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Boston soccer’s (low-key) version of Becks and Posh

By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / May 21, 2010

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Premiership player and pop-singer wife move across the Atlantic to start a new life in MLS. Becks and Posh ride the hype machine from Madrid to Los Angeles to Milan, David Beckham’s success measured as much by clothing (caps earned, jerseys sold) as goals produced.

Now there is a Boston version, though not one fueled by handlers, marketers, and public relations people. Cory Gibbs and Zena McNally made the move below the radar, London to Colorado, then to the Revolution.

They have kept a low profile. Gibbs prefers working behind the scenes, his classy defending appreciated by soccer cognoscenti in a career that has taken him to professional clubs in four countries. Zena is the “striker’’ of the couple, a gregarious attention-getter, a natural performer who gained fame with the R&B group Mis-Teeq, switching gears to become a BBC morning radio personality. Now she is a footballer’s wife, ready to settle down in a new world.

Gibbs grew up playing soccer in a Jamaican neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale, then was recruited to Brown University, a move that helped open doors in the business world and also brought him in contact with Revolution coach Steve Nicol.

Gibbs’s soccer career blossomed in Europe, but his chance on the international stage was undercut by a knee injury on the eve of the 2006 World Cup. He was named to the US team and played in World Cup qualifiers, but knee surgery kept him out of the main tournament. Now 30, Gibbs is the senior member of the Revolution’s back line as the team transitions and his career moves to another phase.

“Stevie always took me in — when I was in college, when I was injured,’’ Gibbs said. “It’s like I’m where I needed to be, permanently. Europe is and should be every player’s soccer dream, but this is where I ultimately wanted to be. It didn’t work out the first time, because of who had my rights, first LA and then Colorado, but I’m here now.

“In Europe, the highlight had to be playing for Feyenoord, 60,000 people at our games, then a Premier team signing. That brought tears to my eyes but, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to fulfill [expectations] because of injury.’’

But Gibbs’s move to London to play for Charlton Athletic, and the down time while recovering from the knee operation, allowed the couple to meet.

“We met in London and, God forbid, he had taken the decision to drain his knee just so he could play in the World Cup,’’ Zena said. “He might not have got to Charlton and I wouldn’t have a wonderful husband.

“I’m a true believer, everything happens for a reason. Actually, before I met Cory, I’d always wanted to eventually live in America. It was never a thought I’m going to marry an American; it was I’m going to live in America. And I ended up meeting Cory and then we ended up here. That was a dream in itself.

“Before we came, Cory said, ‘You’ll love Boston. I’m trying to get traded there. That’s my first choice.’ He was telling me so many things about here. It’s similar to New York.

“Obviously, we were in Denver first and it was a lot quieter than what I’m used to, but it gave me that gradual run-up to now be in Boston and experiencing the city life and all these different things we’re doing here. So I’m really happy.’’

That’s show biz
From their home south of Boston, Zena is working on organizing Cory Gibbs Star Soccer camps, a venture that started with former Brown coach Mike Noonan, now at Clemson. She seems content to be moving on from celebrity.

“I was at the point in my life where it happened very naturally for me to leave everything behind and step out of my career into married life and be an at-home wife,’’ Zena said. “So I think we were very lucky with that.

“It was a shock because we were married July 4, 2008, and I think it was two weeks after Cory found out he was being transferred to the MLS. And I was making plans, like what I’m going to do next year. In my job, I was looking forward to a promotion and it was a big shock.

“I would be lying if I said when I first moved over here it was all . . . I did miss it for a few months, but it was at the point in my life where I just got married and I wanted to start having children and just enjoying married life and being a wife.

“I really didn’t have the passion or the drive. I’ve been in the industry for, like, 10 years and I didn’t have that drive to start from scratch at the age of 30. So, I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to start looking for other things I’m interested in.’

“It was kind of like you take account of your life and say I’m leaving this behind — but it’s not a bad thing — and I’m moving forward with this. I think, basically, my days of dancing around in hot pants are behind me.’’

Waylaid in World Cup
On a recent weekday afternoon, the couple went unnoticed in a Japanese restaurant in Brookline. Such anonymity would not be so easy in London.

Gibbs, too, has given up a big European stage for a more modest league.

“When we first met, he was still kind of recovering from the knee injury,’’ Zena said. “And he’s very passionate about football and just seeing his passion for it and all the work he puts in to get back into the game and, obviously, he told me about the World Cup.

“Me and his mom are really close, and I know how his mom would have taken it and how hurt she would have been, and how that would affect him, as well. It is a sad thing but I know he made the right decision [to have surgery] and he should be proud he was selected. Not everybody gets selected. And he was there and he was part of the team.’’

Gibbs last performed for the United States as a starting left back in a 1-1 tie with Morocco in Nashville in May 2006. He could have tried to play through the knee injury in the World Cup in Germany, but the effects could have been debilitating.

“It was disheartening,’’ Gibbs said. “I got selected and I’m on my way there, and days before we’re about to start our first game, I [injured] my knee.

“I spoke to [then-US coach] Bruce Arena about it and he said you’ve already signed your contract and it’s all about getting yourself healthy before you get to Charlton, instead of just draining your knee and putting in whatever injection you needed to do just to play in the World Cup.

