Sports Gazette talked with Tonny Sanneh, who played for the USA at the 2002 World Cup. He spoke about what it was like to be part of the world’s biggest competition and the more recent failings of the national side, as well as whether Messi is at the same level as Maradona and whether he is a better player than Cristiano Ronaldo.
Seven years ago Tony Sanneh hung up his boots. His was a career played mainly in the United States, apart from three years spent in German football, that peaked in 2002, when he played at the World Cup in Japan and Korea.
It’s the first time I’ve spoken to him, but I know that we have something in common. That year was also my first World Cup, watching Portugal. Unfortunately it was also the first time I saw them knocked out in the group stage, and Sanneh and his team mates were partly responsible for that when they surprised the world by beating Portugal 3-2. That day was also Sanneh’s World Cup debut. He doesn’t hide the importance of that moment.
“I remember during the anthem before the first game telling myself I finally made it. I saw my family in the stands and it was a very special moment, knowing the whole world was watching.”
A debut in a World Cup is always special, but winning gives it an extra flavour, especially when it’s against a national team like Portugal.
“It was a good challenge and very inspiring to play such a good team full of stars” – like Rui Costa, Luís Figo, Vitor Baía and Pedro Pauleta, to name but a few.
However, now times are different and 15 years later USA will not be at the next World Cup. Even if the failure to qualify for Russia next year was hard to swallow, Sanneh thinks it will have a positive impact in the end.
“I think the team was good enough but it is hard. There are better teams not in the World Cup. We played our hardest games first, which put a lot of pressure on us. The loss will cause us to invest in the future so it could be a good thing in the long run.”
It must be hard to be unable to help when once he could. But what is harder: a World Cup as a fan or as a player?
“As a fan because nothing is in your control. As a player you control everything,” He told me.
I asked him if the thought of management crossed his mind when he saw USA failing to qualify. His answer was clear.
“No. There are a lot of factors and not just the coach. I am probably glad I was not there because the players were not playing at their best.”
Despite the USA’s absence, Sanneh still had plenty to say on the upcoming tournament. Who is his favourite to win the World Cup in Russia? He has quite a few but puts France in pole position.
“I think the French team is very strong with young players. Germany is very deep, and Spain has a lot of great players playing all over the world. You can never count out Brazil and Argentina with great players.”
Talking about Argentina is talking about Messi. When the subject is the World Cup and Messi the topic it is always the same – that for Messi to be considered as good as as Maradona he has to win a World Cup. Sanneh has doubts about his chances this time around.
“I think it will be hard for him. The World Cup is in Russia, so it favours a European team like France, Spain or Germany to win.”
And the eternal question, who is better Ronaldo or Messi? Sanneh gives a surprising answer.
“I like Messi but I respect both. But I think midfielders do not get the credit [they deserve] but De Bruyne and Pogba are in the same class, just in different positions”.
The USA’s recent failure was particularly difficult to expect because of the growing popularity football (or soccer) has gained in the country. For the last couple of years there has been a huge investment in this with some big names joining the MLS such as David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco and the already retired Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard.
Right now their main star is Christian Pulisic and big expectations are on his shoulders. From the press to the fans everyone expects him to become the best American player in USA history. Sanneh thinks he is going in the right direction, but hopes his is not a unique case.
“Right now it looks like he will be [a great] if he plays and grows, but I hope others come along too.
“The game is fast and there are more opportunities for young players. Technically players are better, fast, but tactically I am not sure.”
A big shift from Sanneh’s days is the amount of money now invested in football. PSG broke all the records this summer, when they payed more than £200 million for Neymar, but Sanneh has a very pragmatic way to look at it.
“No one can control it, if someone wants to pay then it is fair.”
One thing that has remained the same, however, is the role of the centre back.
“He has to be able to read the game. Baresi, Canavarro, Beckenbauer, Desailly, they are some of the best and they could control a game by organising it.”
Life after football can be hard, and there are numerous examples of players that lost everything when they stopped playing. From ex-England national Goalkeeper David James to Liverpool’s Norwegian winger John Arne Riise and legends such as Paul Gascoigne and George Best – they all went through bankruptcy, some whilst still playing.
But nowadays players are more aware of the importance of thinking about the future and having projects outside of football. Sanneh is one of them, as his foundation proves. Curiously he created the project with the goal of paying a debt he has to football.
“I wanted to work with children and help them using the sport. The game was generous to me, and I wanted to give back.”
Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons