The inside story of Eric Wynalda's Copa America clash with Diego Simeone

“Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere” - William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Pt. 1
- - -

When Argentina's Diego Simeone came into contact with hot-headed American striker Eric Wynalda ahead of their teams' match in the 1995 Copa America in Uruguay, it seemed inevitable that the two tempestuous players would come to blows.

By 1995, Simeone was already a battle-hardened 25-year-old who had helped Argentina to back-to-back Copa titles in 1991 and 1993. Simeone, a midfielder, had scored three goals in those two tournaments and his wild, energetic style of play sparked the engine of an Albiceleste side that scored 16 goals in 1991 – and limited their opponents to just four in 1993.

But Simeone, or “Cholo,” as he is known, also had a knack for getting under the skin of his opponents. In a now-infamous incident at the 1998 World Cup, it was Simeone who lured David Beckham into a retaliatory kick that earned the young Beckham a red card and crushed the hopes of England fans.

In the tunnel before the 1995 USA-Argentina match, as players from both teams tried to warm up in the same narrow hallway of Estadio Parque Artigas in Paysandú, Simeone began shouting obscenities at any and every US player within earshot.

Forward Eric Wynalda turned to teammate Claudio Reyna. “Does he knew that we speak Spanish?” he asked Reyna. “He has called us every single name that you could possibly call us and now he's involving our mother. What is wrong with this guy?”

Wynalda's own temper was no secret. In the 52nd minute of the USA's opening match of the 1990 World Cup, in front of a worldwide television audience of millions, Wynalda had finally had enough of Czechoslovakia's Lubomir Moravcik, who had been stepping on Wynalda's feet throughout the match. The Californian shoved Moravcik to the ground, earning himself a red card.

"Anytime you call attention to yourself like I did with the red card, people have a tendency to attach other negatives to you," Wynalda would say later about the incident. "The most important thing was, there was a temper there. It's not a matter of controlling it. It's a matter of changing negative energy into positive. That comes with experience."

Such were the criticisms of Wynalda at the time, that none other than his own mother came to his defense.

“I think some of the criticism is deserved,” Sue Wynalda told the Los Angeles Times. "If people get in his face, he's going to tell them what he thinks. I admire that. But this other stuff is all so vague. I'd like for someone to tell me what he's done wrong. On the field, Eric is competitive. And he's successful.”

Fast forward to 1995. Here they were, two fierce competitors, sharing a hallway together during a tense pre-match warm-up, when Wynalda finally decided he had had enough of Simeone's antics.

“When it was time to actually come down the tunnel, I said something to him in English,” Wynalda recounts. “I go: 'What? You don't understand what I say? I'm going to kick the crap out of you? I'm going to beat the **** out of you? What if I punch you in the face right now, you piece of ****?'

“We just went at it and it got escalated to the point where we were grabbing each other and pushing each other.”

It took Simeone's cool-headed teammate, the legendary Argentine goalscorer Gabriel Batistuta, to break up the fight.

“We weren't going to cave,” Wynalda says of the attitude that he and his teammates tried to convey in the stadium tunnel. “We weren't going to back down. We weren't going to just let some crazy Argentine scream at us in a different language and just say, 'Oh OK, whatever.' That just wasn't going to happen.”

Wynalda remains convinced that Argentina's head coach at the time, Daniel Passarella, scratched Simeone from his starting lineup after what happened in that tunnel before the game. True or not, when Simeone came in to start the second half, he was bursting with manic energy, energy that Wynalda's teammates were eager to tame.

“I think maybe a different team, a different mentality would have backed down to [Simeone's intensity], but the first time [Simeone] came near to [US defensive midfielder] Tom Dooley, he knew it,” Wynalda says. “Dooley took his ass out. It was such a thing of beauty. Just to hit somebody that hard and that clean and stand up and smile.”

The underdogs would have the last laugh, shocking the world with a 3-0 win over Argentina – and after Frank Klopas and Alexi Lalas gave the US a 2-0 halftime lead, Wynalda scored the exclamation point in the 58th minute. The Yanks would go on to make a gutsy run to the semifinals, putting themselves on the international soccer map.

Today, Simeone is internationally renowned as the head coach of La Liga club Atletico Madrid. Wynalda, an analyst with Fox Sports, continues to hold enormous respect for his old sparring partner.

“[Simeone] doesn't hate Americans or hate me,” he says. “He's a patriot. That's what he is. He is fully invested into what's about to happen, both emotionally and physically.”