Ethan Zohn and I sat down and shared a meal at a local Lower East Side restaurant. The Survivor: Africa winner gave First Touch an exclusive interview about the sights and sounds he took in whilst covering the World Cup this summer in Korea and Japan.
By Jason Joseph
JJ: Before you share your experiences in Korea and Japan this summer while covering the World Cup, our readership may recognize you as the Survivor: Africa winner and fail to make the connection to soccer.
EZ: Right. I’ve been playing soccer all my life. I’ve played professionally as a goalkeeper for six years. I played for Highlanders Football Club in the Zimbabwean Premier League. It’s a good level of soccer – it’s probably equivalent to the A-League here, which I also played in. In the A-League, I played for the Boston Bulldogs, Cape Cod Crusaders, Hawaii Tsunami –
JJ: Hawaii…? No arm-twisting there I suppose….
EZ: (laughter) …I played there in ’96, right out of school (Vassar College).
JJ: So you were making your rounds professionally…
EZ: Well, I was still playing professionally when Survivor came around.
JJ: And how did that come around…?
EZ: It was November 2001 and the professional scene was over – I had just finished coaching a season at Fairleigh Dickinson University – and I was debating, Do I want to get a full-time job? Do I want to keep on playing?
So I decided to try and do both, I applied for a job, and also tried out for the US National Maccabi team as well (for the World Maccabiah Games, held once every four years). If I made the team, I’d be going to the Maccabiah Games in the summer.
I got the job, but the day before I was supposed to start, a hiring freeze hit, and the job fell through. So I figure: I’m screwed. So…me and my friends are bored one day, and from nowhere, they say ‘let’s make a video and send you on Survivor.’ I went along with it. Literally, we were just sitting around on a nice day like today.
We made the video and sent it in, never thought anything of it – you never think you’re going to make it; 65,000 people apply. So…anyway, I got the call-back, blah blah blah blah blah – made both Survivor and the US National Maccabi Team…
JJ: So decision time…
EZ: Yeah, so I had a decision, but “luckily” the decision was made for me when they cancelled the Maccabiah Games because of violence in Israel.
Then I went to Survivor, won, and obviously, ya know, I was known on Survivor as “the soccer guy” – and that’s always been my passion; it’s what I’ve been doing. So after winning, everyone was like, “do you want to be an actor…? Do you want to go to Hollywood..? Do you wanna do this, do that” –
JJ: Not really you, is it…
EZ: Not really. I wanted to get my foot in the soccer world. And in a World Cup year, I was presented with the perfect opportunity.
Philips Electronics, which sponsors the US National team, and USSoccer.com launched this big initiative to get fans back home excited about the World Cup. With the time difference – a lot of folks here weren’t going to wake up at 3:00am –
JJ: (a smile that betrayed many a 2:15am wake up for 2:30 kickoff)
EZ: – well, the real fans will, but a lot of folks relied on the internet, so we launched “Ethan Zohn’s Zone” –
JJ: and this was on USSoccer.com?
EZ:– right – basically me, from a fan’s perspective, reporting from the World Cup; something light, funny, not hardcore analytical. Fans could write in and ask questions. I had access to the US team, behind the scenes. I ate meals with them; I was on the bus with them –
JJ: …help cut Mathis’s hair…
EZ: (laughter) exactly….but that [mohawk haircut] was smart. In terms of marketing? It certainly caught people’s attention. People raised an eyebrow, but it was the smartest thing he could have done. I mean, if you’re not going to be given much playing time, they might as well notice you for your hair.
JJ: at that point, was he carrying any injuries that the broader public wasn’t privy to?
EZ: well, management had some questions about his overall fitness.
JJ: It’s unfortunate that he’s recently picked up another injury. Wasn’t he thinking of going to Europe –
EZ: – Germany and Spain.
JJ: He’ll be back. What do you think it is about Germany that attracts so many US players, because they seem to get more run there than anywhere else. You think the tactics are more conducive to their style of play?
EZ: Well…I think the German style is more big and athletic and hard and a lot of American players play that way. And also, it’s a good league, but it’s not La Liga, Serie A or the Premiership.
