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Original Issue


The commissioner of the North American Soccer League is a Welshman with the tongue of a spellbinder, Micawber's optimism and a bulldog's persistence

The setting is only just short of desolate. A hotel room, smokily conspiratorial. Glimpsed through a half-curtained window is the standard detritus of an airport perimeter: freight sheds, a retired-looking 707, a parking lot. Beyond, miles and miles of flat Indiana, gray and saturated after a morning rain. But the neat man sitting on the edge of the bed, his eyes as dark and compelling as a magician's, is going to change all that. "Let me blue-sky for a moment," he says. No tornado comes twisting across the plain. The airport hotel fails to levitate and spin. But the little group of businessmen who are his audience is headed straight over the rainbow, firmly attached to the magician's Prince of Wales check coattails.

It is the summer of 1990, and 100,000 fans at the Rose Bowl stand for the anthems of the competing countries: first for The Star-Spangled Banner, then for the national hymn of the other team—Brazil? West Germany? England? Argentina? And out there in TV land, envying the ticket-holders, wiggling its collective person closer to screens that glow from Tokyo to Cape Horn, an audience of 900 million settles to watch the finals of the World Cup. The World Soccer Cup, of course, arguably the world's premier sporting event. In the magician's own words, it is the moment when the greatest game will finally and indisputably have come to the greatest country.

By degrees he brings his audience back to Indianapolis, pausing on the way to impart another vision of the sunlit uplands—of the day, perhaps somewhat nearer, when the Kicks or the Rowdies or the Cosmos meet Dynamo Kiev of Russia, or Ajax of Holland, in the World Club championship playoff. Or could it be—just possibly and if everything has gone right—could it be that it is Indianapolis lined up against the powerhouse of Europe.

As he freely confesses, the magician—Phil Woosnam, commissioner of the North American Soccer League—is blue-skying. But it should not be too easily assumed that this is for the sole benefit of the group of Indianapolis businessmen who are thinking of applying for a soccer franchise in their city. What makes the magic possible, what makes it so easy to drift up, up and away on the commissioner's coattails is that this apotheosis of soccer in North America so firmly believes in himself and in what he is saying. Half-jokingly, one of the Indianapolis group had introduced him as "the white tornado." In Wales, though, where Woosnam was born and raised, they use a single and more precise word for the prophetic quality of his words.

"The hwyl," they say. "He has the hwyl." The word, pronounced "hoo-eel," dates back to the great Methodist revival meetings of the last century when an evangelist, warming to his subject, would suddenly change the pitch of his voice until he was almost singing in a tense and emotional heightening of language. The hwyl, the spirit, had seized him, and the converts would line up to declare their salvation at the pulpit.

Woosnam does not actually sing, but when moved to talk about the soccer paradise that awaits the U.S.A. if it follows the righteous path, his accent takes on the singsong Welsh rhythm that otherwise seems to have eroded away after more than a decade in this country. Outwardly, Woosnam is an urbane, well-tailored, self-possessed man who looks younger than his 44 years. Inwardly a passion glows.

The Welsh, from a sportingly passionate nation, would find nothing strange in this. What they might find extraordinary is that this fervor has been channeled into soccer. Rugby is the national game. Normally, a boy with the stamina, skillful movement and speed that Woosnam demonstrated early in life would scarcely have been given the chance to kick a round ball. He would have been drafted, a natural scrum halfback, into the nearest rugby team. But Woosnam was born not in the rugby proving grounds of steelworks and coal mines but on a remote farm in the green and pastoral county of Montgomeryshire, a couple of miles outside the little village of Caersws. Dangerously near the English border, a Welsh rugby fan would tell you, right on the banks of the Severn River, which a little to the south becomes the border itself.

Exposed to these alien influences, young Woosnam cycled 12 miles to school every day and played soccer. He was small. At 14 he was still under 5 feet. But biking up and down the Montgomeryshire hills gave him, he believes now, the exceptional endurance he showed as a player, his high work rate and possibly his slow heartbeat—about 39. He did well at soccer, representing Wales both at schoolboy and under-18 levels. And then he did something else out of pattern for an athlete of his promise. He went to the University of Wales and graduated in physics. In Europe, physicists do not normally become pro soccer players. The graduate schools of the latter are Glasgow tenements or Rotterdam docks.

