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When soccer’s ‘Captain America’ learned about the 9/11 attacks

2019-09-11

Claudio Reyna, nicknamed ‘Captain America,’ felt helpless after the planes hit the towers.

He was training with his club team in Glasgow, Scotland, and the equipment manager came running with the news, ghost-faced and jumbled. When Reyna realized the magnitude of the event, he attempted to contact his family and friends, some of whom worked in the financial district.

“No international communication happening,” Reyna, who is now the sporting director at NYCFC, said. “It was shut down.”

On a clear day from the front steps of his childhood home in Springfield, NJ, Reyna could see the Twin Towers in the skyline. But they disappeared while he practiced in Scotland, along with roughly 3,000 lives in the terrorist attack.

Weeks later, Reyna visited Ground Zero on a mission of curiosity and charity. But he quickly understood the wreckage, contaminated air and catastrophe was overwhelming. Again, Reyna felt helpless.

“Just for me, I went to understand what had happened, where they were (in cleaning it up),” said Reyna, who was fortunate to not have any family or close associates among the casualties. “I was looking for anything I could do to help. And there was really nothing I can do. I took off. Just left.”

Reyna’s best work, his life’s work, was on the soccer field. On Oct. 7, 2001, the U.S. Soccer team, captained by Reyna, became the first to represent the country in an international sporting event since the 9/11 attacks.

With kickoff at Foxboro occurring just hours after the U.S. began military operations in Afghanistan, the Americans qualified for the 2002 World Cup by beating Jamaica, 2-1. Reyna, who assisted on the game’s first goal, recalled a crowd of 40,000-plus chanting against Osama bin Laden.

“It was crazy,” he said.

Reyna’s other soccer link to 9/11 occurred in Scotland, where he was the longtime captain of the Glasgow Rangers. Playing against hated rival Celtic (also from Glasgow) less than three weeks after the terrorist attacks, a fan mocked Reyna from the stands by mimicking the motion of an airplane.

Reyna didn’t see the taunt in real time, but was surrounded at the airport the next day and asked to respond to what had become a major story.

Reyna expressed shock and disgust with the fan but ultimately downplayed the incident.

“So many people apologized from Celtic, so I didn’t want to make it this Rangers-Celtic thing and be caught in the middle of that,” he said. “It was just one idiot who was quickly given a lifetime ban. And that was it. The guy actually wrote me a letter. I didn’t respond to it.”

Reyna’s experience was largely positive as an international athlete in a time of American tragedy. At a 2002 exhibition in Italy, for instance, he said the crowd arena gave a standing ovation for the U.S. national anthem. Apparently many from that town in Catania had family members immigrate to New York, and 9/11 made the world feel small.

Now, the general sentiment toward the United States across the globe is contempt. It was different after 9/11.

“We had a lot of sympathy. We had a lot of people who liked us, who cared about us,” Reyna said. “It was a different time then than it is today.”

Reyna and the Americans rode these emotions to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup. As Reyna pointed out, they might’ve beaten Germany and advanced to the semifinals if video review, which is now a World Cup staple, was in place. A German midfielder stopped a U.S. goal with his hand, which should’ve resulted in a penalty kick and red card. Instead, the referee swallowed his whistle and Germany won, 1-0.

Still, the 2002 finish remains the best in USMNT’s World Cup history.

“It was one of the few sports that represented the country,” Reyna said. “We got wrapped up in it, we can feel it.”

Wednesday will mark the 18th anniversary of the attacks, and Reyna’s new team — NYCFC — will host Toronto at Yankee Stadium. Many of the players are too young to remember 2001, but Reyna, who is the team’s highest executive in soccer operations, accompanied them on a tour last week of the memorial site.

He said a connection was established that went beyond a player’s nationality. Again, the world felt smaller.

“We saw that people died from over 90 different countries,” Reyna said. “Guys saw their flags and I think that resonates with them.”