Skip to main content
Original Issue

Kickoff for a Babel of booters

Televised professional soccer was unveiled nationally last weekend and, despite awkward moments, showed signs of future health

Guy St. Vil, the pride of Haiti, fielded a pass from Jamaican Asher Welch and booted the ball past Dennis Connaghan of Scotland, and the first goal to be scored in America's ambitious new professional soccer venture was historical fact. The goal won a game for the Baltimore Bays over the Atlanta Chiefs.

This was the first exposure on national TV for the National Professional Soccer League, the nonsanctioned organization that has a million-dollar contract with CBS for the season, covering 21 games. Anxiously watching in the wings were the owners of the United Soccer Association, a group that has the approval of soccer's international governing body (FIFA) but no subsidy from CBS. The United Soccer Association was in the peculiar position of hoping that its rivals would be exciting enough to whet the American appetite for the world's most popular sport but not so good as to overshadow United's own teams.

The USA owners should have been pleased with what they saw televised from Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. The 8,434 spectators who sprinkled the stands—and were studiously avoided by the TV cameras—were not nearly enough to make the Baltimore Bays a fiscal success, but the game itself had sufficient charm to make the television audience want more.

Eric Barnett, a young Australian in the U.S. studying television techniques who has played soccer at club level in Australia, New Zealand and England, watched the proceedings with a mildly jaundiced eye. When it was all over, he opined that the level of proficiency was about that of third-or fourth-division play in England. This would be the equivalent, say, of Triple A baseball in the U.S., which is not too bad for teams assembled only recently from the four corners of the earth.

The action, as might have been expected, was brisk and confused. As might not have been expected, it was at times remarkably cohesive.

"The dribbling in midfield was now and again brilliant," said Barnett. "I mean, it approached first-division quality. But the chaps seemed a bit confused when they got within the 30-yard line and were a mite too hasty in taking their shots. But you must expect this in teams which have only just come together, you know."

Compounding the difficulties of each new team is the Tower of Babel aspect of the operation. The Los Angeles Toros, who began their season before 9,048 lonely partisans in the 101,574-seat Coliseum, had to open their own English class for their club, which is coached by Max Wozniak, a Pole. Wozniak's charges speak a total of 12 languages and hail from everywhere from Ecuador to Turkey.

Coach John Szep of the Philadelphia Spartans is a Hungarian who speaks three languages but not Spanish. Recently, when he was forced to take a Spanish-speaking player to task in practice, he used the services of Laszlo Kaszas, another Hungarian who learned to speak the language fluently while playing in Madrid. Szep's impassioned complaints were toned down by Kaszas, who says, "I leave out the emotion when I translate."

The real star of the TV game was a retired soccer player who is regarded as the best produced in Ireland in a generation—Danny Blanchflower. Blanchflower was the color man for Jack Whitaker, a CBS sports announcer who struggled manfully, and, on the whole, successfully with the problem of presenting soccer intelligibly to an audience that must have known little or nothing about the nuances of the game. Blanchflower, speaking in a crisp, engaging accent, was refreshingly honest in his comments. It is quite evident he has a lot to learn before he becomes as reluctant as American announcers to criticize. His estimate of the action on the field was clear and biting.

"Here they need a bit of a clever play," he said once as Baltimore was preparing for an indirect free kick. "The man taking the kick can't score directly, you know. He must roll the ball at least its own circumference before kicking for the goal, so he will probably pass it."

The kicker, instead of rolling the ball its own circumference or passing it to another Baltimorean, lofted it over the defenders toward the Atlanta goal, where it was caught by Connaghan.

"That was a silly play," said Blanch-flower, disgustedly. "You know, the chap could not have scored had the ball gone into the goal."

Unfortunately, the CBS presentation of this first soccer game seemed a bit hurried. The game began abruptly, with no introduction of players, so that the television spectators were never clearly aware of what positions the players were occupying or what their functions were supposed to be. When Whitaker did identify a player by name, which he did fairly often after a slow start, he generally left out his position and his country of origin.

Since it will obviously require a good deal of time and promotion before American viewers learn and appreciate the finer points of soccer strategy and tactics, it would seem that the most rewarding way to create interest among potential customers would be to develop individual stars. Yet, for most of the game, the only players TV spectators were really aware of were the two goalies, Sven Lindberg, the Swede who played a fine game for Atlanta, and Connaghan. No more mention was given St. Vil, the only scorer, than any other Baltimore player, even though he is regarded as the best player to come out of Haiti in many years. St. Vil may well become the darling of Baltimore soccer fans and could, conceivably, become a star who could attract TV fans.

Asher Welch, who passed the ball to set up St. Vil's score, has a twin brother, Art, also playing for Baltimore. Asher is a marvelously fast athlete who handles—or foots—the ball well and passes with speed and accuracy, but he, too, might have gone unremarked had not Blanch-flower underlined his importance with a brief anecdote.

"When the Bays [Blanchflower either thought the name of the Baltimore team was the Bears or his accent made it come out that way] signed these two lads, the scout had a big party in Jamaica," Blanchflower said. "He woke up in the morning with an enormous head and looked at them and didn't know if he had signed twins or was just seeing two of Asher."

Again, when the Baltimore goalkeeper blocked a shot with his face, Blanch-flower added a light note to the broadcast. "Bit of face-saving, that, Jock," he said to Whitaker.

The CBS formula for inserting the all-important commercials worked well in this first game, depriving viewers of almost none of the action. The commercials were run during the time taken for goal kicks, when the ball was kicked over the end line by the offense and brought out for the goalie to put into play.

Once or twice the cameras picked up the action a few seconds late but, for the most part, nothing was lost to commercials, a praiseworthy achievement in a game in which there are no timeouts. Of course, on the three occasions when a player was laid out on the field with an injury, the alert director seized the moments to plump a commercial in.

Overall, judging by the Baltimore-Atlanta TV presentation, soccer has much to offer and, potentially, a large audience. It has the advantage, even with this not quite top-grade class of performance, of continuous motion, exciting and sometimes violent action and obvious rules easy to understand. It is rather like hockey on a grand scale, but with a ball easy enough to see that the goal-scoring is never lost to view.

The class of play in the nontelevised league is likely to be better than that in the National Professional Soccer League, since the United Soccer Association, with the blessing of the FIFA, imports entire teams to represent its cities, rather than a mélange of over-or under-age players. Not too long from now the two leagues are expected to merge. When they do, and when the brand of soccer offered the American public on the field and on television begins to approach the caliber of the soccer played in Europe and South America, then the game in the U.S. may become a real threat to baseball, with which it presently competes. Opening day in Philadelphia saw 14,163 people on hand (admittedly many of them American hyphenates) as the Spartans beat Toronto 2-0. The same day the baseball Phillies drew only 9,213 and the 76ers 9,426.

Of course, the sport must develop local players, too. An encouraging note in a bleak opening day at Chicago Soldier Field was the fact that the hero of Chicago's 2-1 victory over St. Louis was a player who came up from the Hansa team in Chicago. He was Willie Roy, an immigrant to the U.S. from Germany when he was 6. Roy scored both Chicago goals, and the meager crowd of 4,725 roared its approval.

The advent of soccer in the U.S. was a bit shaky. But with a Danny Blanch-flower to lend spice to the TV broadcasts, a bit more intelligent presentation of the stars on the teams and a leavening of local talent, the game may yet develop into an attraction.