A victim of circumstance and Yankee inventiveness, the game of soccer—supreme among sporting pastimes in much of the rest of the world—never has been popular in the United States. Introduced to this country around 1830, its misfortune appears to have been that after the Civil War, when the transplanted game was just beginning to develop in an organized way, it ran headlong into something that used to be known as "Harvard indifference." At the same time baseball was becoming a passion (the first professional baseball league was formed in 1871, and Casey at the Bat was written in 1888), basketball was about to be invented (in 1891) and, most significantly, college football was born, because Harvard (in 1873) decided that it preferred its own "Boston game" to soccer. That year Harvard declined to attend a New York meeting at which Yale, Columbia, Princeton and Rutgers were to form the Intercollegiate Football Association, which is to say, the intercollegiate soccer association. Had Harvard participated in that meeting, soccer might have become our great intercollegiate and professional sport. Football, as we know it today, would have been buried under an elm in Harvard Yard. But the men of Cambridge stood aloof, and soccer lost its big chance. The "Boston game" was on the order of Rugby. From it evolved football, American style.
Now, almost a century later, some venturesome men—rich, persuasive and many of them well schooled in the promotion of sport—have decided that if soccer entrances—and even maddens—such disparate peoples as Britons and Latvians, Brazilians and Germans, Africans and Afrikaners, it must then be a sport that can hold the attention of Americans, too. Early last summer these men decided to invest millions, and millions more over a period of years, in testing their belief. So in April two professional soccer leagues—the United Soccer Association (which originally called itself the North American Soccer League) and the National Professional Soccer League—will turn baseball diamonds into soccer pitches and try to attract crowds to a game that as yet most Americans know little of and care less about. If the entrepreneurs are right, if soccer should become something more than a game played by little clubs of ethnic persuasion longing for the ways of the old country, or by poorly coached high schools and colleges because soccer is inexpensive to equip (which is how basketball got its start), then the backers of the two leagues stand to make millions on their investment. The value of franchises will increase, as has happened in other professional sports, and gate receipts will provide formidable income. If they are wrong—well, it appears that there are ways to write these losses off.
Early last summer, when the idea began to take form, there was to have been but one league, and play was not to have started until the 1968 summer season, after careful preparation. Differences of opinion arose, about which embittered principals in both leagues are willing to talk only vaguely, and the split occurred. The Uniteds, who now include among their number such well-heeled sports impresarios as Gabe Paul, Lamar Hunt, Bill Ford, Roy Hofheinz and Jack Kent Cooke, say that they refused to consider a proffered Columbia Broadcasting System television contract, which, though it was announced as giving the NPSL 10 years of television exposure at $1 million for the first year and more on an upward sliding scale for the following years, also gives CBS the right to drop the whole enterprise at any time. ("It is a unilateral contract," says one United club owner, "in which CBS retains all the options. As I read it, CBS doesn't even have to put on one game.") The network denies that it offered the contract to United officials but concedes that it discussed it with them, then chose NPSL because it was further along in the hiring of coaches, players and stadiums. In any event, NPSL, which includes among its owners such pro football names as Dan Reeves, John Rooney and Bill Bidwill and baseball men like William Bartholomay of Atlanta and Jerry Hoffberger of Baltimore, grabbed the contract and stole a march on its rival by setting up plans for a regular 1967 season. United thereupon was driven to equally hurried hiring of foreign teams, in their entirety, to "represent" the United cities for a 1967 opening season instead of fielding its own teams a year later as planned.
At this point the whole deal began to have the look of chaos, and cooler heads on both sides considered the advantages of reconciliation. Some, like the forthright Hoffberger, owner of the Orioles and the Baltimore NPSL team, go so far as to say that an eventual rapprochement is "imperative" if professional soccer is to be viable. Although reconciliation seems far off just now, one recalls that even the National Football League and the American Football League got around to speaking to each other after a while.
Despite the split, there is optimism in both camps, boiling down to the fact that soccer is, in essence, such a splendid game and that it never has had enough money behind it for adequate presentation (promotion) to the American sports public. This optimism was intensified when the World Cup championship game between England and West Germany, the World Series of soccer, was televised live via satellite last July and attracted an audience of 10 million in the U.S., 400 million around the world. That proved Americans will watch soccer, if only for free. And attendance figures at some recent exhibition games proved they will even pay to see good soccer. A Brazil-Argentina game in Los Angeles last January was watched by 29,205. The Santos-Milan game at Yankee Stadium in September 1966 drew 41,598 spectators—a modern U.S. record. Benfica of Lisbon vs. Santos of Brazil at New York City's Downing Stadium attracted a capacity crowd of 28,000 last summer. Fans trying to get to it caused a major traffic jam on the Triborough Bridge.
Various owners in the two leagues give different estimates as to what their break-even point would be in terms of attendance, but 12,000 is a generally accepted figure.
