It started with the best intentions. Of course it did. No one deliberately sets out to create images like the ones you’re about to experience. No secondary character in a high school horror movie ever goes, “You know, the drinking and sex will be nice, but what I’m really hoping to get out of this lake vacation is dismemberment.” That’s not how it works. Life just goes where it goes. You sneak off to the woods to play semi-naked hide-and-seek with Devin, maybe you get brought down by a meat-hook killer in a DIY luchador mask. Or hey, maybe you don’t. You never know. That’s what makes this whole earthly merry-go-round so exciting.
The year was 2002. American soccer, normally a global power, was going through one of its brief down periods, this one having begun in August of 1930. Across the nation, on at least three online message boards, all of which were administered by college students named Brad, hopes were soaring that a strong performance at the upcoming World Cup, to be co-hosted by Japan and South Korea, would restore the USMNT to its rightful position of glory abroad and massive celebrity at home. A little luck on the pitch, a little smart branding, the complete implosion of baseball in a years-long PED scandal, and who knows? Anything could happen.
And that was how the most amazing photo shoot in the history of U.S. soccer came blazing — literally blazing, like a Mack truck filled with dragons and pushed off the top of Mount Rushmore — into existence. It couldn’t have made more sense. Need to drum up some publicity for your sports team in advance of its big event? Of course you sign them up for a New York Times Magazine style spread photographed by Dutch photographer and ex-Armani creative director Matthias Vriens. I mean, of course you do. What are the odds that the resulting photos, published in late May under the title “The Boys of Soccer,”1 will be so tonally bewildering, such a steamy potpourri of sullenness and arch poses and billowing paisley and smothered rage, that they look like Mike Tyson’s dreams the night after he first saw The Muppet Show? What could possibly go wrong?
Subhed: “Meet seven hotshots on the U.S. World Cup team.” MEET THEM.
Nothing. Nothing could possibly go wrong. Let’s dive into history.
Photo no. 1: Kasey Keller
Actual caption: “It’s a good bet that out of 23 members on the U.S. team, Kasey Keller, 32, a goalkeeper with a flair for the spectacular, will play next month in South Korea. Cotton crewneck, $22, from Calvin Klein Underwear. At Bloomingdale’s. Macy’s. Soccer shorts and ball: Nike.”
Corrected caption: “Kasey Keller, 32, a goalkeeper with a flair for the spectacular, ignites the camera with his smoldering thighs … sorry, eyes … THIGHS … that’s EYES …”
Analysis: The spread starts on a deceptively normal note. By itself, in a different slideshow, this picture wouldn’t excite a lot of attention, even if Keller does seem to be playing fuck/marry/kill in his mind and picking you for all three. The crewneck cost $22. It’s the arsenic he’s rubbed all over his lips that’s priceless.
If he were a character in an Emily Brontë novel: “Mr. Briarfell, the mysterious proprietor of Baldcrest Abbey, was known for long silences, walking the moors at night by the light of a single candle, and shorts.”
Photo no. 2: Brian McBride
Actual caption: “On the fence but not for long, Brian McBride is a forward with an amazing aerial act. He’s in a Prada cotton shirt, $360, and pants, $390. At Barneys New York.”
Corrected caption: “Why, hello there. I was just stretchin’. Just stretchin’ out my body here on this fence. Like my outfit? It cost $750 at Barneys. It’s not so bad for stretchin’ in. It’s OK. Could be better. This chain-link fence is my main stretchin’ spot. I like the way the chain links feel on my hands. Not sure if you noticed this, but, uh, there’s a pretty funny pattern on my pants.”
Analysis: Now we’re getting somewhere. In head-to-toe Prada, and with his hips cocked like a World War I–era revolver, McBride gazes into the camera from a position that millennia of human evolution have clearly failed to prepare his body to assume. Although, in fairness to evolution, it’s not as if the untamed savanna produces a plethora of situations in which the ability to assume the torso-jink/fence-clasp posture would confer a big reproductive advantage. “I’ll just pose the mammoth to death,” says no one in the Big Book of Common Neanderthal Sayings. On the other hand, any modern pachyderm who saw this picture would presumably at least feel lightheaded.
After “Boys of Soccer” appeared, McBride was disappointed in the results. “I thought we were going to get suits,” he told the Associated Press. “All the clothes were not perfect fitting.” Maybe not, Brian. But your complaining is certainly not helpful, and it’s certainly not going to revive any passed-out elephants.2
McBride pretty much blamed the NYT and Vriens for the shoot, which makes a certain amount of sense, though if I were the photographer I would probably counter that the models were not exactly selling the stuffing out of my creative vision. Ultimately, you can’t lay the credit for “The Boys of Soccer” at any one person’s feet. Like all miracles, it resulted from a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of higher forces.
If he were a character in an Emily Brontë novel: “The scruffy coachman leaned toward her. ‘My name is Elmforth Fleers,’ he said with a dark look. She could smell the spirits on his breath. ‘And this here’s my fence post. Aren’t you, my sweet,’ he said, stroking the fence post with the back of his hand. ‘Aren’t you, dear Gwendolyn.'”
Photo no. 3: Landon Donovan
Actual caption: “One of the youngest U.S. players is 20-year-old Landon Donovan, from Redlands, Calif., who plays forward and midfield. Donovan’s cotton Jacquard shirt, $480, and silk-wool pants, $645, by Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. At Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche boutiques.”
Corrected caption: “WHAT IS THIS THING TOUCHING MY LIPS IT’S SO COLD AND AAAAH WHY DOES IT KEEP DOING THIS NO SERIOUSLY I’M TOTALLY UNFAMILIAR WITH THE PROPERTIES OF THIS SUBSTANCE.”
Analysis: Amazingly, this is neither the worst nor the funniest photo from “Boys of Soccer” — do not adjust your set — but it’s the breakout star of the collection, the image that you’re most likely to have seen elsewhere on the Internet.3 Why has it had so much staying power when the rest of the photo shoot has virtually disappeared beneath the shifting sands of the desert in which every grain of sand is an “athletes wearing clothes”–type fashion spread?
It’s also the catalyst that led me to discover that “Boys of Soccer” existed in the first place. Last month, when I was working on a column about Landon Donovan, I knew I was going to link to the image, so I figured I had better trace down the source. I know, talk about going the extra mile, right? But look, as long as I don’t have to make any phone calls or leave one specific room in my house, I am a tireless — tireless — reporter.
There are a lot of ways we could answer that question. There are a lot of truths we could point to. I mean, it could be because the image captures something ineffable about the character of its subject in a way the other pictures don’t, some deep intermixture within Donovan of compliance and discomfort and feeling dutiful and trapped but also awkward about letting a photographer document the execution of what can only be described as a fantastically ineffective liquid-intake philosophy. It could be because of the look in his eyes, a mute pleading so restrained as to be almost unreadable, and how it’s accentuated by the regal mauve sheen of his shirt.
I don’t think that’s it, though. I think it’s because of the water fountain itself.
I mean, look at this little fucker. So round, so smooth. It’s got the smoke-gray glint and perfectly even flow capacity of a piece of technology that thinks it’s better than us. From its oddly large and hard-to-depress side button (see how it takes two of Landon’s fingers? And he’s a professional athlete) to its gleaming chrome upper rim, it clearly takes a perverse delight in humiliating everyone who comes to drink from its saucily angled spray nozzle. Fools, it seems to say, weaklings who need water to survive! I could have been an Apple product if I’d only gotten my shit together a little sooner in college.
But it’s got something, this water fountain. It’s got charisma. Try as you might, you can’t tear your eyes away. It’s like a great wrestling heel, or the villain in a melodrama. It knows it matters, and it knows how much. This water fountain looks at not just Landon Donovan, but all of U.S. soccer in 2002, and sees nothing but a bunch of regular dudes wearing asinine clothing in ridiculous poses. Where did it get that idea? Doesn’t matter. What matters is that this water fountain has a drive-time talk radio host on speed dial. And it calls.
This water fountain is everything American soccer has been fighting against for 50 years.
