Interview Feature:  Jim McCreath, Author of “Renaldo: A Tale of World Cup Soccer, Terrorism, and Love”

To describe my writing process I must take you back to 1990 and reveal what was going on in my life. I had just become a widower, my wife of fourteen years, Carol, having passed away after a three year illness. Our two daughters were ages ten and twelve at the time.My business career was in commercial real estate but I started to worked part-time so that I could look after my girls. As a place to go in my private times I started to put together a fictional story in my mind, one about Argentina’s 1978 World Cup championship victory.

had been a soccer fan since 1966 when I travelled through Europe on a school tour during the World Cup that was being held in England. I was eighteen years old at that time. >Unlike Carol’s illness, my fictional story was something I control. I realize now that writing fiction was my major source of therapy while I was trying to cope with her loss and my new reality. The problem was that the only computer in our home was my eldest daughter’s basic school Mac, and I didn’t know how to type. I bought myself a new PC One and started to peck away while the girls were at school and after they had gone to bed at night. My typing gradually improved and my computers got better too but the process of writing ‘Renaldo’ took me seven years to complete. My daily routine took place whenever I had a spare moment off from the most important job of my life.

How did you approach this sizeable story (over 500 pages) centering on these two brothers, Renaldo and Lonfranco, which began 40 years ago?

I can remember watching Argentina win the 1978 World Cup in our local professional hockey arena because there was no television broadcast of the games, only satellites. What has always fascinated me about soccer is the sociology of the sport, especially when two national teams were playing. I had watched two rival countries that hated each other, England and Germany, face off on a football pitch in the1966 World Cup final just twenty years after World War II. The hatred and past memories were very thinly veiled.

Similarly I remembered the trauma that was facing Argentina in the 1970’s. A brutal military junta having deposed President Isabel Perón in 1976 continued to arrest and murder thousands of leftist leaning intellectuals, journalists and educators. These people were called “dissidents.” The Mothers of the Disappeared, seeking to find out the whereabouts of their loved ones, marched in front of the Presidential Palace for months on end. This became a global story that shed light on just how bad things were in Argentina.

Violent acts of terrorism, crushing financial inflation and lack of facilities and communications had the governing body of football, FIFA, on the brink of rescinding Argentina’s right to hold the World Cup tournament. Miraculously, the tournament was held in the ‘Land of Silver’ and home side heroes hoisted the championship trophy. Those circumstances formed the foundation of my story.

In the bigger picture, my maternal grandfather, Vincenzo Franceschini, immigrated to Canada from Pescara Italy in 1906. He was fifteen years old and all alone. A few years later his younger brother, Renaldo, joined him in Toronto. I have used my great-uncle’s given name for the lead character of the novel. I grew up with two younger brothers and a sister. We lost our mother when she was only forty-six years old. Her death had a profound, lasting impact on all of our lives. In Renaldo, I wanted to introduce the sibling relationship that was so important to me growing up, and also how the death of a parent, in the book’s case Renaldo and Lonfranco’s father, affected their emotional well-being differently and ultimately lead Lonnie to become a terrorist.

On a lighter note, one of the fascinating things that happened during the 1978 World Cup was that the English professional club Tottenham Hotspur sent a group of their executives to Argentina with the goal of bringing back fresh talent for their team. This had never happened before in British football, and it ended up being quite the controversy. But it wasn’t against the Football Association rules, so two of Argentina’s star players, Oswaldo Ardilles and Ricardo Villa, ended up playing in England for several years.

These facts allowed me to introduce the English element into my book. Hence Sir Reginald Russell and his daughter Mallory become major players as the tournament evolves. The deal with Tottenham was brokered in Argentina by an agent, Oscar Martinez, who was nicknamed ‘El Gordo, The Fat One.’This person gave rise to my character and the novel’s chief protagonist, Astor Gordero. As a history buff, I wanted to write the back story of my characters which allowed me to expand and develop rich storylines that ran parallel to the reality of the times my people lived in.

Please describe your research process and related collaboration.

My research process will seem like it took place in the dark ages compared to how I would handle information gathering today. In 1990 when I started my research the internet was unknown in my world. Home computers were becoming popular but being technologically challenged at the time I resisted getting a computer. So, what was available to me as research materials were resource libraries, encyclopedias, magazines and periodicals, books, maps and films about Argentina and it’s people. No Google.

I was totally on my own but I spent hours and hours reading and compiling stories and facts. Soccer magazines that I had kept from 1978, especially ‘World Soccer’ magazine were invaluable. I could not travel to Argentina because of my family situation, so I absorbed all the information I had garnered and then used my imagination for sights, sounds and dialogue. It turned out that other than the editors I hired to read my manuscript there was no collaboration with the core story of Renaldo.

