It's what every tourist in Hamburg has to do: go down to the fish market early on a Sunday morning, when the street vendors of smoked eel, herring and other fish are starting to work the crowd and the last of the all-night revelers are looking for a liquid breakfast. A bright-eyed young foreigner who's neither vendor nor reveler is doing just that. He says to his friends, "The last time I was here, there was a foot of snow and I couldn't see a thing."
He speaks in English, and a couple of heads turn, and then turn again. "Der Ami!" says one in recognition—and the nearest vendor, of a comic bent like all his tribe, sees an opportunity for a little free publicity. "Hey, Ami," he shouts, holding up a prize eel, "bet you couldn't keep a hold on this one!" The Ami's German is spotty, but he gets the drift. "If I can manage a wet fussball," he yells back, "I can handle a wet fish!"
"Better stick to soccer, Ami!" the eel man teases, but there's warmth in his voice. After all, this Ami is the city's favorite and most famous Ami, which is short for Amerikaner. He is Paul Caligari, 23, of Walnut, Calif. When he arrived in Hamburg on Jan. 7, he was met by every West German TV network and national newspaper.
That's the sort of turnout you might expect for a young man who has made sports history, even if pitifully few of his countrymen are aware of it. Caligari is the first American to break into the highest level of international professional soccer. Equally significant, he is the first player with world-class potential to come out of the U.S.'s huge youth soccer movement. He first learned of the game as a seven-year-old, when he was riding his bike along a suburban road outside Walnut and saw a sign posted by the American Youth Soccer Organization.
May 31, 1987
Now, 16 years later, he has signed a contract with Hamburg, one of the most prestigious soccer clubs in the world. Hamburg has won the West German Bundesliga three times and was club champion of Europe in 1983. Of course, Caligari still has much to prove. Because he joined Hamburg after the current season's signing deadline, he will not be permitted to play in Bundesliga games that count for the championship until this summer. He trains with the pros and has played in some exhibition games with them, but he has to get his match practice with the club's amateurs, a situation that frustrates him. "Oh, how I look forward to the changeover," he says, "to that first Bundesliga game."
In the meantime he reacts to Germany the way many an American might. He views autobahn driving with terror ("All those older men in Jaguars out in the left lane doing 110 mph, flashing their lights from a mile behind you," he says.) He deplores the near absence of Tex-Mex food and the seeming impossibility of buying a pair of Reeboks. Even though his girlfriend, Deanne Hager, a model from Los Angeles, mails Levi's to him, and an old Walnut High School pal, Jeff Lovoy, is paying him a visit, an outsider quickly detects an element of loneliness, accentuated by Hamburg's harsh winter climate.
All the same, Caligari has no serious doubts about where his future lies. "I am in a foreign country chasing a dream," he says, "and I have made sacrifices for that dream. I have left behind my girl and a close-knit family that I love, and an easy life in general. I won't be slowing down."
Caligari was speaking after practice one afternoon at the Ochsenzoll Training Centre, which the Hamburg club maintains on the outskirts of the city. Though he had been working out with the pros, the big boys, and had made three goals in a practice game, he was the one his teammates selected to retrieve the spare soccer shoes left at the far end zone. But after Caligari went to shower, Ditmar Jakobs, 33, West Germany's sweeper in last year's World Cup, spoke about the Ami's courage.
"He relishes the Zweikampf, the duel," said Jakobs, whose scarred face attests to a seven year career in the Bundesliga, one of the world's most physical leagues. "He plays the English style, very physical, the k‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√árperbetontes Spiel. That is good. Maybe at the moment he misses the total physical conditioning that comes with much play at the highest level. That will change as he continues to work with us."
Another player made an often repeated comment: "People here were astonished when they heard Hamburg had signed an Ami. No, not astonished, astounded. Nevertheless, we all know that young American sportsmen are hard fighters, all serious workers. He is a serious fighter, and he is intelligent. He will be in the first team in maybe half a year. It is a new thing in Germany and in the world, good for the game here and in America."
Later, in the training ground's parking lot, the usual group of kids waited for autographs, and Caligari conscientiously obliged. "You must work on your problem, Paul!" one of the pros yelled, and the young American's face fell. One could almost read his thoughts: Maybe he means I'm too slow getting back on defense, maybe I'm.... But the joker added, "You have to learn to sign a lot faster than that!"
Signing autographs is a new experience for Caligari, even though he had won virtually every domestic honor available to a young American soccer player. He was selected to represent the U.S. in the 1984 Olympics, only to be dropped from the team when the Fèdèration Internationale de Football Association ruled that professionals would be eligible for the Games. He played in the qualifying rounds of the last World Cup. A two-time All-America defenseman at UCLA, he captained the Bruins to the NCAA championship in 1985.
