Historic field sees 21st century future

MICHAEL LEWIS covers football for the New York Daily News. His third book about the World Cup will be published this spring.

The Metropolitan Oval sign says it all. Photos by Michael Lewis

During his three decades working for FIFA, president Sepp Blatter has visited many football stadiums, but probably none quite like the one he was at in New York City on Monday afternoon.

Blatter and a FIFA delegation toured the Metropolitan Oval, an historic football field that dates back to 1925, which recently was renovated to meet the playing needs of the 21st century.

Instead of grass, the Met Oval uses an artificial turf that has the feel of natural grass.

FIFA President visits Ground Zero

Photo: FIFA

During his two-day visit in New York, FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter alsovisited on 20 November Ground Zero, the area of the devastatingterrorist attacks on 11 September. Together with CONCACAF President and FIFAVice-president Jack Warner as well as Brandi Chastain, who won the 1999 FIFAWomen's World Cup with the USA, Mr Blatter paid his respects to the victimsand attached a FIFA pennant to the so-called "Memory Wall".
"This is the future to play football, yours and Europe," said Blatter, who is in New York for a United Nations announcement on Tuesday that will launch a special project between FIFA UNICEF during the 2002 World Cup.

"Normal grass fields in climate situations like yours or like in most European countries, it is impossible. We have to play on artificial turf. I know there is a new generation (of turf). This is very good. You can play with shoes to allow you not to have many injuries with your studs."

With the Empire State Building and a good portion of the Manhattan skyline in the background, Blatter spoke with a local high school team and local and national football officials, which included Dr. Bob Contiguglia, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, and Alan Rothenberg, former USSF president who also organized the successful 1994 World Cup.

"With emotion, we have to say what happened on the 11th of September has affected the whole world," Blatter said. "It's not only this region.

The Metropolitan Oval.

"We did not stop playing football. We did not say the show must go on. But we said life must go on. We cannot stop our actions because of terrorists. We have to go on."

Blatter received several presents from Met Oval and Eastern New York youth and amateur officials, including shirts and jackets with his name on it, pennants and banners.

"I just would like to thank you for your time to come and see such a beautiful place in New York City," Metropolitan Oval Foundation president Jim Vogt told Blatter. "It has remained this way since 1925 and it will remain this way forever."

Nestled in the middle of a neighborhood in the borough of Queens outside of Manhattan, you easily can drive past it if you aren't keenly looking for it.

Actually, it looks like the front of a town dump unless you get view of a battered sign that proudly announces: Metropolitan Oval Soccer Games Every Sunday

Sepp Blatter and youth players from New York City.

The Oval has been a vital part of the U.S. football scene since 1925 and has been the centerpiece for city youth and amateur football.

Former U.S. World Cup captains Mike Windischmann (1990) and Tony Meola (1994) played there, as did former Cosmos captain Werner Roth, former U.S. international Tab Ramos and Pele's son, Edson Nascimento, who went on to star for Santos in Brazil after playing for a local youth club in the city.

However, overuse and neglect of the field turned it from a green oasis to a pile of dust and rocks the past two decades. When it rained, it became a mud bath. When it was windy, it became a dust bowl.

From left to right: Alfonso Mondelo, former coach of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars and Tampa Bay Mutiny, Alan Rothenberg, former USSF president, Jim Vogt, Metropolitan Oval foundation president, Dr. Bob Contiguglia, current USSF president, and Sepp Blatter, FIFA president.

In recent years, the field was used primarily by youth football teams. But with little money to maintain it properly, the facility's rundown conditions went from bad to worse.

The Oval was in disarray and threatened with a $372,000 tax foreclosure by New York City and being turned into a shopping center or an apartment building. Realizing what was at stake for the youth of the city, Jim Vogt and Chuck and Valerie Jacob formed the Metropolitan Oval Foundation three years ago.

They managed to secure a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Soccer Foundation (an organization that was formed from the profits of the 1994 World Cup to benefit soccer in the United States) and a matching grant from Nike to turn a decrepit field into a green oasis.

Metropolitan Oval Foundation president Jim Vogt, USSF president Dr. Bob Contiguglia and FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

"We can't afford to lose one field," Vogt said. "This is the cornerstone of soccer in the city. . . . To lose it would be ripping the heart out of soccer in New York City."

The key to the renovation was FieldTurf, an artificial turf that allowed football to be played there again on a full-time basis. FIFA's Quality Concept for artificial turf fields was launched in March as Nickerson Field at Boston University, which also uses FieldTurf, was approved for international matches.

"It's an incredible product," Vogt said. "I really see it becoming the field surface for urban sports.

"There's no sliding on it, no turf toe. It's a state of the art playing surface."