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As soccer hysteria winds down with this weekend's World Cup final on Sunday, Tampa Bay Rowdies midfielder Jeremy Christie has returned from South Africa with many memories and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Christie played in two games as a second-half reserve for a New Zealand team that went unbeaten in group play. (The Kiwis tied all three games and currently are one of two teams - finalist Netherlands being the other - that hasn't lost a match.) After returning to the Rowdies last week, Christie shared his memories, talking about packed bars, loud horns and sweaty jerseys.

First thing's first. Everyone's been talking about the vuvuzelas. Were they as bad as everyone thought they were? Seems like they got a bad rap.

No, I think they were worse when you were watching them on TV than actually during the games. It's just like the crowd singing a lot. You can't really hear each other. There's a lot of crazy sign language going on on the field. My worst experience with the vuvuzelas was one of my roommates, Rory Fallon, bought one and he felt the need every morning to start the morning by blowing it. That was probably my worst experience with it.

New Zealand's success was one of the best stories in the group stage. Did it surprise you how well you did?

It surprised us a little bit. I think that during our warmup games we had some good results, and we started to believe maybe we could not just compete but get results. Before that, it was a little unknown. We weren't really sure how it would go. But we never thought we'd go unbeaten during the tournament. The draw against Italy ... I think it shocked the rest of the world more than it did us.

What was it like after that Italy match, when you tied one of the top teams in the world and the defending Cup champs?

It was crazy. The guys who didn't play the full game - I only played the last 10, 15 minutes - we trained afterward on the field. While everyone else was in celebration, we were on the field training, but it was great because the New Zealand fans would stay behind and get together. The rest of the stadium was empty, and there's this section of New Zealand fans singing and going crazy the whole time. It was probably the most fans we've had for a (postgame training session).

Before you left, you mentioned that you hoped you could help make New Zealand - where the most popular sport is rugby - a soccer nation. Do you think you and your teammates were able to do that?

It was the first time we were there in (almost) 30 years (since 1982), so I think the people were excited we were going. We got to see that when we were training in New Zealand beforehand. There were massive turnouts. The media was going crazy. I think each game, the reports we were getting was that the country was going football crazy. It was pretty cool to hear. The media there from New Zealand was feeding us how big it was. It was the main story on the national news. It was the first 15-20 minutes. There were record numbers watching back home at 2 in the morning. The bars were turning people away. One bar was turning about 500 people away. It was cool, even for a few weeks, that New Zealand became a football country and everyone seemed to be on the bandwagon.

The postgame jersey exchange, you don't see it in other sports. Is there a certain etiquette that needs to be practiced when asking an opponent for the shirt off his back?

Not everyone does it, but it's common in football. It's a good memento, especially in the World Cup when you're playing the biggest teams. I think maybe in past years, the New Zealand teams, when they saw the injury-time board go up, they'd start creeping next to someone whose jersey they'd want. I think that's changed. We don't do that anymore. As soon as the final whistle blows, you pretty much just go up to the person closest to you and shake hands, and I think it's a common thing now to swap shirts. It's nice to have those as souvenirs. And it's good because we always get a couple for each game.

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World Cup final

Spain vs. Netherlands, 2:30 Sunday. TV: Ch. 28


Germany vs. Uruguay, 2:30 Saturday. TV: Ch. 28