"The formula for success in professional soccer," says John Allyn, who with his brother Arthur owns the Chicago White Sox and Chicago's United soccer team, the Mustangs, "is the same as for professional football: a limited number of games at a time when a maximum number of people are free to go to them. This is the main reason, I think, why pro football sells out the park every single Sunday. Obviously, you have to have a good game to start with. If baseball were played only on 20 Sundays in a 20-game season, you'd sell out the ball park every week, but baseball has become such an expensive game to operate that you can't manage on a 20-game season."
It will take good promotion to get even 12,000 fans out of the living room and into the soccer stands, but now, for the first time, American soccer is going to get just that. About all the promotion the sport ever had previously was provided by the long-impoverished United States Soccer Football Association, which, operating on a budget as meager as $75,000 a year—even less, according to some sources—is the governing body of U.S. amateur and professional soccer. A dedicated little band, USSFA officials have been able to do substantially nothing on an income derived from fees like 40¢ a year for amateur registration and 10¢ for junior (18 and under) registration.
Now, though, USSFA is suddenly rich. It gave recognition to the United Soccer Association, which meant that United was gifted automatically with recognition by FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), world ruling body of the sport, of which USSFA is a member. In return for recognition, United has agreed that each of its 10 teams will pay USSFA an initial $25,000 for the franchise plus an annual 4% of the live gate and 10% of any television fees. In the British Isles a team pays 10 guineas a year ($29) and has FIFA recognition, but in England there is no particular need to promote soccer. In the U.S. there is.
"That $25,000 fee," says John Allyn, "is going back into building soccer. The whole arrangement means nothing to us from a cost standpoint, but it does mean $250,000 to $500,000 a year for USSFA."
For a time, probably a long time, almost all the players in U.S. soccer will be aliens—Yugoslavs, Englishmen, Germans, Italians, Latin Americans, etc. ad infinitum. There just are not enough American players of professional caliber to come close to filling the rosters. It is a polyglot situation and has led to a problem. How are players and coaches, speaking a mess of languages, to understand each other? Well, NPSL teams have been sending their players and coaches to Berlitz classes. A 700-word vocabulary is considered sufficient for the purposes of plotting strategy, directing play and arguing with the referee.
Recruitment of foreign players has not been without its headaches. Since FIFA does not recognize the NPSL, it has put the threat of expulsion in the way of every foreign player tempted by that league. Indeed, Sir Stanley Rous, president of FIFA, holds that the only country in the world where the league could sign good players without offending FIFA is Red China.
"The rebel league [NPSL] must realize," Sir Stanley said, "that it is my duty to deal with national associations and not leagues or individuals. I have done my best to get them to join USSFA. The USSFA have told me that they have made repeated invitations to the rebel league to join them, and their advances have been rejected. They just do not seem to want to conform to rules and regulations."
Denis Follows, secretary of England's Football Association, has said of the NPSL: "These people are now outside international football law. Any dealings with them carry the threat of permanent suspension. Any player who goes over there [to the U.S.] should do so with full knowledge of the consequences." Follows' stern warning has been echoed by the English players' "trade union," the Professional Footballers' Association. The Swiss Soccer Federation announced that players and trainers who sign with the NPSL can never again play in their own countries.
But nowhere in Europe was indignation about the "American raiders" more pronounced than in Germany, where enthusiasm had been the first reaction to word that professional soccer was taking form in the U.S. After the appearance on the recruiting scene of Al Kaczmarek, German-born American representative of the NPSL, the response was drastically reversed, and the very respectable Munich newspaper S√ºddeutsche Zeitung was moved to headline: SOCCER GANGSTERS AT WORK.
Kaczmarek's description of his proselytizing technique is wonderfully reminiscent of the methods used until this year by the AFL and NFL in recruiting American college football players. Taking fancy suites at luxury hotels, Kaczmarek met with the players secretly.
"We warned them," he explained, "not to notify the press nor to tell their teams. We didn't want to push these fellows. I showed them pictures of Soldier Field and Atlanta Stadium. I told them about America, that there they would find a better country, make a better living and be with better people. We told them that they would be able to go to college and that we would pay their transportation over there. In general, we offered salaries of about $25,000."
"About" is an elastic word. Some players have been signed for as little as $7,000, and NPSL owners have described average salaries as "in the teens." In the beginning an informal effort was made to have each NPSL team agree to limit its total salary budget to $200,000, but this was found to be possibly illegal because of antitrust restrictions and, as one owner noted, "impractical once the bidding began."
