Throughout the tumultuous month of January 1990, the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) trained together in San Diego. Coach Bob Gansler, caught in the middle of all this fractious behavior, naturally feared how such dissension might affect his ranks. Fighting the U.S. Soccer Federation was one thing. Fighting amongst themselves was another. It was well known how close he remained with Federation president Werner Fricker, but Gansler did his best to support the guys, his team. He formed a five-player committee to report and funnel grievances to him so that he might better make their respective cases to the Federation.
Just when it seemed the contract situation was stabilizing — the widespread resentment and four holdouts notwithstanding — out walked the team to practice one late January morning. Gansler was waiting for them, the warm San Diego sun still low in the eastern sky. He approached several players, took one look at their boots and said, “You can’t wear those.”
“I was one of the original Puma Three,” defender Paul Krumpe explains. “It was Hugo [Perez], myself and [David] Vanole who signed with Puma a whole year before those other guys, in 1988. Here’s what the problem was: We had to sign those Federation contracts prior to the World Cup, and if you didn’t sign that contract, you were not going to be invited to play on the national team — or so we were told. Adidas had an all-program deal with the Federation: Adidas head to toe. And so, we were not allowed to wear our own brand of shoe at the time.”
Personal shoe contracts strike one as unremarkable today. They can change from one season to the next regardless of what sponsorship a club or federation might have struck with an outfitter. In fact, these dynamics were commonplace back in 1990 as well. “I had my own personal contract with Adidas from back in my indoor days,” John Stollmeyer recalls. “I would say it was less than five grand, annually, and all the gear I wanted.”
Behold the power of Il Mondiale. Puma signed those original three in ’88 because World Cup 1990 was approaching, and the Yanks had a chance at qualifying. What’s more, whenever Puma had the chance to poke Adidas in the eye, it did so. With relish. After Paul Caligiuri’s famous goal in Port of Spain, the USMNT was a demonstrably hotter property from a marketing standpoint. With the team’s worldwide exposure assured, Puma swooped in and signed another seven American players. The German outfitter wasn’t doing anything it hadn’t been doing for decades. Puma’s epic, internecine struggle with Adidas was ongoing, and Adidas just happened to sponsor Team USA.
The choice of internecine here could not be more literal. Two brothers, Rudolf and Adolf Dassler, founded the corporate forebear of both Adidas and Puma in 1919. Their company, Gebruder Dassler, was based in the small Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach. “Gede,” as it was known, thrived on the strength of its pioneering place in the German sports apparel market, its two-stripe designs, and several gold medal performances at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. When Rudolf was drafted into WWII, Adolf stayed home to oversee Gede’s conversion to a military outfitter. Rudolf survived the war but spent 1946 in an Allied prison camp; when he returned home, the two started production again, together. Shortly thereafter, however, everything went terribly wrong. Some alleged that Adolf had turned his brother in to Allied authorities. Others insinuated that something untoward went down between Rudolf and his brother’s wife. No one knows for sure; relatives have never spoken on the subject. But the fraternal split proved irrevocable. Rudolf founded Puma in 1947, on the north side of the Aurach River. Adolf founded Adidas a year later, south of the river. For decades, Herzogenaurach remained divided along these brand lines, between pumaraners and adidasslers, each sponsoring their own local football clubs, for example. There existed Adidas pubs and Puma pubs, adidas families and Puma families. When meeting on the street, townsfolk developed the habit of looking down to see who wore what — so they might tribalize accordingly. The brothers died in the 1970s, and these local idiosyncrasies calmed down. A bit. To this day, both multinational companies remain fierce rivals. They also remain headquartered in Herzogenaurach, Stadt der Sportfeinde, “the town of sporting rivals,” where the mixing and matching of gear is still considered bad form. Natives wear one brand or the other.
“I think the Puma deal was 10 grand a year,” Krumpe says, “and for me that was obviously big money at the time. For a young guy making $30,000 a year as a professional player? ‘Hey, here’s an additional 10 grand’? That’s a big deal. But even more important for me, I had issues with my feet. I had that stress fracture. Puma shoes at the time were wider and more comfortable.”
The additional Puma signings came to light immediately after World Cup qualifying had concluded, when Puma saw the chance to get some actual exposure via the USMNT and stick it to Adidas. “Puma gave us, I think, $10,000,” confirms Mike Windischmann, Gansler’s captain. “We were approached about signing Puma contracts. They gave us boots, but they gave us equipment, too. At the time, Adidas wasn’t giving us stuff like that, so it’s kind of hard to say no.”
