It's showtime for the United States soccer team: Sunday, the Americans make their first appearance in the World Cup since July 2, 1950.
At 5 p.m. in Italy, the Americans will walk onto the field at Florence's Stadio Comunale to play Czechoslovakia. The team's goal is to win and show the world that U.S. soccer isn't to be taken lightly."We just want that first whistle to blow and get on with it," U.S. coach Bob Gansler said.
Later Friday, Gansler denied a French news agency report that he had said in Florence he was quitting after the tournament.
Gansler was not even in Florence on Friday. He spent the entire day at the United States' training camp in Tirrenia, a seaside town about 50 miles away.
"There's absolutely no truth to it," Gansler said in a statement released by team spokesman John Polis. "We're busy preparing for our match with Czechoslovakia on Sunday. My thoughts are totally on being coach of the United States team through this World Cup and beyond."
Gansler said at a news conference in Florence on Thursday that he intends to remain as national team coach at least through the 1994 tournament, which will be played in the United States.
The Americans, the youngest team in the tournament with an average age of 24.2, are 20-1 underdogs to advance to the second round, and anywhere from 500-1 to 2,000-1 to win the cup.
The players are confident, but tense.
"I've got no more nails to chew," goalkeeper Tony Meola said Friday, "and I'm working on this pocketful of toothpicks I've got here. I've gone through about a thousand toothpicks the last day."
Almost all the work is done. The team spent Friday practicing minor things. Now it has to perform.
"I've seen the tapes of all the games," said Meola, who hopes a strong showing will lead to a contract to play in one of the European leagues. "I think we'll be prepared for Czechoslovakia."
Seventy-two security cameras will monitor the stands in an attempt to avoid the violence that has swept through soccer stadiums in past matches. Not many Americans traveled to Italy for the tournament, but there are some - Meola expects to have 40 family and friends at the game.
"This is it," Meola said. "We've worked two years for this. It's something that we deserve. We want to go out and prove we can play."
Czechoslovakia, 5-1-2 in World Cup qualifying, has been unimpressive in exhibition games, losing 1-0 to Spain, Egypt and West Germany and 4-2 to England.
"They seem to be in a little rut now with the changes and unsureness about lineups," Meola said. "But everyone's going to be excited about the World Cup and I'm sure they're going to play a lot better."
Gansler said he doesn't take recent results too seriously, figuring the turmoil during Czechoslovakia's revolution and its aftermath was a big distraction.
The United States, on the other hand, went 6-7 in exhibitions following the 1-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago on Nov. 19 that put the Americans into the 24-team tournament.