The basic reluctance of the NPSL to join USSFA, and thereby FIFA, may stem from the high cost of obtaining players under FIFA regulations. Transfer fees required from the "buying" team for top-ranked soccer players can be enormous. For instance, Luis Suàrez, the Spanish player with Internazionale of Milan, makes an estimated $42,000 a year, plus perquisites like advertising endorsements. When he was transferred from Barcelona to Internazionale in 1961 the fee came to $397,600. The world-record transfer fee is $680,400, paid by Roma for Angelo Sormani in 1963.
The NPSL has dug into its pockets for some modest transfer fees, but in the main it has been signing older players whose contracts have expired or youngsters who have no immediate prospect of making a foreign team. There have been instances in which exaggerated notions of American wealth have led to curious dickering. One Mexican team offered to sell its star player to an American club for $45,000. The club rejected the deal but politely inquired how much the whole team would cost. The rebuffed Mexicans thought it over and replied, "fifty thousand dollars."
When Kaczmarek jetted home to the U.S. a few weeks ago, leaving behind a vapor trail of ill will, he carried with him the contracts of some 60 European players—but players regarded by Europeans as second-rate. Still, second-rate may not be too bad—for a starter. To expect more of an American team at this stage is to expect too much. The chances are that second-rate soccer will be a sight better than what has been available in this country up to now, and with good coaching and player development over the years the situation should improve.
The fact that soccer is reported so inconspicuously on the sports pages, when at all, has led to an assumption that it is played by practically no one in the U.S. Actually, there are 2,000 high-and prep-school soccer teams, and in the past decade the number of college teams has doubled to about 500. There are some 4,500 active players in the San Francisco area. There are 223 organized teams in and around Chicago. Los Angeles has 164. And so on. None of these teams attract big crowds, but neither do college baseball teams.
It has been feared that Americans, accustomed to high-scoring games like football and basketball, will not care greatly for a game that often ends in scoreless ties. But Dan Tana, the Yugoslav who is general manager of the Los Angeles NPSL club, holds that soccer is "perfectly tailored for the American sports fan because it has speed, it has action, it has roughness, it has beauty, it has finesse—it has everything." A soccer player using his head and his feet can do to that ball what a Harlem Globetrotter does with a basketball, Tana says. "And, conditionwise, a football or baseball player could not last 10 minutes on a soccer field."
As for the low-scoring aspect of the game, Tana responds by recounting how many times thousands of baseball fans have crowded into a park to thrill to the sight of a Sandy Koufax holding the opposing team hitless.
There have been protests, too, that soccer will chew up a field and make it unplayable for baseball. That remains to be seen. The soccer cleat, shaped like a truncated cone and only three-quarters of an inch deep, would appear to be much less destructive to turf than the cleat used in football, and the action in soccer is not nearly so concentrated.
In a study of soccer undertaken for the U.S. Olympic Committee after the 1964 Olympics, Arthur D. Little, Inc., the Cambridge, Mass. research organization, reported that some resistance to soccer expansion "at the secondary and elementary school levels has come from school authorities and others concerned about potential competition with existing major football programs." But, the report pointed out, "soccer does not draw on the same participant group as football; soccer opens up the opportunity for others to participate in the athletic program who would otherwise be eliminated because of small size or weight."
Soccer does not require that a player be seven feet tall or weigh 230 pounds. It does call for the agility that is expected of every well-endowed athlete and for a stamina that, these days, is demanded mostly of boxers, swimmers, amateur wrestlers and track men. Soccer is played in two 45-minute halves of almost uninterrupted action. It demands an expertise in the manipulation of a round ball that can be appreciated fully only by those who know the difference between an in-side-of-the-thigh trap and a volley kick. Not many Americans do. On the other hand, not many Americans are so knowledgeable about baseball or football as they pretend to be in saloons after the game. Few of us who enjoy these sports have the knowledge to warrant disputing a call by a Casey Stengel or a Bear Bryant. We do it, though, and have fun in the doing.
What may hurt professional soccer most in the U.S. is the season in which it will be played. In most of the rest of the world it is considered a winter game. It is difficult to see how its inherent speed can be maintained for 90 minutes in, say, the 90° humid heat of midsummer St. Louis, New York or Chicago. The teams that the United league is importing will have just finished an arduous full season of play abroad. Will they be able to endure such a demanding game through the hot summer?
The condition of the grounds will be an important factor, too. Played in the rainy season elsewhere, soccer is then at its best, because on moist turf a moderate bounce of the ball brings out the game's finest action. Good soccer grounds should not be bone-dry, as baseball fields often are in the heat of July and August.
Even so, American soccer now has its greatest opportunity. If those who control this burgeoning game in the U.S. have the good sense and the enlightened self-interest to discipline themselves and to take a decent posture toward soccer, we may yet have a shot at international recognition in a game that, thanks to an accident in sporting history, passed us by.
In the words of W. B. Cutler, board chairman of the NPSL's Chicago Spurs, "Soccer is like vodka was 10 years ago. The public's going to have to be educated to it."