Once the Federation had strong-armed players into those ’90 contracts and Caligiuri, Vanole, John Harkes and Tony Meola chose to hold out for reasons unrelated to the shoes, the shit really hit the fan. The Puma contingent argued their case to the Federation. They asked why individual players should not be allowed to supplement their income with shoe contracts of their own choosing. Once again, the Federation listened but didn’t budge. So the Puma Boys retained an attorney, Howard Weitzman, a prominent lawyer who later represented O.J. Simpson in the early stages of his indictment (which would take place smack dab in the middle of USA ’94). Matters deteriorated from there.
“Every time we were in Miami, the lawyers were there fighting the Federation about the endorsement deal,” Meola remembers. “Those guys fought the Federation for what seems, today, like nothing. You turn on the TV today, everyone is wearing their own shoes. They’re the tools of your trade! Not back then, not in 1990. Those guys risked everything, risked throwing away their World Cups. It took the rest of us to tell the Federation, ‘Hey, we really need these guys.’”
Throughout this winter of discontent, Fricker and the Federation took the hard line and never wavered, not on the basic contracts and not on the boots. The U.S. Soccer Federation did not have a surplus of money at this time — it had not been able to parlay its place at Il Mondiale into much corporate sponsorship so soon after Port of Spain. Not yet. “When we qualified for the World Cup,” Gansler told me, “our Federation president, Werner Fricker, put up his Philadelphia construction company as collateral to back a loan that got us some more money. I finally said to the players, ‘This isn’t the German federation or the Brazil federation or Argentina. This is us.’”
How did these USMNT dissidents even find Howard Weitzman? The short answer is, Paul Caligiuri. He had recently met Shelli Azoff, the wife of music-industry mogul Irving Azoff. She persuaded her entertainment-lawyer friends to help Caligiuri and the team negotiate their contracts and shoe deals. [She also persuaded a collection of national team players to perform an original World Cup ’90 song, “Victory,” and produce an accompanying music video. This is what sports teams did in advance of showcase events back then. While the trifling performance has been preserved for posterity on YouTube, virtually no one saw it in the moment. Which may have been for the best. “We thought that rap video was gonna catch a wave or something, and people were gonna know us,” Des Armstrong told The New Yorker in 2014. “But nobody cared. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, I saw you in the video, man, that was great!’ . . . No one even noticed.”]
Few outside the national team program noticed the Federation’s hard-line stances on contracts and shoe deals, either. However, it made a big and lasting impression within the team. They felt the USSF had promised to compensate them appropriately — only to renege. When players started looking out for themselves financially, via the shoe contracts, the Federation took that prerogative away, too. In each case, USSF made it clear: Get in line, or risk your place in Italy.
“The first guy they didn’t call into training was Vanole,” Meola reports. “They said, ‘Aw, he’s not the same player he was, not good enough for the team anymore.’ And I’m like, hold on: Not even two years ago he was voted the best goalkeeper at the Olympics. What’s going on here? Then we started to realize what was happening.”
“I’ll be honest,” Marcelo Balboa remembers, “the whole thing freaked a lot of us younger guys out. We didn’t know what to do. We were so young. We were thrilled to get free shoes. Adidas was the Federation sponsor, so we kinda just sat back and played the safe thing — and stayed with Adidas — because we knew we had no pull. We had no rights. But there was real division in that team, at that time.”
According to Bruce Murray, “The situation was so rudimentary at that time. It really was. The Federation offered contracts. Some guys signed them. Some guys didn’t. Some contracts were low. Some were decent. Some had special money attached, and some didn’t. Then there were side deals and shoe deals. Everyone was on their own. If you add up what I was making before 1990, when those contracts were offered, I was probably making six figures. But the only way to make it work was being on the national team.”
Over time, the Federation broke the will of all dissenters, plain and simple. Its position proved too strong. The lure of World Cup participation, to all the players, was too strong. “We all stuck together as a group for a while, until everybody finally went their own way,” Steve Trittschuh says. “I wanted to play in the World Cup. What else were we going to do?”
Adds Krumpe: “At my age, without an outdoor pro league to play in, there was no choice but to say ‘yes’ to the contract. There was a lot of dissension, but at some point you have to decide, ‘I’d like to be able to continue to wear these shoes and make this money — but I want to play in a World Cup.’ There were sacrifices to be made, including wearing Adidas.”
Stollmeyer remains typically direct on the matter: “They knew that we would play for free, ultimately, because it’s the World Cup. Even though we were getting screwed, enough of us would have played for free.”
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