JJ: there’s a difference in skill.
EZ: The Bundesliga is a drop in skill, so our guys can play there.
JJ: I think there’s something to that. The USA showed that they could impose themselves physically on a team, including Germany – I thought they outplayed Germany from a physical standpoint – they schooled ‘em –
JJ: – they got more scoring chances, they controlled I think 58% of the possession.
Okay, so you land in Korea…you must have been as giddy as a schoolboy.
EZ: Oh yeah…so, I got to fly first class. Bedroom slippers, DVD player, etc. – I’ve never gone that far in first class. I was happy to get on the plane. So I land in Korea.
The cameras are on me right away, the second I’m walking out of customs.
JJ: Did you breeze through customs at least?
JJ: So immediately you’re in “Ethan” mode.
EZ: Everything I did was catalogued. I got there on June 2nd, so the tournament had just kicked off a couple of days before. From the time you land in the airport, people are handing out World Cup schedules…it was nice. In the mix right away. Writing journal entries and doing little video commentary on anything from taxi cabs to night clubs to the food-
EZ: – exactly – the markets there…and then obviously there’s the whole soccer side of it.
JJ: So how what was the routine, day to day?
EZ: My hotel was about ten minutes away from the US team. Each morning I’d go watch them train – about 30 minutes away from the hotel. A full police escort surrounded their bus, and I followed in a car just behind them. Traffic’s horrible there – if it wasn’t for the escort, everything would have taken much longer.
JJ: How receptive to your presence was coach Bruce Arena? Did he object to an outsider being in the camp?
EZ: He was cool. I had met him a couple times before. And obviously everyone knew that I was going to be there; it had to be cleared with US Soccer, it had to be cleared with Arena, because my access was more than was given to any other media.
I was up in the hotel rooms, hanging out, shooting the shit, interviewing some of the players. So practice was early, around ten in the morning…
JJ: Did you get to kick about with them?
EZ: Actually, I did.
JJ: How was that?
EZ: That was probably one of the best 15 minutes of my life. It was one of the last days of practice. Bruce arena announced that everyone had twenty minutes to themselves to do whatever they wanted to do – stretch, juggle, shoot or whatever. So I’m just standing around on the sidelines and [backup goalkeeper Tony] Meola goes “Ethan. Come on, get in net.” And I’m like “no way…”
JJ: Did you know Meola much before then?
EZ: Not really. I had talked to him earlier –
JJ: the old veteran of the team…
EZ: – exactly. But he gives me his gloves –
JJ: Those old sweaty things? (laughter)
EZ: And I get in goal and the whole team is on the sidelines watching. Then Agoos, Donovan, Berhalter and McBride are taking free kicks against me, in goal. And I’m in street clothes. They set up a fake wall and were bending them in. It was great.
I regressed right back in to goalkeeper mode. I started talking smack to them. I was saying ‘hey, I’m jet-lagged…is that all you got??’
JJ: and ‘damn, I should have tried out for this team….’ So did you make any nice saves, or what?
EZ: Well, there’s this whole big dilemma: do I try my hardest and not do well and look like a fool or do I joke around and not take it too seriously…deep down I wanted to try my hardest.
JJ: Ah…that’s too much pride.
EZ: Well, they’re all looking at me with the understanding that I used to play pro: I played in the A-League, which isn’t MLS…but I pulled off a save or two. But that was great. It was great. And I’d go to the press conferences. It was usually Bruce Arena and two players.
JJ: With tons of brilliant questions like “so, are you going to try to win?” and “what formation will you use tomorrow?” being asked?
EZ: Yeah it was a whole media frenzy. Right before they played Portugal, it seemed like the Portuguese media would plant reporters to ask questions about how Arena would deal with the various threats of Figo and company.
They’d ask how Arena would react if Portugal fielded five defenders, trying to get worthwhile responses. After press conferences, I’d interview players, and then go do what I had to do – get a slice of the local culture for journal entries. I’d watch games and try to keep on top of the rest of the tournament, particularly what was going on across the water in Japan. I covered “Sam’s Army,” the hardcore US fans. They were a lot of fun.
JJ: Okay, so what about the actual games?
