NASL in Wonderland

by Paul Gardner

 

Did any of them know what they were doing? Those hundreds and hundreds of soccer players who, during the extraordinary 17 years between 1968 and 1984, were at the heart of the North American Soccer League?

Well of course they did. Their job was to play the sport. And that they did, at many different levels, in many different languages and styles. And, most significantly, in all sorts of weird locations in the United States.

Weird not because of the cities themselves, weird because so many of them were places where soccer had rarely, if ever, been seen or even heard of before.

From that we get an inkling that something unusual was going on here. That was the part that the players didn’t really know about, probably didn’t care about.

Even – maybe particularly – among the crowd of business big-shots who were backing the NASL’s first teams, there seemed to be only a vague awareness that history was about to be made. I spoke with quite a few of those guys and quickly realized two things: first, their aim, pure and simple, was to make money (and to make it quickly), and secondly, the level of soccer knowledge among the group was abysmal. Some of them had never even seen a soccer game.

Did that matter? In the long run, no, because most of those early businessmen disappeared within a year or two. Which is a good time to trumpet the name Lamar Hunt, the one business baron who remained loyal to the sport. Hunt was different because he really did have a genuine interest in the sport (though, like the others, he knew next to nothing about it), and he had faith, his view of the future saw the USA as a country that would come to embrace soccer. He kept that faith until the day he died.

I can recall several interviews with Lamar. All of them pleasant – he seemed incapable of not smiling. But journalistically speaking, all total failures. I wanted to talk about soccer but Lamar didn’t have much to say about the sport as played on the field. He went on in his calm Texas accent about the “newness” of the sport and its appeal to Americans, about how you didn’t have to be “a bull or a giraffe” to play it (his phrase, I believe) and so on.

I was always impatient with Lamar, when I should have been more aware that I was listening to a genuine pioneer, a deep believer. I liked the man – partly, I suppose, for the non-soccer reason that he always remembered my name. Small courtesies have always had a significance for me.

The annoying thing about history is that it is, by definition, all about what happened in the past, not what’s happening right now. The NASL, right from the start, was making history. America, a country that owes so much to the daring and risky adventures of pioneers, was about to witness the awkward and often hilarious adventures of a new breed of pioneers: soccer players.

A boisterous bunch, most of them foreigners, who came for so many different reasons. One reason that was almost entirely absent: the idea of being a pioneer, of changing the American sports scene for ever . . . of being a revolutionary, really. No, I never heard any of them talking in those terms. But pioneers don’t have to know what they’re accomplishing. They’ll be informed later.

The exception, of course, was Phil Woosnam. Where most of the players were not among the sport’s stars, Woosnam – a Welshman – was greatly respected in England as a top level player. He had heard some sort of clarion calling him to a new life in the USA. A visionary, then, for sure . . . but his vision seemed so far out of reach, that it smacked of madness.

Most of the player pioneers who came to the USA were foreigners. Thereby confirming what was supposed to be one of the major arguments against soccer: that Americans saw it as a foreign sport. But it had to be that way, there were pitifully few Americans around who were good enough to be pro players.

That the NASL had to start life by doing something almost guaranteed to undermine its success was an omen: the NASL took us down the rabbit hole, into Alice’s Wonderland, where logic had no place, where the Queen of Hearts’ way of doing things – “Sentence first, verdict afterwards!” made sense, a sort of endless Caucus Race where no one ever got anywhere.

Talk about a lack of logic. Early in 1967 – remember? – there were actually two pro leagues that started up that year, when it was by no means clear that even one would make it. The National Professional Soccer League, NPSL, was one of the leagues. I got the job of putting together their first yearbook. It meant gathering details on some 200 players from the league’s 11 teams.

My boss – a soccer-ignoramus, but a good New York journalist – was overwhelmed by all the foreign names. One morning I found him going through the final proofs of the yearbook. He’d gotten no further than the Atlanta Chiefs – the first team in alphabetical order – and was stumbling over one of their young Zambians: Emment Kapwenge. He repeated the name again and again, each time with a different pronunciation. None of them sounded right to him. Finally, he looked at me: “Thank God for Pat McBride!” he said. McBride, on the St Louis roster, was one of only six American-born players in the whole league.