Sadly, though, even if Caligari had wanted to continue playing soccer in the States, his only option was the junky end of the sport, making his entrance through a spaceship for a Major Indoor Soccer League game in Baltimore, or perhaps being the featured attraction in a pregame laser show in Tacoma. If 1986 had not been a World Cup year, MISL might have been his fate.
But World Cup year it was, and, as a recent tradition dictates, the championship game was followed by an exhibition match between European all-stars and the Rest of the World. With the game being held in the Rose Bowl, what could be more suitable than to bring in a California kid as the token American for the last 20 minutes, especially when Europe was two goals ahead and the game seemed all but over?
Paradoxically, Caligari was lucky to come in on a losing side. Although he is a natural hard-marking defender, this day he was told to play attacking midfielder—to go forward, take chances, not worry overly about defense. Recalling that day in Pasadena, Caligari still sounds like an eager kid.
"Boy, it was a thrill to be with the elite," he says. "But don't imagine I thought I might make a fool of myself. It was a dream, all right, but I was never in such awe that I froze up. It seemed as though every time I had the ball, the first guy I saw was Diego Maradona, making space for me, giving me opportunities. He seems to have the power to give you an extraordinary number of options.
"And that is what happened when we scored our first goal. I, uh, sort of created it, attacking down the right. I dribbled by two players, beat a third—I think it was the Frenchman Manuel Amoros—and I went for the corner, intending to cross it in front of the goalmouth. But then I saw Diego suddenly materialize, so I cut it back to him. He chipped it into the penalty box, and Roberto Caba‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±as scored from close range. Later we had a second goal and won the game on a penalty shoot-out."
One of the game's two MVPs (Maradona was the other) was Felix Magath, a midfielder for the Hamburg club and for the West German national side who was making his final appearance as a player. Magath would soon return home to become manager of his club. "We had a little discussion in the lobby of the Sheraton Grande in Los Angeles," recalls Caligari. "Before he left he gave me his card and said, 'In Hamburg we are interested in you. Please consider it.' And he left it up to me to make contact. I was still an amateur, still trying to win another national championship with UCLA, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking of how I wanted to seek out the highest level of soccer. Last November, I called Magath, even though signing with Hamburg would mean having to serve six months playing with the amateurs."
Says Magath, "That he has talent is clear. The game in L.A. was really the beginning, although 20 minutes is not sufficient to assess a player. It is his talent plus his American attitude that matter." Magath moves into his lecturing mode: "Americans have a very professional approach to sports. U.S. athletes seem able to form a better relationship with the public and the media than ours do. They are vorbildlich, exemplary, professionals. For that reason Paul is mentally well suited to the German Soccer League."
What Caligari wasn't prepared for was his reception in West Germany. "I had traveled from Dallas for 15 hours," he says, "and I wasn't expecting any big deal. But every television network in Germany was at the airport, every national newspaper. I was on the cover of their biggest sports magazine." COLLEGE-BOY AND SONNYBOY was one headline. AMERIKANISCHER STAR was another. Mostly, though, he was referred to as Hamburg's Ami, and occasionally as Ami Paul. Because he flew from Dallas, now and then he was called a Texan, but that concerned him little as he tried out the new Mercedes the club provided him. West Germany has witnessed a recent surge of pro-American feeling among its Yuppies, who are known there as Poppers, although they are determinedly straight, antidrug and proestablishment. Caligari is not only American, clean-cut and good-looking, but he's also a college boy, which means that in a country where Universit‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üt is one of the classiest words you can hit upon, Caligari is nothing less than a Popper's dream. Magath may know a thing or two about public relations.
In the end, however, the Ami will be judged not by Poppers but by staider characters, like the diehard fans, a lot of them men in their 50's, who turn out on a frigid night to watch Hamburg's amateur team play a side from Holstein, up near the Danish border. Most of the soccer they see is, to put it politely, robust, with the ball banged hopefully up the middle and chased with more fury than style. Once in a while, however, one sees a play that belongs to a more sophisticated level of the game. It can take the form of a long, low, defense-splitting pass that comes from out of the home team's half to find an unmarked attacker lurking out on the wing. Or it can come from close range, a ball chipped precisely onto the foot of a target man in the middle.
Each time, though, it comes from the same source—a stocky, dark-haired kid who wears the No. 5 shirt of the central defender. This kid, who learned the game in Southern California, plays with an almost frightening intensity, his eyes continually scanning the other players, plotting their changing positions. His sparse, intelligent interventions in the play can hardly affect the outcome, especially with the ground frozen into green concrete. The unmemorable game ends in a 2-2 tie.
But make no mistake—each of Caligari's plays was noted by the hard-core observers on the sidelines, the real experts. After the game, as the teams file off the field, comes a splattering of applause and a few shouts. Later in the locker room Caligari says, "You hear them calling out, 'Paul! Paul!'?"
"So what?" says a visitor from abroad.
"To them I'm not Der Ami anymore, not just a curiosity. I'm a player."
He can say that again, in German or in English.