What are your most memorable/special moments in soccer?

Two stories stand out. This first one was referenced earlier as to when I became a soccer fan, which was during the summer of 1966 travelling through Europe on a school tour. Growing up in Canada, soccer was definitely way down the list of sports that me and my pals had any interest in. Ice hockey, baseball and American style football were the ‘in’ sports. On the school trip there were 34 girls and 17 boys, all eighteen years of age. The first week was spent in London. It was late June, before the World Cup kicked off so we guys were more enamoured with the pubs and mini-skirts than soccer. The next stop was France, were our girls picked up their German coach driver, Werner. The boys had two Volkswagen mini vans to get around in. Werner proved to be our soccer educator, waxing eloquent on the beauty of the game, especially as played by his national heroes. France was playing in the tournament too and the crowds in the cafés and bistros when their team was on T.V. were boisterous and well lubricated.

We Canucks took note of this strange phenomenon. Unfortunately ‘Les Bleus’ managed only one draw and two defeats before being sent home. Rome was the next stop, and the soccer Gods gave our host Italians a 2-0 victory over Chile on our first night in The Eternal City. Party time, all night, in the streets and in the fountains. Viva Italia!

Three nights later the Gods were not as friendly and our hosts lost 1-0 to the Soviet Union. Tragedy…almost, because a win over the lowly South Koreans in the next match would put then through to the knock out round. My Italian heritage had come out in full force now. Viva! Please. Meanwhile Werner’s Germans had beaten Switzerland 5-0 and tied Argentina 1-1. The tie did not sit well with him. July 19th found us in Florence on the night of Italy’s do-or-die match. Our hotel had one small black and white T.V. in the third floor lounge, and most of our tour was in there watching. The locals couldn’t figure out where all the ‘English’ had come from. Tragedy was in the air though.

Final score, South Korea 1- the Azzurri, nil, nada, nothing, zero, zippo. A the end of the game a hulking older man picked up the T.V., walked over the window, and hurled the object of his disgust down onto the street below. Three stories below!

‘This game makes people crazy! ‘ was my one and only thought. It was rotten tomatoes for the Italian team when they arrived home at Rome’s airport. Six nights later we were in the Swiss Alps and Team Werner was playing the Soviets in one of two semi-final games. The Swiss didn’t much like the Germans, especially because they had been spanked 5-0 by them in their first round match. The game was tied 1-1 and our coach driver was very well fuelled and revved up, too revved up for the proprietor of our restaurant because he turned off the T.V.The last we ever saw of Werner was him being put in a police van handcuffed.

Auf Wiedersehen. This game does make people crazy! For the rest of us it was on to Germany with a new bus driver. Munich was to be our next adventure, and it would be a big one. It just so happened that England was playing Germany in the World Cup final at Wembley Stadium in London on our second day there. In 1966 Canada still used England’s Union Jack, their red, white and blue flag as our national colours.

So you can imagine how well a group of English speaking, Union Jack waving, ‘Rule Britannia’ singing kids were received at our chosen beer hall packed with hundreds of with suds-swilling, stein-gulping Deutschlanders. England won in extra time on a disputed goal and we ran for our lives. Rule Britannia! I was hooked, as were many of my travelling companions. A soccer fan forever!

———

In another memorable experience, I wanted to see the great German players that had won the 1974 World Cup in person, and as luck would have it the core of that group was playing for Bayern Munich the following year. Players like Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller, Uli Hoeness and Sepp Maier in goal were all on that squad.

In 1975 Bayern was so good they made it to the final game of the European Cup, now the Champions League, symbolic of the best club team in Europe and the U.K. The match took place in Paris that May as the inaugural event at France’s new national stadium, ‘Parc Des Princes.’ Carol and I were engaged, so we decided to make it a short sightseeing/soccer trip. She wasn’t into football so I went to the match alone. That turned out to be a good thing. Bayern’s opponent would be a very good English team, Leeds United, with stars Peter Lorimer and Billy Bremner. I managed to scalp a ticket from a very inevebrrted Leeds fan and found myself sitting in the end zone with ten thousand members of the ‘Leeds Service Crew,’ the name of their ‘firm,’.

Much has been written about the British hooligans whose sole purpose is to cause trouble and beat the stuffing out of the other team’s hooligans. An organized group of hooligans came to be know as a ‘firm.’ They especially loved to travel to foreign countries and wreak havoc on the host city where the match involving their team was held. As I sat with my new English friends I had no idea that many of them had been involved in running street battles all afternoon with their Bayern counterparts. Bandages and blood stained shirts were a bit of a tell-tale sign though.