The 1967 version of the NASL was no different – it imported entire teams from overseas, so included no Americans at all.
In 1968 the two leagues merged – and by that time it was clear that Woosnam had competition on the madness front. Clive Toye, as English as Woosnam was Welsh, had been a top soccer journalist in the UK, had thrown it all up to come to the States as the Public Relations officer for a new team in Connecticut, the Hartford Mules. Just as Toye was on the point of leaving England, the news came: the Mules had folded – never having played a game or, I think, signed any players.

Toye, showing early signs of willful insanity decided to make the trip to the USA anyway. He quickly became the GM of the Baltimore Bays.  From journalist to general manager? Oh yes, anything was possible in the NASL.

I suppose I did my bit to popularize soccer, writing little essays from time to time extolling the marvels of the sport. I doubt they helped very much. I attended NPSL and NASL games in New York. Both teams – the NPSL’s New York Generals, and Cerro of Uruguay, imported by the NASL – played in Yankee Stadium. It wasn’t encouraging. Attendances were never more than a few thousand. Which meant no atmosphere. One hot steamy New York evening in July 1967, a rock band was brought in to liven things up, but even the highly amplified racket they created simply faded away into the mostly empty stadium. I did find that the soccer, while not brilliant, had its moments. But if no one was watching . . .?

Inevitably, everyone lost money. Pro soccer, struggling to find its place in the American sports scene, had spent 1967 fighting against itself. The two leagues, reluctantly, merged, and 1968 began with new hope as a single league of 17 teams, the NASL, took over.

That didn’t work, either. The chaos of 1967 had left its mark. Pro soccer was in deep trouble. Attendances did not improve, so it really came as no surprise when this Soccer Wonderland very nearly went bust. The owners, recently so-enthusiastic, deserted en masse and the NASL shriveled alarmingly. At the end of the 1968 season, 12 of its 17 teams shut down. Now, the NASL was a 5-team league. Time for another dose of sheer madness. Only the mulish refusal of Woosnam and Toye to give up on their dreams for soccer, plus the calm reliability of Lamar Hunt, kept the league alive.

That was the end of the first chapter. Whatever ambitions the NASL had to be a major league were shattered. Many of the early players went home, many stayed.

Woosnam and Toye bustled around drumming up support.  How they did it, how they kept their spirits up, I have no idea. From the league’s new offices in Atlanta (they had fled New York, which was no place for a scrawny five-team pro league) came a stream of insanely optimistic Toye-inspired press releases. All of them written as though the NASL was riding a crest of success and was enjoying nationwide popularity.

The NASL may not have created millions of new soccer fans, but one important thing it had done was to infuse new life into the largely dormant United States Soccer Football Association (yes, it still bore that strange title). Now Toye was also doing publicity work for the USSFA and the most wildly ambitious of his announcements arrived on my desk on September 11 1969. The USSFA, Toye proclaimed, was considering making a bid to stage the 1978 World Cup.

Yikes! The attempted pro League was on its death bed and here were the Americans telling the world that the USA was a sure site for a successful World Cup. I mean, was this brilliant foresight or just plain desperation? Whichever, it was clear that Soccer Wonderland was far from dead.

In promoting their enfeebled league, Woosnam and Toye had virtually nothing to sell, but they sold it brilliantly. In just two years, the New York Cosmos were born, Chapter 2 had begun and the miraculously revivified league was on its way.

A new wave of players began arriving, and this time there were big names among them. Even so, it surely continued to be true that the numerous lesser-known, unheralded, players were the lifeblood of the NASL. By now, there was also a growing number of young American-born players to be seen. All the clubs had Americans on their rosters – but not many of them got to play very much.

The NASL had begun the Americanization of the sport. It had started back in the early days, in 1972, with the launch of the college draft. A move to help the sport’s public relations more than to improve the caliber of its play. There were virtually no pro-level players in the college game, and anyway the foreign NASL coaches knew nothing about them and really hadn’t a clue who they were drafting.