Even more unusual, while still at the university, he played for an English First Division club, Manchester City, one of the last occasions when an amateur played in the major league. That was in 1951. Manchester wanted to sign Woosnam as a pro, but he still had his military service to perform. He was commissioned in the Royal Artillery and customarily would have been posted to a gunnery range in the Welsh mountains, where the C.O. was a sports nut who permitted no weekend passes for athletes because he wanted them playing on camp teams. But Woosnam's papers somehow got mixed up. He was assigned to a somewhat relaxed unit in London, which was happy for him to play each weekend for a pro team, Leyton Orient, during the whole of his two years of service.

After teaching high school physics for two years, he had a distinguished playing career. For West Ham and later for Aston Villa, Woosnam won 17 international selections for Wales, mostly as a midfielder. By 1966 he felt he had his career well figured out. He had already qualified as a staff coach with the English Football Association and he reckoned he still had two good playing years left in him before he switched from the field to management.

"I wanted a London club," he says now, "preferably Chelsea. They had some great young players coming up but they needed an older head, a general, to organize them. I did some TV work at the 1966 World Cup as a color commentator and I kind of spread the word that I was looking for something new. But nothing came to the surface except some strange, vague feeler from the U.S.A. I was only just aware that soccer existed there. So I called Clive Toye, who was writing soccer for the London Daily Express and who I knew had U.S. contacts.

"After that, things happened fast. I talked to some people from Atlanta who had come to England. Then I found myself talking to the same people in New York—at the Waldorf Astoria. They took me down to Atlanta and offered me the position of coach on their new team. We shook hands on it and I flew home again.

"That was on Sunday night. On Tuesday, I drove up to the training session at the Aston Villa ground and I asked to speak to the manager, Dick Taylor. 'Look,' I told him, 'I've been over in the States and....'

" 'We've been trying to reach you,' Taylor interrupted. 'Tommy Doc's been calling you.' Tommy Docherty was then Chelsea's manager. 'He wants to buy you and Tony Hateley.'

"The previous season, Taylor had pushed Tony and me up forward as twin strikers. We got 48 goals, more than any other pair in the league. Our last game was against Chelsea and we got another couple there. Now Docherty wanted us very much. It was all over the papers in England, too. Nobody could imagine we'd turn the offer down. But Docherty was slow to move. I'd shaken hands in Atlanta. I felt terrible. Chelsea was what I wanted more than anything. I would have loved to have ended my playing career in London. But it was not to be...."

Early in 1967 Woosnam brought his family over here and they bought a house in Atlanta. The house they chose was on a dead-end street, because one of the first things to throw him was the size of U.S. automobiles, which appalled him. So one of the first things that happened was that his 5-year-old was hit by a car. David lay in a coma for 22 days. He showed the first glimmer of consciousness when his father played him a tape recording of a children's party he'd gone to a week before the accident.

After an experience like that, a man of different character might have headed for home; indeed, he might never have gone to Atlanta at all on simply the strength of a handshake when a seemingly better alternative awaited him in London. But the tenacity of Woosnam's soccer style carried over into his life, no more so than when the American soccer experiment seemed to be collapsing around his ears, as it did at the end of the 1968 season, less than two years after his arrival in the U.S.

There had been some good moments before that, however, notably, Atlanta's league championship and its double defeat in 1968 of the reigning English First Division champions, Manchester City. "We beat them 3-2," Woosnam remembers. "And Malcolm Allison, the coach at the time, popping off as he was wont to do, said it was a freak result, that we were a bunch of fourth-division bums and that it couldn't happen again. There was no other meeting planned, but it so happened that a Mexican game Manchester was due to play got called off. So they came back 10 days later and we beat them again, 2-1." A satisfied smile indicates that Woosnam still savors the moment. "We won the championship that year," he says, "and then came the November meeting in Chicago to set up the 1969 season at which Detroit announced they wouldn't be continuing. Then, over a six-week period, things crumbled. At a meeting in Atlanta in January, of the 10 teams that had been at Chicago only five said they were willing to carry on for another year. At the end of that meeting the survivors invited me to act as the executive director of the league."

At this point a sensible man would have headed for the nearest airline office. Two English First Division clubs had offered Woosnam a managerial post. The choice confronting him looked like that between accepting a bishopric on comfortable home territory and undertaking evangelical work in a country where spare rib of missionary was apt to be the plat du jour. The new executive director was invited to work out of a dressing room in the basement of Atlanta Stadium with Toye, then a league official and now president of the New York Cosmos. Meantime, the Kansas City franchise was suggesting that players travel to games by bus.

But Woosnam's crusading spirit won out. "We hadn't failed because of the sport," Woosnam says, "we failed because the wrong circumstances prevailed. We had to work to change the circumstances. In my heart I knew the sport was good enough." So Woosnam started to work, taking as his avowed model the NFL. "I felt that soccer must emulate it," he says. "When our game was at its lowest ebb, I thought it would take 10 years to reach somewhere near the NFL level. We haven't done that but we are well on our way." This is not an immodest statement. The NASL is the one league that has come back after disaster struck. Its second chance is the measure of Woosnam's doggedness.

The doggedness has been mixed with a little luck at times. After the '68 retreat from Chicago, one of the league's principal aims was to get back to New York, where the Generals had been one of the five unwilling to carry on. Not only physically, with a new headquarters there, but also with a new franchise. And having lost the Generals, it could not possibly risk dying in the city again. David Frost, who had by then made his reputation as an English broadcaster, seemed a ripe prospect as an investor, having an avowed interest in soccer. Frost's attorney turned the deal down but pointed Woosnam vaguely toward Warner Communications. This was in the summer of 1970, when the World Cup was being held in Mexico. And at a World Cup cocktail party in Mexico City, who should Woosnam spot but Nesuhi Ertegun, chairman of the record division at Warner Communications. Woosnam backed him into a corner in the style he'd so often used to block an opposing striker's path to the goal. Essentially, by dinnertime Warner was on the road to becoming the new owner of the New York Cosmos.

More often, though, it is persistence that has brought Woosnam success. With an Eastern base secured, it was his plan to expand to the West Coast, and for viability he needed four solid franchise deals. By August of 1973, he had three of them: Vancouver, Seattle and Los Angeles. But those three had specified that by the first of December a fourth franchise owner would have to be found, failing which they would withdraw. September, October and most of November passed. "I'd dealt with so many people in the Bay Area," Woosnam says. "I'd get them to a point, then they'd back out. As Dec. 1 crept on me I was left with two prospects: a group in San Francisco connected with the hotel business and Milan Mandaric, the president and founder of Lica Corp., an electronics firm. The hotel people were about 60% there, I reckoned. Mandaric kept saying, I don't want to do it this year. I want to wait until next year and then I want to go to San Jose....'

"That was the situation on Nov. 29. I brought the two parties together and left them in a hotel room in San Francisco to see if they could somehow combine. I just couldn't get any answer out of them that day. But I called up Mandaric at 9 a.m. on the 30th, and maybe he was suspicious that the other crowd would take the whole lot because he said, 'O.K., I'll take it this year so long as you let me go into San Jose.'

"I couldn't tell you how I felt. 'You're on,' I said. 'You've got it.' I think that of all the decisions made by owners, that was the most important for the NASL. Two of the clubs in the West—Seattle and San Jose—took off straight away, in their first season, 1974. And it was then, I think, that the country started to see the light. But I still shudder to think what would have happened if Milan hadn't made up his mind that morning."

Spectacular decisions aside, the NASL's present professionalism, its big-league approach, owes much to Woosnam's attention to detail. Each club has a book of rules, its operations manual, which lays down minimum standards. And the commissioner has been known to be as particular that the specified number of bars of soap and clean towels are available in dressing rooms as that the field is properly marked.

All this implies a work rate that would appall the American Heart Association. On Monday and Tuesday, Woosnam normally drives into New York from suburban Scarsdale, reaching his Sixth Avenue office by 8 a.m. Usually he is still there 12 hours later. Wednesdays he sets out on his travels. A recent schedule was no more than typical: 7:30 a.m., leave La Guardia for Indianapolis to meet potential franchise holders at 11 a.m. At 2 p.m., leave Indianapolis for Denver and a meeting with a blue-jeans manufacturer with a franchise interest. That night, leave for San Francisco for a Thursday breakfast chat with a man interested in a Sacramento deal. Leave San Francisco overnight for a 2 p.m. press conference in Honolulu, help boost attendance for the weekend game and meet the governor. Friday, another overnight flight to Las Vegas for the Cosmos game there. Home for Sunday evening dinner with next week to look forward to: two days in the office, then Kansas City, Memphis, Seattle, Portland, Seattle again, then back to New York to oversee a dummy TV run covering the Cosmos-Rochester game. Miles flown a year: 200,000. Days on the road: 250.

