It is a cool Sunday afternoon in Charlottesville, Va., as Tony Meola gently hefts his pet python, Monty, out of her box. The gleaming gray reptile, four feet long, ripples over and around Meola’s big hands and arms, her forked tongue darting in and out. “She’s excited,” says Meola. “She’s never struck at anyone, because she’s well fed. She only eats rats, mice and chicks from the pet store.”
Meola is like his python: In his case, he only springs at soccer balls. Winner of the 1989 Hermann Award, soccer’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, he has become, at 20, the most astonishing goalie in the world, the goalkeeper and youngest starter on a U.S. team that has advanced to the final round of the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. So adept at nailing incoming shots that he didn’t allow a goal in the team’s final four World Cup qualifying games (against Guatemala, El Salvador twice and soccer-crazed Trinidad and Tobago), Meola quickly turned around and led the University of Virginia to a share of this year’s NCAA championship. “He’s the most composed 20-year-old I’ve ever seen,” says Joe Machnik, goalkeeper coach of the U.S. World Cup team. Adds Bruce Arena, Meola’s coach at Virginia: “No one is better than Tony Meola. Great goalies usually hit their peak at 30. Tony’s already reached that level. He has so much sheer ability, his potential is frightening.”
On this day, Meola would like to downplay such talk. “At the end of summer I had two goals for myself,” says the 6’1″, 205-lb. communications major. “I wanted to help America qualify for the World Cup, and I wanted my school to win the NCAA.” Now that he has done those things, Meola, a sophomore, must decide in the next few months whether he will continue to play at Virginia or turn professional, here or abroad. “If some team wants to pay me a million dollars,” he says, “yeah, I’d play.” He’s joking. Well, sort of.
Soccer was always Meola’s first love, although he was a three-time All-America center fielder at Kearny High in Kearny, N.J., as well as an all-state forward in basketball. “Growing up, I played everything,” he says. “But soccer was in the family. One of my first memories was kicking the ball to my dad in the driveway. I must have been 3 or 4, and he kept shouting, ‘Stay under control! You gotta stay under control!’ ”
His parents—Vincent, 49, and Maria, 46—were married six years after they emigrated to the U.S. from Italy, where Vincent had played soccer for his hometown of Avellino. A barber who opened his own shop in East Rutherford, N.J., Vincent encouraged Tony and his sister Angela to play in local kids’ soccer leagues. “I used to sweep out the shop and work the register,” Tony says. “But Dad never wanted me to be a barber. Soccer was the big thing.” When he was 8, Tony met one of his idols, the soccer legend Pelé, through an uncle who played with him on New York’s now defunct Cosmos. Like most kids, Meola dreamed for a time of scoring goals by the bushel, but his first coach, he says, “stuck me in the goalie box because he thought I was fat and couldn’t run. But I was just big for my age. None of the kids wanted to play goalie because they wouldn’t get to run around. But I like being the team’s last defense. And being good at it gives the other players confidence, They’ve gotta feel that they can make a mistake and I can save them.”
Meola himself stays “loose and cool” by moving constantly in the goalie box, a study in nervous energy and perpetual motion. His World Cup teammates call him Ice, but though he patrols the goal in a loping crouch, arms dangling, he is sprinter-quick at deflecting or scooping up balls, then booting them 80 yards downfield.
By late afternoon, Meola has returned Monty to her box and sits scanning his dorm room walls, festooned with pictures of his girlfriend, Colleen Silvers, a student at Kean College in Union, N.J., a photo of an airborne Michael Jordan, and posters of foreign soccer stars including Diego Maradona—reminders of who he is and where he is going. “I’m part of the first generation of native-born Americans to play soccer on a world-class level,” Meola says, with pride and some wonder. “But that’s not enough. What I hope, now that we’re going to the World Cup, is that Americans will really support soccer. Like my mom and dad. They’ve already booked tickets for Italy.”