Proof of just how little anyone knew about college players came with the 1978 draft. The very last pick – the 96th! – that year was Pat Fidelia from New Jersey’s Mercer County Community College. But Fidelia, playing for the Philadelphia Fury, scored eight goals in 1978, making him – the man who had been drafted dead last, #96 – the most successful draft pick of the year.

There was another method of Americanization. The early pioneer players soon discovered that part of their duties was to give “clinics” at suburban high schools. I asked a hardened pro about that: “Clinics?” he snorted, “I don’t give clinics, I’m not an effing doctor.”

But the clinics were given – in soccer-remote places like Dallas, Portland, Denver, Tampa and Detroit – and without doubt seeds were planted. With many of the foreign players not speaking much English, guys from the UK were at an advantage.

At least, that’s what I thought – until I interviewed some of them and re-discovered (I had been living in the USA since 1959) the impenetrable joys of English as spoken with Glaswegian, Scouse, Brummy and Geordie accents. Could the suburban kids possibly have understood anything?

Did it matter? Soccer speaks with its feet, I suppose, and with its beauty. The man himself, the inventor of the “Beautiful Game” phrase, Pele, arrived in 1975. Without ever doing anything especially spectacular on the field (Pele was well past his best as a player) he changed everything. Simply by being Pele.

Overnight, it seemed, the Cosmos were the talk of the town (New York, the Big Apple, I mean), the hot ticket. Chapter 3 of the NASL saga had begun.

A few years ago, I wrote about those Cosmos years – 1975 through 1984 – so let’s take a break and read what I had to say then. The article that follows appeared in the July 2007 edition of the English magazine “World Soccer”, with whose permission it is reproduced here . . .

 

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NASL IN WONDERLAND

It must have been early in 1971. The North American Soccer League at last had a team in New York. The Cosmos were in the process of being born, they had a name, and one or two players had been signed. But as far as I could find out, no telephone number. I called Inquiries and asked for the Cosmos Soccer Club . . . long pause . . . “I’m sorry, we have no entry for the Cosmos Supper Club.”

That sort of obscurity engulfed the early Cosmos days. They played way out on Long Island in a small stadium belonging to Hofstra University. It had ultra-primitive artificial turf, roughly equivalent to concrete, and a seemingly constant 90mph wind blowing straight down the field, which was a mass of heavily marked gridiron lines. The venue was awful, and most of the football was pretty bad, too.

They’d had tryouts of course, during which their English coach Gordon Bradley patiently watched excruciatingly bad players and sent them home. Dieter Zajdell, a bald-headed Pole turned up – he wasn’t bad, but Bradley said no. A week later there was a slender midfielder who looked pretty good on the ball – but the Cosmos had a fearsome Scottish defender who flew into him with a homicidal tackle. Bradley looked on in amazement – “there was this crunch and the guy’s head just flew off his shoulders – I thought, My God, he’s killed him! We raced out on to the field – to find a blond wig lying on the turf.” Zajdell, the bald Pole had returned in disguise. He was not decapitated – but the wig did wonders for him, he now impressed Bradley and he did make the team.

In those early days the Cosmos were – very oddly, in the light of subsequent events – rather stingy. I was in their poky offices in midtown Manhattan one day, chatting with Clive Toye, the general manager. We were watching a telex machine jerkily spitting out soccer news. There had been a doping case somewhere, apparently. An awful thought occurred to me. I asked Toye: “The Cosmos don’t use drugs, do they?” A look of righteous horror swept across his face – “Good god, no!” he said, adding by way of explanation, “We can’t afford them.”

Even so, the signs of ambition were there. There was the famous press conference with George Best, who, inevitably charmed everyone for miles around. The deal was on, just a few details remained, and Best would be a Cosmos player. After a week of no news, I called. Where was Best? “We don’t know,” was the answer. He was, as it happened, sunning himself happily on the Spanish Riviera, all thought of the Cosmos banished forever from his mind.

Back at Hofstra stadium, new players did arrive, most of them soon forgotten. One dreary evening, before a pitiful crowd, as we watched another lamentable performance, journalist Dave Hirshey from the New York Daily News gloomily remarked, “I know they couldn’t get Georgie Best, but did they have to bring in Freddie Worst?”