Leeds started the game strongly and had the Germans confused and back on their heals. It was a rough and tumble affair with lots of fouls called, especially called on Leeds. Strangely, the French referee seemed to keep his whistle in his pocket whenever the red-shirted Bayern men stepped out of line. A blatant infraction inside the Munich penalty area should have resulted in a  penalty kick for Leeds, but once again, no call. By now my companions, who continued to consume vast amounts of alcohol throughout the match, were getting very vocal and upset, screaming expletives at the main official. Just after half-time Peter Lorimer scored a beautiful goal. The crowd around me erupted in joyous hugging, singing and waving of their huge flags and banners. But wait, what was this? The referee had waved the goal off, citing obstruction of the keeper or offside or both, I will never know.

What I did know was with that call changed the euphoria around me in a split second into venomous hatred. I started to feel a little uncomfortable. Eighteen minutes from full time Bayern scored. The Firm was getting uglier. Because the Bayern fanatics were in the other end-zone and none were handy for any shenanigans, the Leeds fans started fighting with each other. Ten minutes after their first goal, the incomparable Bayern striker Gerd, ‘Der Bomber’ Muller tickled the twines. This is when things got really out of control with plastic seats being torn from their frames and hurled onto the warning track along with anything else that could fly.

A huge surge toward the pitch left the fans in the front rows pressed against the barrier wall. It was time for me to head for the exit while I was still able to. Outside the stadium the scene was very chaotic. Fans from both sides were engaged in verbal and physical battles. Several times screaming Germans approached me but because I wasn’t wearing Leeds colours they moved on.

There were no taxis or public buses to be found anywhere, so I walked very, very quickly into the dark night having no idea where I was going. Eventually I hailed a cab and made it back to my hotel. The street battles continued all night and inside the stadium a television camera man lost an eye and a police officer suffered a broken arm, along with a host of minor injuries received by the hooligans on both sides. But it could have been a lot worse. No one was killed. The events I had witnessed and narrowly escaped have stayed with me to this day, a real soccer riot.

What were some skills of players you remember most?

Going back to my first real soccer experience, World Cup 1966, there were a few players there that stood out. I had heard of the amazing Pelé from Brazil, but in this tournament he was injured in their first game and Brazil went home after the first round. Pelé did make an amazing recovery four years later when he scored a goal and assisted on two others in the 1970 World Cup final game as Brazil beat Italy 4-1, so he must rank among my favourites.

Back in 1966, the champion English team was full of character players, which included two brothers, Jack and Bobby Charlton. Geoff Hurst scored a 3 goal hat-trick in the final match which rarely happens. But the player I remember the most was the diminutive Nobby Stiles, a shut- down midfielder who, after England won the match, pranced around the pitch with the trophy in one hand and his false teeth in the other.

Stiles made me aware of how important good defence was to winning a game. Franz Beckenbauer was rightly called ‘Der Kaiser’ because he had no equal. His ball control skills have never been surpassed and his field generalship was equally enthralling.

Diego Maradona was a spark-plug of a player with great speed and skill. Another Argentine, Mario Kempes, was the charismatic, good looking, leading scorer in the tournament that Argentina won in 1978. He made the ladies swoon.

The amazing Spanish team that won the 2010 World Cup had many super stars but Andrés Iniesta was a passing magician who scored the winning and only goal in the final. >His opponent in that match, Dutchman Arjen Robben, was as tough and skilled a competitor as you will ever find. He is amazing to watch, and could run like the wind. The entire French team that won the 1998 World Cup on home soil was full of great players, the most prominent being Zinedine Zidane whose two headers in the final match against Brazil made him an instant international hero.

Who are you cheering for in the 2018 World Cup?

First of all, I am terribly upset that the United States failed to qualify for the tournament. They have been so close to advancing up the table the last two tournaments, I felt that this would be their year, but alas. Emotionally I have soft spot for England, being Canadian and part of the Commonwealth. But the English continue to find ways to lose the big games.

Their problem most recently has been their goal keeper. These men have been consistently terrible over the years. Goodbye Joe Hart! They have two great strikers in Harry Kane and Jaimie Vardy, so maybe this year? I love the way the Spanish and Brazilians play the game and Argentina has been a long time favourite too.

Portugal with Ronaldo is always a threat but they tend to underachieve. Germany are the favourites, but enough already. So, I guess my answer is ‘England,’ until they mess up, and then I can choose the most exciting, most deserving team left kicking.

Describe how the world community atmosphere influences the various leagues, coaches, and players.