A terrifying life pattern, you might think, but Woosnam would not agree that the pace is at all inhuman. "It is the best and the most exciting job in the world, bringing the greatest game here," he says on the plane to Indianapolis. He is at work before the NO SMOKING sign is switched off. Figures fly across a yellow legal pad, already on his knee. "Look," he says, "Indianapolis is perfect. It is one of the top 20 population centers in the country. In fact it's the 17th. It has no major league sport. [The NBA's Pacers somehow got lost in his recital.] Most of the big cities have finished building their stadiums, but Indianapolis' is still to come. Soccer would slot in beautifully with football." The visionary takes over. "Ten years from now soccer could be the major tenant. Ten football games, 20 soccer. Think of a stadium like the one they're planning in Buenos Aires for the World Cup...."

For a moment, somewhere over Pennsylvania, Woosnam falls into a doze, a light film of sweat on his forehead. Then he's awake again, sorting through his briefcase for the papers he'll use in his presentation. "We already have two groups circling," he says. "One of these men today will be a tough one. He got burned a little on the Pacers' basketball operation."

The meeting will be at the airport hotel. If there were such a sport as Woosnam-hunting, you'd first send the hounds in to flush the nearest airport hotel, it being the quarry's natural habitat. Or maybe you could decoy him with a Chamber of Commerce or a mayor's committee meeting. This group, though, is made up of private citizens. Deceptively downbeat.

There is a quiet enough start for the Gospel according to Philip. He talks of the audience that soccer is reaching for—middle class, with women well represented; the power of soccer to attract the young; the lack of necessity to invest in expensive equipment; the fact that you don't need a giant's physique. The yellow pad comes out again, the figures fly. Always the money comparisons are with the NFL, with the growth potential of soccer. The metaphors can get a little mixed ("We're the last man on the block," "the first on the horizon," "all the ducks are lined up") but the message is plain and it is forceful, because of the naked belief that Woosnam himself exhibits. "The next Pelé," he tells them, "is already running about in Alabama."

And, infallibly, that leads to the clouds scudding away, to the blue skies shining and the World Cup vision.

When Phil Woosnam was playing soccer himself, just about the time when the traditional long shorts and the military haircuts were giving way to Custer mustachios and midthigh briefs, he was noted among the cognoscenti as a player's player, a constructor, an analyst of the game. And when asked how, in his 44 years, he has managed to succeed as a physicist, a schoolmaster, an athlete, a coach and finally as an administrator and propagandist, he alludes to his academic discipline.

"Basically I have always been a scientist," he will tell you. "I have always felt that everything can be rationalized, has a logical explanation. I'm a problem solver. In a game, if there was a breakdown in the team, I was in midfield to solve it. Philosophically, as I was in soccer, I am a midfielder and a leader. And, I hope, a lifter of people around me. I sell this game because once I believe in something and it makes sense to me, I will make it happen. This sport will take off. There is absolutely no way that it will not bypass everything else. This country will be the center of world soccer. In the '80s there will be a mania for the game here. There will be three to five million kids playing it. The NASL will be the world's No. 1 soccer league. And it will be the biggest sports league in the U.S.A."

It would be easy to interpret the fervor as part of a super sales pitch. In the monochromatic Indianapolis hotel room, though, the group he is addressing is well capable of distinguishing between the meretricious and the genuine, and whatever they may decide to do in the end, they are in no doubt that what they are hearing is undeniably genuine.

But what they don't know is that they have been exposed to a magic ray from the Celtic twilight. And that if soccer does come to their city, indeed if it succeeds in taking over the United States, it will be partly because of an abstraction that no one in Indianapolis could possibly pronounce.

The hwyl will have been at work.


Looking distinctly up for the game, Woosnam is on hand at New Jersey's Meadowlands as Cosmos Giorgio Chinaglia (left) and Pelé do some headwork.


Woosnam is constantly on the move. Last year he flew 200,000 miles, spent 250 days on the road.