Another night – it was raining like Noah’s flood – the Cosmos introduced their new Brazilian, Cinesinho, who’d been playing in Italy. Wind, rain and rock-hard artificial turf were not his scene. He disappeared after the game, never to be seen by the Cosmos again.

The Cosmos moved on to Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island. It was not much better. Drowning stadium on Vandal’s Island we called it. But they had grass, albeit rather moth-eaten grass. And that’s where they were when Pele arrived in 1975. For his first game, CBS television turned up and painted the bare mud patches green.

Now we had to get used to crowded press conferences and beefy security guys. We also got used to – came to love – Professor Julio Mazzei, Pele’s companion, fitness expert, and translator, who could never quite allow that Pele was at his best: “Pele, right now, he’s maybe 80 per cent fit.” I don’t recall it ever getting above 85 per cent.

Still a hodge-podge team, the 1975 Cosmos, even with Pele, went nowhere. They won 10 games, lost 12 and failed to make the playoffs. I was commissioned to write a highlight film of Pele’s first season. Much creativity was needed, for the joke had come to life: “We don’t have a highlight film – but we do have a highlight slide.”

But within two years the Cosmos were on the move. The big guys at Warner Brothers, the owners, had decided to spend some real money. The team moved to the big, swanky new Giants stadium in New Jersey and in 1977 – almost overnight – became the toast of New York, the glamour team of the city.

Of course, with my impeccable sense of occasion, I wasn’t around when it happened. I was in Buenos Aires. The Argentine journalists came to me bearing tales of fútbol out-drawing baseball, congratulating me personally because a crowd of over 70,000 had turned up to watch the Cosmos. I pooh-poohed the stories, made fun of Argentine gullibility and fortunately left the country the next day. The stories were all true.

Thus began the so-called “Cosmos Years”, the days of wine and roses, the Pele era celebrated in the recent documentary “Once in A Lifetime”. I suppose all those celebrity things, the ones in the film, happened. But the wild disco doings at Studio 54, and the presence of Henry Kissinger and Mick Jagger in the locker rooms were hardly the whole story.

A lot of football was played in those years, most of it pretty good stuff. After all – Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto, Ramon Mifflin, Johann Neeskens, Denis Tueart, Vladislav Bogicevic – there were plenty of class players around.

Up in the stands at Giants stadium, sat the sport’s newest super-fan, Steve Ross, the head of Warner Brothers. But the excitement of watching his new toy, the Cosmos, made him thrash about a lot in his front-row mezzanine seat – to the point where it had to be fitted with a safety belt to prevent the head-first demise of one of America’s top business executives.

A particularly violent afternoon of thrashing came during a tournament organized by the Cosmos. It included the Haitian team Victory SC. At half-time of their first game, over half the Victory team walked off the field, out of the stadium, into waiting cars, and were never seen again. They had “emigrated.”

The embarrassed Cosmos, who kept mum about the incident as long as they could, desperately rounded up various semi-pro Haitians from the New York Area, and sent them out the following day to battle the Cosmos. The goals poured in, Ross thrashed about in a frenzy of excitement, hailing the 9-0 final score with “This’ll show ‘em that the Cosmos can measure up to foreign opposition!”

Ross knew very little about soccer, and learned almost nothing. But, like all rich owners, he felt his team should always win. When it didn’t, the referees were the villains. Before one game he summoned the entire press corps to the “multimedia” room. He stood gravely in front of us, with a long pointer. Television clips were shown, halted, re-run, while Ross indicated with his pointer all the anti-Cosmos referee errors. It was, of course, absurd. Ross, who must have been a pretty ruthless businessman, resembled a little boy when it came to the Cosmos.

Someone – me, probably –  should have told him that he was making a fool of himself. But I felt – I really did feel this! – that if I shattered his illusions, he would burst into tears and probably fold the Cosmos on the spot. So we submitted to his ridiculous lecture.