EZ: I happened to have good seats. Not front row or anything, but I was always on the center line, about 15 rows back. I had a nice view of Pele, Maradona…the stars were about. The atmosphere was unbelievable. At the Korea – USA game, there were literally about 60,000 people in red and maybe 5,000 in any other color.
JJ: those Korean fans –
EZ: they were just crazy…
JJ: I hear one guy lit himself on fire. He doused himself in gasoline and struck a match, claiming he wanted to come back as the team’s twelfth man.
EZ: there were undercurrents of anti-American sentiment, and people were speculating that a riot would break out if Korea lost.
JJ: Like when one of the Korean players, after scoring, celebrated by imitating the motion of a speed skater, in effect protesting an outcome of one of the Winter Olympic events – a much preferable way to express disapproval about a result than aiming a gun at someone or rioting and inflicting mayhem.
EZ: right, sport is sport and politics are politics.
JJ: right and if you can express your politics in a sporting way, so much the better. Especially with what’s popping off, globally.
EZ: So altogether, I guess my only complaint was that there was no good stadium food. The stadiums were beautiful, but they didn’t quite have the food worked out. I was expecting everything to be crazy throughout all the cities.
You couldn’t just go anywhere and watch a game – you had to go and scout out a location to watch the game, if you didn’t have tickets. We would sometimes have to go to several locations to find a place that was actually showing the game; in Japan it was the same thing – we’d have to scramble at the last second to find a place showing the games.
JJ: USA – Portugal, one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history.
EZ: Oh man…what a game.
JJ: The Portuguese team probably makes more than the entire MLS combined. Figo got locked up by Tony Sanneh.
EZ: Well, he started on the right and Frankie Hejduk was marking him, and then he switched to the left.
JJ: – which proved to be a mistake. With Portugal, they often interweave the midfielders, but Figo almost never plays on the left at club level. Sanneh didn’t give him two inches of space. In Spain, he’s used to a bit more room to operate. No wonder Arsenal were rumored to have made an offer for him. Who would you say has made the most strides with the US national team over the past few years?
EZ: I think Brian McBride had a great tournament. I’d say he won about 70% of all headers, and against top teams – against Mexico, Germany, Portugal, Poland, Korea.
JJ: The USA’s answer to Alan Shearer.
EZ: Pablo Mastroeni played great, at left back and in midfield. I thought John O’Brien was great. Sanneh. Donovan played well but he should have maybe put away a few more chances.
JJ: Juventus’ Dutch midfielder Edgar Davids actually singled out O’Brien for particular praise as well.
EZ: right, because Davids played with Ajax as well, like O’Brien.
JJ: But I think Davids was long gone by the time O’Brien came to Amsterdam. Beasley looked good.
EZ: Yes, he did. But he’s so small. He’s affectionately known as ‘the shoelace with eyeballs’ on the team (thanks to Jeff Agoos). Friedel was great as well.
JJ: So which players caught your eye, other than American players?
EZ: Hasan Sas from Turkey, Oliver Kahn…the number 10 for Turkey was excellent as well.
JJ: Basturk. Plays for Bayer Leverkeusen.
EZ: Yes. He was nice. The guy for Senegal who’s nicknamed “Serial Killer.” Diouf?
JJ: He just signed for Liverpool
EZ: Did he? Good for him. He was so good. To see these guys live – TV doesn’t do it justice. Their facial expressions, I was so close I could hear them.
JJ: So what are you doing these days?
EZ: Well, I started a non-profit organization. When I won Survivor, I said that I wanted to do something with soccer and help children; of course the skeptics doubted that, since everyone has all sorts of noble ideas when they win.
But I started a non-profit org: grassrootsoccer.org which goes to Zimbabwe and educates Zimbabwean soccer players about HIV and AIDS, so that they can in turn spread the word about the perils of HIV, and how to avoid it, throughout the schools.
The players there are basically idolized and their word is respected. The idea is that that having local heroes spread the word is more effective than having Peace Corps-types come in and try to persuade them. No one’s ever tried to educate through soccer before, and it seems like the most obvious vehicle. So that’s my baby.