Aidan Smith: The Americanisation of football

A FEW years ago, Funkytown by Lipps Inc was playing on rotate, so a lot of years ago – I had an American girlfriend and visiting her in New Jersey one summer was going to be my first time going beyond the cool cities on the seaboards where all the smart people live, writes Aidan Smith

Germanys legendary captain Franz Beckenbauer runs out between the New York Cosmos. Picture: Tony Duffy
Germanys legendary captain Franz Beckenbauer runs out between the New York Cosmos. Picture: Tony Duffy
Germanys legendary captain Franz Beckenbauer runs out between the New York Cosmos. Picture: Tony Duffy

I didn’t like New Jersey very much and Karen – lovely girl and all that – didn’t live in a funkytown, just a characterless place with a branch of the pub chain called What Ale’s You? and a branch of the sports-shoe chain called The Athlete’s Foot which drifted rather forlornly into the next town, with its identical outlets.

Reading Ian Plenderleith’s new book Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: the Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League, I realise this was deep in the middle of these fast times, only I didn’t know it then. Phil Woosnam, the NASL commissioner, had just made his famous proclamation. “This sport will take off,” he vowed. “There is absolutely no way it will not bypass everything else. This country will be the centre of world soccer. In the 1980s there will be a mania for the game here. There will be three to five million kids playing it. The NASL will be world’s No.1 soccer league. And it will be the biggest sports league in the USA.”

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Well, it didn’t take off in Noo Joisey. There was absolutely no way it did not bypass Karen’s ranch-style house where her father (looked a bit like Tony Soprano but rather than waste disposal and rival gangster disposal, Frank’s business was in kirby grips) point-blank refused to countenance the idea that football would ever challenge the big three of US sports, and certainly not his beloved baseball.

But look what’s happening at this World Cup. America’s biggest-ever TV audience tunes in for the national team’s game against Portugal (24.7 million – jings, that’s almost as many of us who used to watch The Morecambe & Wise Christmas Show). A park in Chicago is rammed with 20,000 for the match which very nearly does for Cristiano Ronaldo, the planet’s greatest. President Obama watches the Germany match aboard Air Force One. Aboard the International Space Station, where the weightlessness allows for tricks with a ball which would make Ronaldo seethe with jealousy, the NASA dudes follow the team’s progress into the knockout phase. And, in a bar somewhere else which is full of office-skivers (maybe this is New Jersey), a large white man makes a hand gesture, thumb and pinkie extended, and hollers: “Look at these workers cutting their jobs to unite for the USA. We’re gonna win this thing, baby!”

Well, they probably won’t but good effort thus far, way to go and all that. Group G was supposed to be the group of death and, if America had finished bottom, few would have been surprised. But their eventual eclipsing of Portugal, admittedly on goal difference, is a triumph of teamwork over the cult of the individual.

In these compilations of the breakout stars of this World Cup (Jose Juan Vasquez of Mexico, Charles Aranguiz of Chile, Costa Rica’s Giancarlo Gonzalez) you will struggle to find an American. There’s a guy with mad hair in the team (Jermaine Jones) who scored that whomper – Yo! Get in the net! – against the Portuguese and, barnet-wise, he makes you think back to Alexi Lalas from America’s home World Cup in 1994. Lalas looked like a Lynyrd Skynyrd roadie – Jones could be humping speaker-stacks for the reunion tour. The goalie – Tim Howard – is pretty good but we know him. Landon Donovan? The best-known American wasn’t picked for the squad by coach Jürgen Klinsmann (more of him in a minute). No, it has been a team effort, as it surely was in the 1950 World Cup when the USA sensationally beat England.

Goalie Frank Borghi was a hearse driver, the splendidly named Pee-Wee Wallace drove a liquor truck and Harry Keough was a postman. Maybe even more intriguing were the backgrounds of Joe Maca, who did not take American citizenship for another seven years, captain Ed McIlvenny, a Scot from Greenock – the Yank from the Tail of the Bank, as he was known – who’d only ever spent a year in the States, and goalscorer Joe Gaetjens. Born in Haiti to a German father, Gaetjens was never a US citizen. He returned to Port-au-Prince and, in 1964, was dragged from his dry-cleaning business by Papa Doc Duvalier’s dreaded Tontons Macoutes and never seen again. What a way to treat an all-American hero, or about as close to “all” as the soccer team had.

Much has been made of the outcome of that Brazilian World Cup – a Uruguayan triumph. The current Brazil, trying again for a home win, seem to be hit by the distant aftershock every time their national anthem reaches the last verse. But ’50 is reverberating for this America, too. John Brooks, the goal hero against Ghana, has never lived in the US. Jones, the one with the hair, has spent all his life in Europe, mostly shuffling around German towns where, of course, classic rock never dies. Timmy Chandler was born in Frankfurt and currently plays with Eintracht.

Germany is a key contributor to America being one of the great stories of a great World Cup.

Five members of Klinsmann’s squad are Bundesliga-reared. Four are the sons of US servicemen who married German women, so Uncle Sam’s boys haven’t just been over-paid, over-sexed and over here.

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And then there’s the manager himself. As a player, bad hair, bad goal celebrations, bad diving (like the death scene in Camille, it was said), bad zigzaggy shirt.

As a coach, or rather the man coaching allowed us to see: Not teutonic-tense, but cool and laidback, cobalt-blue 1967 VW Beetle, his own man, a man of the world, a free spirit, a grown-up student, visiting museums, catching up on the youth and the learning he missed as a hothoused prodigy. An inhabitant of Funkytown for sure.

Profiled for the American mag Sports Illustrated in ’94 while playing for Monaco, he completely charmed the author of the piece, Alexander Wolff. “If you were looking for someone to induce America to fall in love with soccer,” he wrote, “Klinsmann would be a perfect choice.” Well, they got their man and now he fires off letters to the chairmen of the corporate US of A where you only get one week’s holiday a year or something to drum up an even bigger audience for this World Cup adventure: “Please excuse _____ from work. I understand this absence may reduce productivity but I can assure you it is for an important cause.”

How important will soccer be to America when the World Cup is over and it’s back to the bread-and-maple syrup of league action? This is still the $64,000 question. The league has been rebranded since the NASL of the late 1970s and still gets the fancy imports, but maybe Americans would like to see more of the stars from the national team playing at home. Currently only a handful of those getting a game in Brazil turn out in Major League Soccer. Klinsmann doesn’t seem to think much of the quality, which was why he could find no place for Donovan.

I love stories from the old NASL and, recently, I’ve been lucky enough to meet two Scottish guest stars. Drew Busby crossed the Big Pond only to have to get re-acquainted with legendary toughnut Willie McVie. At least McVie was in the same team this time, I said. “Aye,” said the Buzzbomb, “but you know how the Yanks love their stats? Willie was ‘Most fouls committed in the NASL’.”

Davie Robb told me about vodka jacuzzis with Rodney Marsh and a party at Sammy Davis Jr’s house where he got off with Olivia Newton-John – I don’t expect a more entertaining interview to come my way all year. But the reason we love those tales is that they tell, or told, of a mad football circus rather than a proper expression of the game, allowing us to feel superior to America.

Regarding the fitba’, we can’t do this any more. America is no longer a country that is puzzled when a game finishes in a draw, or wants to divide matches into quarters. That said, they’re the most modestly-gifted team at the World Cup.

You ain’t won it yet, baby.