I was there at the beginning when Phil Woosnam and Clive Toye helped save the NASL working out of a basement office at the stadium in Atlanta and I’ll be there at the NASL 50th anniversary event in Frisco, Tex., in October. I’m looking forward to a lot of laughs.
It is a sporting coincidence that the NASL is celebrating its 50th anniversary in the same year that the Atlanta Chiefs are celebrating their 1968 championship — the first in NASL history after the merger of the National Professional Soccer League and United Soccer Association late in 1967.
“The team winning the championship in 1968 was a big deal,” Dick Cecil said. “There were 17 teams, we were competitive and were successful against some international teams. It was a good year.”
In 1968, the Chiefs brought to Atlanta teams from England (Manchester City and Coventry) and Brazil (Santos with Pelé) and had a great deal of surprising success.
Only the year before the two competing leagues merged, the NPSL was considered an outlaw league, as the USA basically imported teams whole from abroad and plunked them down in U.S. cities.
“We were an outlaw league in 1967,” Cecil said. “Jim McGuire [the USSF president] and Stanley Rous [the leader of FIFA] were not happy with us, but we had that CBS TV contract, which was an equalizer. The two leagues fought all year, basically USA rented foreign clubs. After the merger we did a world draft, which upset a lot of other federations. Representatives from all the teams went to New York and did the draft. I was sitting there and we were drafting players I never heard of. So we get to eighth round and I get to Phil [Woosnam, then the Chiefs’ general manager]. I told him I wanted to draft our next player. He thought I was crazy. So the announcement comes: ‘The Atlanta Chiefs draft the rights to Wilt Chamberlain. The place went nuts. At end of everything John Pinto [a vice president at RKO General, which owned the New York Generals] came up to me and wanted to buy the rights.”
Viewed against the current, resounding success of Atlanta United, the second-year club in Major League Soccer, the Chiefs’ efforts to plant the flag of a largely unknown and unloved sport in Georgia deserves more credit — and Cecil, who was also an executive with baseball’s Atlanta Braves — is convinced the Chiefs and the NASL put down the stakes. “Soccer wasn’t exactly popular then in Georgia, there were eight high schools playing the game,” he said.
With the merger in 1967 for the 1968 season, Cecil was quick to point out that the game attracted some of the biggest names and companies then involved in American sports. Red Auerbach and Dick O’Connell in Boston; Jack Kent Cooke in Los Angeles; William Clay Ford in Detroit; Lamar Hunt in Dallas; Earl Foreman in Washington; Jerry Hoffberger in Baltimore; Judge Hofheinz in Houston; the Busch family in St. Louis; Gabe Paul and Howard Metzenbaum in Cleveland.
“The ownership level was unbelievable and they saw it as the next big opportunity in sports and wanted to be a part of it. They saw it as the potentially the next big sport,” Cecil said. “But looking back, it’s clear to me that you can’t build something from the top down. There was no base. It’s taken 45-50 years for it to grow, but I believe we’re still a generation away from being a world power.”
Cecil can look back on 52 years involved in the sport, with the Braves and then involved in the organization of the 1994 World Cup in the U.S., a tournament that is still No. 1 in attendance before or since. He also helped organize a UNICEF world all-star game at the Rose Bowl and has been a consultant to various Olympics efforts. Still, his heart belongs to soccer.
“A lot of people worked hard to get the game to where it is today,” Cecil said. “There have been a lot of ups down, heartbreak, hard work and a lot of money. I’ve got to go back to basics: It’s one hell of a game. It’s taken a long time for people to understand what it is and what its place is. Also, there’s a big advantage to having women play, too. Most of our sports never got to that, and it influences interest and ticket sales because the fans are not just men. It’s a very big thing.”
“I like to say back in 1967-68 there were five things Atlanta was known for internationally: Coca-Cola, Dr. (Martin Luther) King (Jr.), Lockheed, ‘Gone with the Wind,’ and the Atlanta Chiefs,” Cecil told The Atlanta Journal Constitution.