have never won a World Cup match.

The beauty of the tour­ney, how­ever, is any un­der­dog can bite. Eight years ago, Smith walked away with a 1-1 tie against mighty Italy.

“The un­der­dog doesn’t have all the ex­ter­nal pres­sure,” said Smith, now a Rapids de­fender. “To not have that tag as a fa­vorite? It helps you men­tally to play each game with the free­dom of know­ing the coun­try doesn’t re­ally ex­pect you to win, but will al­ways love the un­der­dog.” His pick to win: Bel­gium. His player to watch: Lionel Messi.

Yoshi Mit­suyama, Japan

The NFL has en­dured a bit of a na­tional an­them hub­bub (as you’ve might have heard).

FIFA, the in­ter­na­tional gov­ern­ing body of soc­cer, plays the an­them for both sides prior to the match. But it lim­its the pa­tri­otic songs to 90 sec­onds, so ev­ery­body can get on with the game.

Mit­suyama is the new­est mem­ber of the Rapids staff. He’s an as­sis­tant trainer and a na­tive of Tokyo. I wanted to know: When the Ja­panese an­them plays prior to matches, what warm-fuzzy feel­ings of pride and nos­tal­gia would bub­ble in­side him?

“Noth­ing,” Mit­suyama said. “The na­tional an­them is far dif­fer­ent in Japan than it is here in the United States. They don’t play it all the time in Japan.”

The World Cup gets it right. Fans can proudly belt out the words to the an­them, if that’s their thing. But it’s about the sport, not the song.

His pick to win: Ger­many. His player to watch: Robert Le­wandowski, Poland.

Jo­han Blomberg, Swe­den

Who’s the best player in the world?

Those who love soc­cer pick Messi. Those who adore chis­eled abs and out­sized at­ti­tude pick Cris­tiano Ron­aldo. (Oops, is my bias show­ing there?)

Blomberg, a mid­fielder gen­er­ally listed at 5-foot-10 and 143 pounds, picks Messi. I guess lit­tle guys stick to­gether. On a good day, in proper light, Messi ap­pears to be 5-foot-7. Tops.

“That’s the only way I have Messi beat,” said Blomberg, laugh­ing.

But what does he ad­mire most about Messi? His ge­nius on the ball? The mag­i­cal goals?

In­stead, Blomberg replied: “He’s never div­ing. He al­ways tries to stand up. He just plays.”

Lit­tle guys with big hearts don’t flop.

His pick to win: Brazil.

His player to watch: Messi.

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