“It was a big decision I had to make and, ultimately, it was the right decision in terms of taking care of myself. I give a lot of respect to him and it hurts, you know, not being able to represent my country, but at the same time it was the right decision.

“That’s my dream — that’s every soccer player’s dream — to represent their country and play in the World Cup. I passed the first step, which was making the team, and being able to play in the game was the second step, and you’re so close, and you see how it hurts your family so much.

“I had to make that smart decision to get the operation done before the World Cup instead of risking other injuries.’’

Career decisions
Both charted their career paths early. At age 8, Gibbs was pictured on the sports page of a local newspaper, and “right when I saw that,’’ he said, “I knew it was soccer that I was doing and everything else stopped.’’

Zena moved to London from Birmingham as a teenager.

“I told my mum this is what I want to do, I’m passionate about it, don’t worry,’’ she said. “I went down there, luckily got myself into a girl group. That didn’t really work out, so I went solo. I signed with a record label, just lived out my dreams, really.’’

Gibbs’s path to international soccer began with a phone call from Noonan.

“I didn’t even know what Brown was,’’ Gibbs said. “Ivy League? I said from Day 1, Mike Noonan has been like a second father. I’ve taken his advice and gotten places, from an 18-year-old kid to who I am now.

“I grew up a left back. Noonan structured me into a center back. Playing on the U20 team with [current and former Revolution players] Taylor Twellman, Jamar Beasley, Nick Downing, plus Nick Garcia, Steve Cherundolo, Tim Howard, Chris Albright . . . I signed a big deal from that, I went to St. Pauli [in Germany].

“It was absolutely amazing, 23,000 fans chanting at every game. Even though it wasn’t the biggest club, they were ranked third in Europe. Win, lose, or draw, it was a good experience and they boosted my career. The Bundesliga is hard-nose, two-touch football, and you have to be focused day in and out. It lets you mature as a person.’’

St. Pauli, the alternative club of Hamburg, still sells T-shirts with Gibbs listed in the starting lineup of an upset victory over Bayern Munich.

Gibbs learned German, then Dutch after moving to Rotterdam to perform for Feyenoord. He played a season (2004) with Dallas in MLS and, after another European stint, returned to the United States. At first, Gibbs was going to the Los Angeles Galaxy to play for his former Feyenoord coach, Ruud Gullit. But MLS rules prevented the move, instead assigning his rights to the Colorado Rapids, the type of transaction that confounded Gullit and other foreign coaches in the league.

MLS has also been confusing to Zena, who grew up an Aston Villa supporter.

“I’m used to being in the stands and joining in the chants and stuff,’’ she said. “It’s kind of like being at a football game here; a soccer game in England is like a football game here. That was a big change, going to Cory’s games and there’s not a lot of people there. At first it was a bit disheartening, like, why isn’t there a lot of people coming to see my husband play and the team he plays for?

“But after you’re here, you get used to the fact the MLS, as much as it’s grown since it’s started, it’s still in its growth period and they are still trying to get more people to games. It wasn’t hard, but it was different.’’

‘Definitely not a Wag’
Zena has already gone through a drastic lifestyle change, from late-night performing to awakening at 5 a.m. to prepare for the BBC’s “Breakfast Show.’’

“I think we actually lived out our courting relationship on the ‘Breakfast Show,’ ’’ Zena said. “When I started the ‘Breakfast Show,’ we had just met, so my kind of personality is very outspoken, kind of the gossip-girl type thing, and I used just talk about Cory constantly. So the listeners knew Cory and they hadn’t met him. but everyone knew Cory. ‘Oh, me and Cory did this yesterday.’

“I really like radio here. There’s a lot more difference in the music. In Denver, they play the same songs all the time. I like the personalities here, a lot of personalities on the radio here — which is like England — that you can identify with.’’

Zena also is getting a chance to redefine herself, away from the tabloid spotlight of footballer “Wags’’ (wives and girlfriends).

“Oh yeah, the Wags, I hate that,’’ she said. “It’s very stereotypical. And that’s the thing, with England, before someone meets you, if you are married to a footballer, you are already perceived as very snotty, very rude, very materialistic, no ambition-type thing. You’re automatically famous if you’re a Wag, but famous for the wrong reason.

“I think that was a good thing, because we got married and we just kind of left the country. I used to get a lot of jokes about that on the radio station, when people found out that I was marrying a footballer, a soccer player, and I don’t like that, at all.

“I think over here it’s a lot more low-key, people are a lot more humble with it. I think you get it more with the NBA players and the NFL players, but I’m just glad soccer wives are not stereotyped that way, because I’m definitely not a Wag.’’

So it’s on to soccer camps and clinics, Gibbs doing the instructing, Zena the organizing.

“It’s just what I love to do,’’ said Gibbs. “I love to teach and I love to just be a mentor for them and try to develop younger players. That’s been my ultimate goal since Day 1, growing up and watching other big footballers play.

“So now that I have that opportunity, I want to take advantage of it. I try to do it on the field with our team, leading the back line and guys in front of me. That’s what I’m trying to translate to younger kids.’’

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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