Ross’ sidekick, Jay Emmett was a noisy gregarious individual who liked the spotlight to shine on him, who liked to exude authority. After a Cosmos loss – yet another game in which the referee had been unsatisfactory – Emmett stomped up and down the concrete corridor under the stadium, repeatedly yelling at no one in particular: “I want the Commissioner in my office at 9 o’clock tomorrow morning!”  The NASL Commissioner was Welshman Phil Woosnam; I trust he had the good sense not to show up.

The real soccer power behind the Cosmos was the Turkish record industry magnate Nesuhi Ertegun, along with his brother Ahmet. Nesuhi knew his football. One September morning in 1978 I sat in his office, talking about the post-Pele Cosmos. Who would replace Pele? Maybe Cruyff (he did play a game or two for them). I mentioned that Rivelino was in New York and . . .

. . . the word Rivelino had barely passed my lips. Ertegun was reaching for his phone. He spoke to whoever – and the gist was: find out where Rivelino is and get him to play for us in our friendly against Atletico Madrid tomorrow. And that’s what happened. Unvarnished power and authority, swift to act and to get results.

The Cosmos got results on the field because they played vibrant attacking soccer. Chinaglia got the goals, Beckenbauer commanded elegantly from midfield. Yes midfield. He wasn’t needed at sweeper – because that was where the remarkable Carlos Alberto reigned. I’ve never seen anyone play defense more cleverly, more artfully, more skillfully. As George Best put it: “He’s 34 years old, he can’t run, he can’t head, he can’t tackle – so why does he always end up with the bloody ball?” Magic maybe? Certainly it was spellbinding to watch.

As for the coaches, they didn’t seem to me to matter that much. When Chinaglia arrived in 1977, he quickly got the ear of Steve Ross, and made it clear that he wanted the Englishmen Bradley and Toye out. They departed.  Eddie Firmani arrived as coach, Chinaglia’s choice, and there was a feeling that he was doing Chinaglia’s bidding. Firmani got the boot in 1979, and an inexperienced American Ray Klivecka took over. A bizarre appointment. Everyone felt that Pele’s pal Professor Mazzei should have the job. A player told me: “All I know is that in the locker room Mazzei does a lot of talking, and Klivecka does a lot of nodding.” Mazzei took over, quickly followed in 1980 by the German Hennes Weisweiller.

And suddenly the coach did matter, for Weisweiller, in my opinion, ruined everything. He got rid of Carlos Alberto, seemed obsessed with the idea of sheer speed of play – hardly the strong point of the beautifully languid playmaker Bogicevic – and made a big show of bringing in young Americans who were clearly not capable of playing the sort of high-level football that was the Cosmos trademark. The Cosmos were hemorrhaging fun – and that was fatal.

By 1982 Mazzei was back, but the Cosmos were running on empty. So too the league, which now had only 14 teams, down from 24 only two years earlier. Every so often a blinding spark of the old Cosmos took fire – never more so than on July 17 1983. Three minutes into the second half of a home game against the Tulsa Roughnecks, the Cosmos’ gymnastic young Paraguayan Roberto Cabanas raced up to meet a cross in the Tulsa area. He mistimed his run, dived too early – but, airborne as the ball passed over his back, he flung up his legs and back-heeled the ball into the net with ferocious power.

That was a Cosmos moment for sure, maybe the very last one. In 1984, the league died. With heavy heart I wrote an NASL obituary for The New York Times in which I admitted that the fans were just not there – yet – and quoted a typical Sam Goldwynism: “If they don’t wanna come, you can’t stop them.”

But it wasn’t the unintentional witticisms of Goldwyn that summed up the crazy Cosmos. Really, they were a more surreal happening, right out of Lewis Carroll. Listen: one memorable afternoon when over 70,000 fans were streaming into Giants Stadium, an over-excited minion in the press box told us, “It’s a sell-out!  We’re now selling standing-room seats!”  I had to ask, of course – “What the hell is a standing room seat?”  The guy cast a pitiful look at me and simply repeated, almost jumping up and down, “Standing room seats, standing room SEATS!”

Standing room seats belong with frumious bandersnatches and caucus races and unbirthdays, they are pure Alice in Wonderland. That was the Cosmos, a topsy-turvy, down-the-rabbit-hole world of soccer where for a short time anything and everything, however absurd and nonsensical, seemed perfectly proper. Fantasy, if you like . . . but they played some wonderful football while it lasted.

