In 1972, 10-year-old Paul DiBernardo arrived with his family from Argentina to settle in Stickney Township just southwest of Chicago, not far from where the Chicago Fire make their home in Bridgeview today.
Back in the early 1970s, soccer specific stadiums didn’t exist in the United States, and participation in the sport was at a fraction of its popularity as a youth game nationwide today. Arriving from Argentina, where DiBernardo and his elder brother Angelo had grown up playing on the streets from dawn until dusk, Paul had no idea if anyone even played soccer in the United States.
“Soccer was our religion in Argentina,” DiBernardo recalls. “I missed it when we moved to the States.”
In Chicago, DiBernardo began playing baseball, the sport of the neighborhood. The brothers did not discover organized soccer in the city for a couple of years until Angelo, six years older than Paul, started working at a Zenith television factory and met a Czech co-worker involved with a team in Cicero, not far from the DiBernardos’ home. Angelo asked his new friend if the club had a youth division his brother might be able to play in.
The two brothers began to play for Chicago Sparta, an ethnic Czech club dating back to 1917 with titles in the National Challenge Cup (today known as the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup) in 1938 and 1940.
Within a decade of discovering soccer did exist in America, both DiBernardo brothers had progressed to make their debuts for the U.S. National Team.
The route for both of them went first through Sparta and then the successful soccer program at Indiana University. Angelo made his name known nationally in the mid-1970s, reaching the NCAA national championship final twice with the Hoosiers and winning the 1978 Hermann Trophy as the country’s best collegiate player. He made his debut for the USA in 1979, and played for the Los Angeles Aztecs and New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League (NASL).
Paul, meantime, advanced through the ranks at Sparta, making his debut for the senior team at the age of 17 in the team’s local Chicago league. He visited his brother at Indiana University, fell in love with the school, and decided to follow in Angelo’s footsteps.
The Hoosiers’ legendary head coach, Jerry Yeagley, was impressed by Paul’s talent, but wary of the pressure he’d feel following Angelo in the same team. DiBernardo did not join the program in 1980, going to junior college in the evening and working in the day instead.
Paul also thinks his diminutive size might have had something to do with the concerns. “I was only 5’3”,” he says. “And 125 pounds soaking wet.”
But DiBernardo had no doubts about his ability to carve out his own place in Hoosier history, regardless of his size or his brother’s success.
Paul was right, and proved it after walking on to Indiana’s team in 1981. He was a starter by his sophomore year, playing forward as the Hoosiers made it to the NCAA championship game at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., against Duke in December of 1982.
After a record eight overtimes, DiBernardo assisted Gregg Thompson for the game-winner. Indiana repeated as champions in 1983, and reached the final again in DiBernardo’s senior year in 1984, falling just short of an unprecedented three-peat by losing in the final to Clemson. He led the team in scoring in both 1983 and 1984, ending his college career with 40 goals and 36 assists.
DiBernardo was selected by Soccer America as the college player of the year in his senior year.
Early in 1985, DiBernardo was called up by the National Team for a Feb. 8 exhibition game against Switzerland in Tampa for what turned out to be his only international appearance. It was one he “thoroughly enjoyed,” coming on as a substitute in the last 10 minutes and touching the ball a few times. The biggest point of pride for Paul was that he wasn’t the only DiBernardo playing for the National Team that day, suiting up alongside his brother Angelo, the first time they had played together in what he says was “God knows how long.”
Yet just as he was making his debut for the National Team and was ready to turn professional in February 1985, the NASL collapsed and there was no Division One league until the formation of MLS in 1996. Like many in his generation, DiBernardo had to go indoors to “barely pay our bills,” as he puts it.
“We were a bit unfortunate,” DiBernardo says. “It was a bad time for players coming out of college with the NASL going down the drain. We still made the best of what we had. Playing indoor was a lot of fun and I met a lot of friends I still have to this day.”
DiBernardo carved out a career playing for the Louisville Thunder, Chicago Shoccers and Fort Wayne Flames on the punishing indoor circuit.
After five seasons pounding the floors of arenas in the Midwest, DiBernardo called it quits and managed a soccer store in South Bend, Ind., from 1990 to 2002, and then ran the Just for Kids soccer facility in Plainfield, Ill., part-owned by his brother Angelo, until 2008.
At that point, after being involved in soccer day-to-day for almost his entire life, DiBernardo decided it was time to leave the sport. He’s now a district manager at a healthcare company, Cook Medical.
DiBernardo’s family won’t let him let go of soccer that easily, though: it’s in their blood.
Angelo’s daughter, Vanessa, has advanced through the National Team system. A World Cup winner on the team that won the 2012 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Japan, Vanessa is now starring on the U.S. U-23 Women’s National Team and playing at Illinois.
“I’m very, very proud,” Paul says of his niece Vanessa, who lifted the World Cup trophy 20 years after her father and uncle took the field for the Men’s National Team.