The soccer world has expanded in the last few decades with players and mangers travelling around the globe in search of the Holy Grail. While the fans stay loyal to their native countries, everyone else involved in the game is wracking up a lot of air miles. Let’s look at this year’s English Premier League as an example. There was a time that only ‘British’ citizens (mostly English) were deemed fit to play in and manage England’s football fortunes. Well, the mighty dollar and the need to win has trumped nationality for many years now. It is the same in almost every professional league on the planet.

In England’s Premiership this year the nationality of the 20 managers brokedown this way:

  • Spain  5
  • England  5
  • Portugal  2
  • France, Italy, Ireland, U.S., Germany, Wales, Chile, Argentina, 1 each.

If we look at the 27 players listed on this year’s Manchester City championship team, here’s how they break down:

  • England 10
  • Brazil  4
  • Argentina, Belgium, Germany, Spain, 2
  • Ukraine, Switzerland, Chile, Portugal, Ivory Coast 1

Truly a mosaic of international cultures in both categories.  That’s the way the soccer world turns now.

How does soccer embody your passions on a personal level?

When I was younger I lived and died for our local hockey and football professional teams. I never missed a game either in person or on television. When our teams lost, it was very hard to take. But neither of those sports captured the passions I found in soccer fans, as I have written above. Even though being in the midst of all that trouble with the Leeds fans ended up being terrifying, for most of the time it was exhilarating. Singing their songs, laughing, waving their giant flags, the camaraderie and feeling ‘as one’ was special. I loved it and it was one of the most unique experiences of my sporting life, being part of a firm.

In Toronto where I live, our major League soccer team, Toronto F.C., won the MLS championship last year. Our stadium has been expanded three times to accommodate the fan base. It is the tribe culture which is unique to soccer that embodies my sporting passion. To stand shoulder to shoulder among our fanatics, to sing and cheer, that is what allows one to be fully in the moment, totally immersed.

Flags and smoke bombs, streamers and rude language directed at the other team’s keeper, the constant drumming of many drums, the group chants…this doesn’t happen in any other sport. It is passion personified as long as it remains harmless fun.

Please describe one of your past World Cup experiences

In 1994 the United States held the tournament for the first time and it was a huge success. I wanted to take full advantage of this opportunity so I flew to Boston, then took a train packed with fans to Foxboro Stadium to see Maradona and Argentina  beat Greece 4-0. Then it was on to Orlando to watch Mexico beat Ireland tie 2-1 and Holland take on Belgium. These last two countries are usually bitter rivals on the football pitch and the Orlando police were out in full riot gear expecting trouble. Well, it turned out to be a love-in with the Belgians, whose team is nick-named ‘The Red Devils’ decked out in their red, black and yellow face paint, wigs and two-horned devils caps, drinking, singing and dancing with the ‘Clockwork Orange’ Dutchmen and women, many of whom were dressed as carrots. How can you fight with a carrot? The Devils ate the Carrots 1-0.

The game that I had hoped would take place with great anticipation was to see Italy play in a semi-final game at Giant Stadium in East Rutherford. This was a pilgrimage for me because I had been a Giants football fan since the days of Y.A. Tittle. As luck would have it, they got to East Rutherford by beating Spain 2-1 in the quarter-finals. Their opponents would be that renowned football powerhouse, Bulgaria. Bulgaria? Yes, they had knocked off the Mexicans and the famed Germans on their way to Giants Stadium so they earned their shot.

I flew into Newark with no ticket or hotel room, rented a car and managed to scalp a ticket in the nose-bleed section, but I was there with my red, white and green scarf and hat. Mama Mia, this was one of the best sporting experiences ever. Nearly 72,000 piasanos crammed into a steaming concrete cauldron singing Italian songs. What a party! And the best thing was that our boys won 2-1 with superstar Roberto Baggio scoring both goals only minutes apart. Viva Italia, on to the final game. How I got home I can’t remember. (Italy lost to Brazil in the final 3-2 on penalty kicks. Tragedy.)

Any underdogs that you think will surprise people in the World Cup? Who are your favourites to win?

The World Cup is always full of upsets and surprises. Many of the African teams are unknown quantities to the rest of the world, and they are often skilled players with something to prove. Take a hard look at Egypt, with Liverpool’s player of the year Mohamed Salah leading the way. He is an inspirational player in so many ways especially to his countrymen. If he can lift up his supporting cast, watch out! Croatia could surprise, and they have one of the world’s best players in Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modrić. From South America, Uruguay is my pick with the explosive team of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani up front and a strong defence under the direction of Diego Godin. While my heart is with England, my mind picks France to win it all.

Thank you for your interest in my story.

You’re very welcome. Thanks so much for your time.

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