 

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Yes, yes, yes . . . those years between 1977 and 1982, the Cosmos years, were spectacular, colorful, eventful and maybe a bit scandalous. They were as chaotic and successful as the early NASL years had been chaotic and unsuccessful.

With the Cosmos came the top stars, the celebrities, the widespread TV coverage . . . everything that was missing back in the 1960s. It made no difference, the result was the same. A league that failed. Clubs simply packed up and disappeared. The end to all that glamour and glitter came quietly in 1984.

By that time, the man running what was left of the NASL was the man who had done so much to rescue the league in 1969: Clive Toye. This time there was no reprieve. The last man to leave the deserted NASL New York offices, the one who turned off the last light switch, was Clive Toye.

The Cosmos years also had, to at least one observer – me, that is – an unreal air to them. They seemed not so much a joyous prelude to the promised land, as an orgiastic twilight of the gods. Something that was too feverish to last. It seemed just a matter of time. The end happened quite quickly. The NASL lost its vibrancy – or maybe had spent it all on frantic living? Now a league without a soul, it died in 1984, with that sad final flick of a light switch.

Of course, you and I know better. Soccer and sadness do not go well together. Soccer lives on in the USA because the sport will always have more to celebrate than to mourn, and more specifically, because the NASL – for all its horrendous screw-ups, its stupidities and its failures – left a wondrous legacy.

Did it change the sport in the USA? Very definitely, it did. The NASL laid the foundations that led to the birth of Major League Soccer. MLS has the mark of something different – a pro soccer league that survives. It can thank the efforts and the sufferings of the NASL for much of that.

It can, in short, thank the army of players who, at one time or another during those now legendary years, were part of an NASL team. I calculate there were around 2,500 of them – every one of them, from the now forgotten to the topmost star, is a part of the NASL legend.

But the NASL did much more than change the sport of soccer. Its busy pioneers changed the USA. From the least successful youth clinic given to a handful of bored kids, to the glittering 70,000 crowds of the hey-days, the word was being spread. The word soccer was being slowly and quietly transformed from a term of derision into – well, simply a word that described a sport. A sport that increasing numbers of Americans were now getting to see and experience for themselves.

The pioneers set all that in motion. That tiny group of 2,500 in a country with a population, in the 1960s, of some 200 million.

During those 1960s I used to look down from domestic flights, determined to find a soccer field or two. I rarely spotted any. But travel almost anywhere in the USA today and you will see soccer fields. Everywhere.

Whoever heard of Soccer Moms back in the 1960s? Again, the silent NASL pioneers who helped get nationwide youth programs moving, had a big hand in the now commonplace acceptance of youth soccer as part of the American sports mainstream. Who ever would have thought . . .?

Alongside the spread of youth leagues came the rise of soccer in high schools and colleges. And – perhaps the most revolutionary development of all – the explosion of girls’ and women’s’ soccer. The USA, winners of the Women’s World Cup! An amazing offshoot of the NASL years.

The NASL pioneers were the vanguard, whose efforts were often ridiculed or even greeted with hostility. But the nationwide presence of the NASL was around long enough to effect a paradigm shift. Those NASL pioneers were – unconsciously for the most part – achieving something utterly remarkable. They were permanently changing the American sports scene. I think that might be one of the most difficult things to do to any society. Maybe permanently altering a country’s eating habits might be a bigger challenge.

I have mentioned individual players only in my light-hearted Cosmos memories. Otherwise, I think Pele is the only player I have named. That is quite deliberate. To single out any of the NASL pioneers would be invidious. Let the spoils from those remarkable years be shared.

The legacy of the NASL far transcends its importance for the sport of soccer. A handful of unaware pioneers helped to change the pattern of American life, even the way that urban landscapes look.

For once, the word incredible seems to be the truth. I know what soccer people were thinking back in the 1960s and, believe me, if we’d been granted a look 50 years into the future, we would have uttered just one word . . . Incredible!

 

Paul Gardner is the soccer columnist for Soccer America and World Soccer.