- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2003

John Harkes, dubbed the U.S. national team’s “Captain for Life” in 1996, will end his outstanding playing career tonight when he suits up for the last time with D.C. United in an exhibition match against English Premier League team Tottenham Hotspur at RFK Stadium.

Harkes, 36, retired from professional soccer last month, and tonight’s 7:30 match will be a tribute and a farewell for a man who helped U.S. soccer become recognized worldwide.

“When you think about leaving the game yourself, it always becomes a difficult time, but I’ve been fulfilled as a soccer player with so many good years and so many successes,” Harkes said.

Harkes paved the way for Americans to play in England’s top division. Players like Eddie Lewis, Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel, Jovan Kirovski and Claudio Reyna, just to name a few, and others currently playing in England can thank Harkes for breaking through the “Yankee” barrier in one of the world’s top leagues.

U.S. Soccer also owes a lot to Harkes. Along with Tab Ramos, Eric Wynalda and Paul Caligiuri, he led the United States to the 1990 World Cup, its first appearance in 40 years. The United States has not missed a World Cup since.

Following the 1990 World Cup, Harkes became the first American to play in the English League when he joined Sheffield Wednesday and stayed with the club through 1993. He moved on to Derby County (1993-95) and West Ham United (1995-96). Harkes was a true pioneer at a time when American soccer was not taken seriously by the rest of the world.

Harkes registered several American milestones with Sheffield Wednesday — first American to play in an F.A. Cup Final (1993), to score a goal in a League Cup final at London’s Wembley Stadium and to play in the UEFA Cup tournament.

“I remember meeting John Harkes for the first time in a hotel lobby in Tampa and it was soon after he had come back from England, and I went out of my way to shake his hand and tell him what an unbelievable job he did at Sheffield Wednesday,” said United coach Ray Hudson, who is a native of Newcastle, England. “It was a time when nobody was going over there from the U.S., especially to England, because it was a different game then — I mean they were still playing with chopping axes in the back pockets. You had to be a real man’s man to compete there.

“He went over there and played some tremendous football — I saw him week in and week out, and he was outstanding,” Hudson continued. “Harkesie, at that time, going there and in that environment, it’s never been given the respect that it deserves. For me personally, the way he went over and stuck the American flag in British soil in the Premiership back then was for me his greatest achievement. I remember lads in the pubs, my own friends saying, ‘Hey, this Harkes is a good player.’ They were shocked.”

Harkes, a Virginia graduate, also played in the 1994 World Cup and was named the national team’s captain in March 1996 when then-coach Steve Sampson called him “Captain for Life.” A falling out between Harkes and Sampson, reportedly over leadership issues, caused Sampson to drop Harkes from the 1998 World Cup team. The United States scored one goal in three games and finished last in the 32-team tournament.

Harkes, a multidimensional midfielder, is one of the founding fathers of Major League Soccer. He was allocated to United as the club’s first marquee player, captained United to back-to-back MLS championships (1996-97) and helped United win the 1998 Interamerican Cup and 1998 CONCACAF Champions Cup, as well as the 1996 U.S. Open Cup title.

“He led D.C.,” 18-year-old United forward Santino Quaranta said. “Every picture you see of a trophy, he’s holding one.”

Harkes, who was in United’s preseason training camp this season, almost was signed to a one-year deal, but the team went with younger players.

“He was so vital to where I’m at today for sure,” said United midfielder Ben Olsen, who was Harkes’ teammate with United in 1998. “When he was here, he took me under his wing and showed me a little bit of the on-and-off the field stuff — how to be a professional — mostly by watching him. He can still play. He keeps himself in phenomenal shape.”

Tonight will be the second meeting between United and Tottenham, which finished 10th in the Premiership this season. Last October in London, United won the first game 1-0, but this time the Spurs are bringing their full side.

The Spurs used the first match as a fund-raiser for past Tottenham players who had fallen on hard times. Subsequently, former Spurs stars like Jurgen Klinsmann, Glenn Hoddle, David Ginola, Paul Gascoigne and Teddy Sheringham, most of whom are way past their primes, suited up.

This time the Spurs are bringing a cache of international stars like Irish striker Robbie Keane, classy Uruguayan midfielder Gustavo Poyet and Keller, one of coach Bruce Arena’s prized U.S. national team goalkeepers.

“I was hoping Tottenham would be putting out the over-40 team that they did that night,” Harkes said. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll get lucky and notch one in there. That would nice. Just pick up the ball and walk off the field — all of us — and say that is the first game we won.”

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