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Kicks in Eastern Europe

Published Aug. 4, 1991|Updated Oct. 13, 2005

Like many parents of aspiring professional soccer players in this country, Jack Trittschuh understood his son would have to leave to improve and prosper. "Where? Where?" the elder Trittschuh recalls stammering when Steve told him he had signed a professional contract with Sparta Prague of the Czechoslovakian First Division.

"I was thinking Germany or Belgium," Jack said. "But Czechoslovakia?"

Although not the tourist capital of Europe _ or Eastern Europe, for that matter _ Prague suited Steve Trittschuh. But then, he would have gone anywhere to chase his dream.

"Ever since I got serious about soccer, I knew I'd have to go overseas," said Trittschuh, a defensive mainstay of the American Professional Soccer League's Tampa Bay Rowdies. "In this country, there's, unfortunately, just not that much."

He should know.

Trittschuh, a two-time All-American from Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, played every minute of all eight World Cup qualifying games as the U.S., ending 40 years of futility, won a spot in the 1990 World Cup finals.

Trittschuh played in only the first of the three U.S. World Cup games in Italy, a 5-1 shellacking by Czechoslovakia. A few weeks after the World Cup, a Czechoslovakian scout contacted him.

"They were interested in me and Bruce Murray, but Bruce backed out," he said. "I wanted to go. I want to be around in 1994 when the World Cup comes here, and to do that I knew I had to go."

If he had any trepidations, they were eased as soon as he and his wife, Suzanne, wearily got off the airplane in Prague. They were greeted by a throng of fans. A reception with his teammates followed.

Against crosstown rival Slavia on Aug. 23, in his third match of the year, Trittschuh scored for Sparta Prague. That was the first time an American scored in a Czechoslovakian match and the first goal by a non-Czechoslovakian in that country since 1938.

"I remember that game," Suzanne said. "While the game was going on, the Sparta fans were going nuts and there were fights. The police came; they had their sticks, hit them, and threw them in the truck. I wasn't close to that (the trouble), but I was afraid for Steve and the players."

"I scored," Steve said, "and all she wanted to talk about was the fighting. I really didn't pay any attention to it. I'd seen it before. After that, everything was so much easier."

Well, not exactly.

Trittschuh, 26, thought he had rigorous training regimens in the U.S. But twice a week, Sparta had morning and afternoon training sessions of about 90 minutes each. Single practices on three other days lasted a few hours. Games were every Sunday.

Aside from the physical demands, practices were an exercise in patience. Communication was tougher than executing an accurate bicycle kick, especially when coach Vaclav Jezek, who spoke some English, was replaced by non-English speaking Dusan Uhrin in January.

"I could get by in practices," Trittschuh said. "I'd watch a drill and just do it. But if I needed something explained, it was hard for him to get it across to me. I did learn a few words on the field."

The language problems affected even mundane tasks. Grocery shopping became an adventure. If you can't read the labels on cans, it's sort of like a game of Russian roulette.

"We'd pretty much stick to butter, milk, bread and noodles," Suzanne said. "Milk came in little plastic bags and lasted a day. We like salads, but you'd go one day and find lettuce and another day tomatoes and then the next day cucumbers. Then it was salad day."

So why not eat out, especially when you're fairly well off, at least by Czechoslovakian standards? (Trittschuh signed for about $50,000.) But menus had neither English subtitles nor prices, and waiters would try to charge foreigners whatever they could, often trying to double the prices.

The Trittschuhs didn't eat out often.

If they needed to hear English, they could just pick up a telephone and call home, right? Well, a phone is a luxury in Czechoslovakia. For most of the time the Trittschuhs were there, they didn't have a phone and could call home only from Suzanne's office.

"It was hard when they didn't have a phone," said Bettie Hillabrandt, Suzanne's mother. "That's when I felt isolated. But we didn't have any major problems or any emergencies, luckily."

Life in Czechoslovakia wasn't all bad, however.

With CNN available in their apartment and USA Today available for purchase, they were not cut off from the news, especially when they sought updates of the Persian Gulf war.

Although the war closed the American tourist center for a day and forced Trittschuh's parents to cancel a visit, Czechoslovakia insulated Steve and Suzanne from adverse affects. In Prague, life went on as usual.

The Trittschuhs also basked in luxury. Unlike many of their neighbors, they had a car (a Skoda), which allowed them to tour the scenic countryside, dotted with castles and other historic remnants.

There were also social activities. They saw the Harlem Globetrotters. Local theaters showed movies from the states, such as "The Accidental Tourist" and "The War of the Roses."

And they made several good friends. In fact, Steve and Suzanne agreed the hardest part about leaving was saying goodbye to Vitja, a Sparta teammate who spoke English, his wife Irena and their young daughter Tereza.

So, was it all worth it?

"I learned a lot under Lothar (Osiander), Bob (Gansler) and Bora (Milutinovic), but everything over there is soccer," Trittschuh said. "It's soccer day in and day out. I learned more in less than a year than the five years with the national team."

It shows.

"You can tell he's just so much more confident," said fellow U.S. national team star Peter Vermes.

Still, Trittschuh found himself (along with Vermes) benched for an American Professional Soccer League game against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers on June

22 in Tampa. The Rowdies lost 1-0.

Although Trittschuh, as soft-spoken as ever, didn't understand why coach Steve Wegerle would sit him out, he didn't complain. After playing in the CONCACAF Gold Cup in Los Angeles, Trittschuh regained his starting spot with the Rowdies and showed his skill.

"I'm sure he was upset about the Fort Lauderdale game, but he's come back and been our best player," Wegerle said late last month. "He's been superb in every way."

Trittschuh said he wants to go back to Europe and is exploring the possibility, but Czechoslovakia isn't high on the list.

"It was a great experience. I learned what it means to be a professional, and playing there opened up a lot of things for me," he said. "But Czechoslovakia?"

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