If he were a character in an Emily Brontë novel: “He threw off his black cloak and stood gloating before them, a fearsome cylinder. As the storm battered the windows, the last dying embers of the fire wove hypnotic patterns in his semi-reflective metallic outer chassis. Then he spoke, an arc of clear liquid jetting up out of his mouth-spigot. ‘You have betrayed me, Esmerelda,’ he burbled with cold menace. ‘And now I have returned.'”
Photo no. 4: DaMarcus Beasley
Actual caption: “DaMarcus Beasley, a 20 year-old midfielder from Fort Wayne, Ind., wears a Jil Sander ramie shirt, $530. At Jil Sander, San Francisco.”
Corrected caption: “‘Sup?”
Analysis: Say what you will about DaMarcus Beasley, he’s the only member of the “Boys of Soccer” retinue who looks at all comfortable with himself in this photo shoot. He’s just chilling on some grass here, not fending off paralyzing psychosexual panic derived from personal knowledge of the counter-masculine qualities often attributed to soccer players by the American public and a not-rocket-science vision of how certain cues in this photo shoot will be interpreted. He’s just like, “Hey.” You would also rest fairly easy if you knew the Jil Sander shirt they’d given you cost only $530 but your “7” medallion was worth $400 million cold.
If he were a character in an Emily Brontë novel: “‘Oh my,’ breathed Rowena, clasping her hands together at her throat. ‘Is that … is that Mr. Pendleton Throbheart, the tenant of Makeout Springs?'”
Photo no. 5: Clint Mathis
Actual caption: “U.S. soccer’s best hope, Clint Mathis has star quality in a Tom Ford for Gucci dress shirt, $400. At select Gucci stores.”
Corrected caption: “U.S. soccer’s best hope, Clint Mathis is like ‘Durrrrrr!!!’ in a blouse he stole from either the great pirate Montbars the Exterminator or possibly Vivien Leigh.”
Analysis: We have arrived at the meat of the photo spread. There’s so much going on here it’s almost impossible to break it all down. Let’s focus on Mathis’s position vis-à-vis the pole and the angle of the shot. So … the pole is some kind of farm gate, right? Mathis is looking down over some kind of farm gate with his elbows all up like “Fuck you, hotshot, let’s do this.” So who’s he threatening here? A pony? A small pig? Wilbur? Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web? I’m just going to say it: There’s a really good chance that this is a photo of U.S. soccer star Clint Mathis on the day he woke up, style-tousled his hair, slipped into an unbuttoned short-sleeved fashion smock, and went out to the pen to beat the living shit out of one of the most beloved characters in all of children’s literature. And we’ve got the Wilbur’s-eye view.
What I want to know is: Where did Mathis’s day go after this photo was taken? Did he pick up a hockey stick and go after Eeyore? Did Mr. Toad and Mole escape OK? This is a genuinely terrifying photo. Of course, not long after this picture was taken, Mathis would wind up doing this, so it’s all relative, I guess.
If he were a character in an Emily Brontë novel: “Col. Chelminster kept a large silver pocket watch inscribed with a Latin motto and an engraving of a kitten being hanged to death, but, though his dark and perhaps even illicit past was a topic of hushed gossip among the servants of Thorncroft Mews, his guests were far too afraid of seeing his elbows escalate into their attack posture to inquire into the details.”
Photo no. 6: Pablo Mastroeni
Actual caption: “Originally from Argentina, Pablo Mastroeni plays defense but not in his Roberto Cavalli turquoise-studded shirt, $1,138, and linen pants, $350. At Roberto Cavalli boutiques.”
Corrected caption: [Speechless.]
Super-corrected caption: [Still speechless.]
Ultra-corrected caption: “Originally from the planet Fldapz, three clicks from the Frebulon system, Pable Mastroeni dons the customary garb of the Fldapzese warrior caste while impregnating a bench for some reason.”
Analysis: It’s amazing, isn’t it? Just when you think this photo shoot has peaked — that Donovan’s inert lower lip or Mathis’s oddly bendy face have set an unsurpassable standard — it finds a way to top itself, in this case by dressing a hulking, be-dreadlocked defensive midfielder in Stormtrooper underleggings and a miniaturized I Love Lucy housedress and convincing him to make unhurried love to a set of stadium bleachers. If “The Boys of Soccer” were Maradona, this would be his England game.
He looks kind of into it, I guess? But don’t judge. Everybody’s gotta do their own thing. And besides, it was a weird day and the bench was really easy to talk to.
If he were a character in an Emily Brontë novel: “I entered without knocking. The vicar was mounted upon his stool, at what a stranger — though not I, alas — should have thought a highly peculiar angle. A stranger might also have remarked upon the way that, as the vicar shifted his weight in slight increments upon the stool, small cries or moans could be heard escaping his lips. He appeared … I believe I am within the bounds of propriety to say that he appeared entirely unconscious of my presence.
“I cleared my throat. The vicar at once straightened and began to smooth his coat-front, coughing and making all manner of embarrassed throat-clearing noises. ‘Why, Mary,’ he said when he had collected himself. ‘I did not expect to see you for some hours.’
“‘Indeed,’ I answered, as coldly as I felt, ‘and how have you passed the afternoon?’
“‘Why, I have merely been reading.’ A blush darkened his cheeks.
“‘Upon that stool?’
“His blush deepened. ‘It is my most … comfortable stool, is it not?’
“‘Oh, certainly,’ said I, with all the acid I could muster. Then I raised my elbows into what I hoped was a credible fighting posture. ‘Only in that case, dear uncle,’ I whispered, ‘where is your book?'”
Photo no. 7: Cobi Jones
Actual caption: “Cobi Jones, a midfielder from Westlake Village, Calif., wears a Miu Miu dress shirt, $260. At Saks Fifth Avenue. Helmut Lang jeans, $185. At Helmut Lang, 80 Greene Street or www.helmutlang.com.”
Corrected caption: “Cobi Jones, a midfielder from Westlake Village, Calif., enacts his appointed role in the mythic cycle of creation and destruction by giving birth to the universe. Everything, $∞. At everywhere.”
Analysis: Maybe it’s not the universe. Maybe he’s just giving birth to a giant piece of paisley to join the octuplets on his shirt. Maybe he’s just pretending to give birth. I don’t know. What am I, the expert on things Cobi Jones might be giving birth to?
Here’s what I know. We are seven panels into this slideshow and I no longer understand anything about sports or gender or sex or water or basic buttoning technique. I want to lie on the grass in a $740 disco top and make hospital-anesthesia eyes at an imaginary piglet. I want to fight a drinking fountain with my elbows. I want to read 19th-century erotic fiction about task seating. I want to pose a mastodon to death. I want soccer to be like this all the time.4
Talking about American soccer here, obviously. Italian soccer is like this all the time.
If he were a character in an Emily Brontë novel: [Emily Brontë explodes.]
And that, my friends, is what I call a great photo shoot. That is what I call “The Boys of Soccer.” A photo shoot. Also: great.
The issue of The New York Times Magazine containing “The Boys of Soccer” appeared on May 26, 2002, while the team was training for the World Cup in Seoul. Reaction within the U.S. camp was immediate. Right and left, players just completely started making fun of each other. The Associated Press article I mentioned earlier (“Style strikeout: U.S. players ribbed for fashion shoot”), which was published on May 27, includes sentences like “Players thought the shoot deserved a red card” and “Fellow goalkeeper Tony Meola yelled from a few feet away: ‘You look pretty.'” Brian McBride, working hard to put a good spin on a bad situation, said, “If you can’t laugh about it, you have severe problems.” Back home in the States, it turned out that most people who saw it had almost no problems at all.
But when the tournament kicked off, a weird thing happened. The U.S. started winning. You never know! They finished second in their group behind South Korea, advancing to the Round of 16, where they beat their biggest rival, Mexico, 2-0. The two goal scorers in that match, one of the most important in the history of American soccer, were McBride and Donovan, both members of the NYT Seven. The team reached the quarterfinals, their best performance in a World Cup since Herbert Hoover was president. For a brief moment, they almost made it seem as though a combination of talent, luck, and tactics determines athletic success, instead of relentless adherence to an arbitrary code of approved cultural signifiers.
That’s impossible, obviously. And I’m not saying “The Boys of Soccer” was the secret to the U.S. team’s success. On the other hand, yes, I am absolutely saying that. So thanks, “Boys of Soccer.” Let’s do this again in 2014.