Miami’s role in John Harkes’ removal and America’s 1998 FIFA World Cup collapse

Steve Sampson John Harkes U.S. Men's National Team

The United States Men’s National Team is currently mired in one of its more humiliating periods in the modern era (failing to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup). Men in Blazers co-host Roger Bennett thought it would be a good time to reflect on the other calamity since America’s return to the world soccer stage in 1990: The U.S. Men’s National Team’s failure at the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France. His series, “American Fiasco,” produced with WNYC Studios, looks back at all the ways the U.S. fell short leading up to and during that World Cup campaign. The seven-part podcast, however, offers a small look into how Miami played a small role in John Harkes being removed from the team, a key part of the failure that would arrive in the summer of 1998.

Before the World Cup, many believed the United States was ready to emerge as a potential dark horse to compete in the tournament. However, qualifying proved to be difficult and manager Steve Sampson was dealing with stress and injuries to the squad. Left back Jeff Agoos had been injured in a friendly against Mexico on Feb. 15, 1998. In response to this, Sampson turned to his “Captain for Life” to fill in the gap left by Agoos for the team’s match against The Netherlands at Pro Player Stadium (now Hard Rock Stadium) in Miami Gardens on Feb. 21.

According to Bennett’s interview with Sampson, Harkes was less than thrilled (you can hear Sampson and Harkes themselves describe the situation in full on Episode 5, about 14 minutes in):

“[Harkes] then says to me, ‘I did not come back from England to play as an outside back. I came back to play in the middle of midfield,'” Sampson told Bennett. “And I looked at him, and I said ‘So you’re telling me that you can only play in one position where you want to play, and that your national team coach is asking you to play this role for this game and you’re refusing to do so.’

“I’d never experienced that, in my entire career, a player telling a coach that he wasn’t willing to play in a certain position.”

Harkes had a different perspective, yet agreed he wasn’t fully sold on the idea of playing left back in Miami.

“I thought that he kept saying I didn’t embrace it, and for me, I was like ‘I’m doing my best here,'” Harkes said. “At times, it was his way or the highway. He had taken on this persona that he was the man in charge.”

Harkes played the game as left back, but the damage had been done.

Arthur Newman (5) of The Netherlands controls the ball against United States midfielder Eric Wynalda (11) during an exhibition match at Pro Player Stadium in Miami Gardens. United States captain John Harkes (6) can be seen on the very right of the image. Photo by Andy Lyons /Allsport
Arthur Newman (5) of The Netherlands controls the ball against United States midfielder Eric Wynalda (11) during an exhibition match at Pro Player Stadium in Miami Gardens. United States captain John Harkes (6) can be seen on the very right of the image. Photo by Andy Lyons /Allsport

Three strikes

Sampson identified three “strikes” that took Harkes from his “Captain for Life” to off the 1998 U.S. World Cup squad. This incident, where Harkes didn’t initially accept the role, was strike one. Strike two was a night out in Brussles that Sampson did not approve of, and strike three was an affair Harkes had with the wife of U.S. teammate Eric Wynalda.

None of this changes the past, of course. However, this additional context about Sampson’s decision makes the 1998 World Cup flameout a little easier to understand. And, of course, Miami had to play a role.

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