New York Times columnist George Vecsey, friend to soccer and to all who have had the pleasure of sitting next to him in a press box or on a European overnight train, is stepping away from the daily newspaper grind. Though many of us in the business knew this day was coming soon, it doesn’t make it much easier to accept.

I first met George on June 6, 1992, at Soldier Field in Chicago. The United States was playing Italy in a U.S. Cup match. The Americans had gained a draw – and the tournament title – when John Harkes’s goal canceled out Roberto Baggio’s second-minute strike. George, a writing legend whose decades of work for the Times transcended sports, was in town primarily for the NBA Finals at the old Chicago Stadium.

One day the Bulls, the next day the Azzurri.

In the confusion of the postgame interview room, as the hacks awaited the arrival of managers Bora Milutinovic and Arrigo Sacchi, George approached me and said, “Hi, I’m George Vecsey of the Times. I just wanted to introduce myself. One of your colleagues [at the NBA game] said you might be here.”

George Vecsey was introducing himself to me? Seriously? This was so wrong.

I was a punk reporter with part-time status who had defied editor’s orders by flying to Chicago on my own dime to cover the match. With the World Cup coming to America in two years, I was beginning to educate myself about international soccer after observing the college game as well as the alphabet soup of fragile pro circuits that sustained the sport’s pulse in the bleak years between the demise of the NASL and the launch of MLS.

George was already a legend. He started writing about baseball in the 1960s and worked on the national and religion desks. In 1976 he wrote country singer Loretta Lynn’s autobiography, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” which was adapted for film and won Sissy Spacek an Oscar for best actress. He also collaberated with performers Barbara Mandrell and Lorrie Morgan, Chinese dissident Harry Wu and tennis star Martina Navratilova.

As a sports writer, he covered World Series and Super Bowls, Olympics and World Cups, heavyweight bouts and Tours de France.

If anyone should’ve introduced himself, it should’ve been me to George, not the other way around. I was blown away. George, now 72, was one of my writing idols, along with The Post’s William Gildea and, years earlier when I was a newspaper-obsessed teenager growing up in New England, half of the Boston Globe’s sports staff.

But this was the essence of George: a thoughtful, soft-spoken gentleman who was the conscience of American sports writing. On those occasions when he made it out to a match, he was also the conscience of American soccer writing. George looked the part of the wise sage, sporting a beard befitting an Amish farmer or Henry David Thoreau.

He wasn’t the nuts-and-bolts guy, breaking down formations and tactics. He told the human and cultural stories, and in soccer more than any other sport, those elements are interwoven into the competition itself.

At the 2002 World Cup, during an early-morning interview session with U.S. Coach Bruce Arena at the team hotel in Seoul, George drew Arena out of his guarded posture. He didn’t ask him about starting assignments but about his memories growing up on Long Island. Arena, a fellow New Yorker who had always admired George’s work, proceeded to recount colorful stories of his father, a butcher, taking him to Yankees games twice per season and, later in adolescence, sneaking into Shea Stadium to watch the expansion Mets.

On the road, George saw beyond the pitch and made a point to visit landmarks and museums. He always found a way to weave them into his columns. With an eloquent and human touch, he also introduced soccer to a broader audience. While most meat-and-potatoes American columnists avoid soccer at all costs, other than to rehash tired 1-0 punch lines, George loved writing about the sport and its importance to most of the world’s inhabitants. He gave it a chance, and ultimately embraced it.

In Saturday’s farewell column, he wrote: “My eight World Cups of soccer, so far, were the best sporting events on the planet.”

Beyond the memorable matches, I’ll remember joining George and his wife, Marianne, an artist, in Seoul in 2002 for the best duck I’ve ever tasted. I’ll remember the 3 a.m. train rides through France in 1998 and Germany eight years later to reach the next city, the next match. I will cherish joining him to discover the wonders of South Africa in 2010.

For years, unbeknownst to him, I nominated George for induction into the National Soccer Hall of Fame. The fact that he was still working full-time for the Times, traveling the world and filing wonderful pieces about the sport, probably disqualified him from immediate consideration. Or maybe it was because he wasn’t a “soccer writer,” per se. In truth, George was a writer, one of the best to ever grace the modern sports section; he just happened to write about soccer, as often as time and editors would allow.

For this, all of us in the soccer community should be grateful.

(Follow George Vecsey on his new blog .)