Mike Woitalla explains why the NASL wasn't an elephants' graveyard
The depiction of the North America Soccer League as a circus of geriatric home escapees lives on – especially in the British press, which can’t mention the NASL without ridiculing it. Alas, even WSC has bought into this one. A recent review of the biography of Giorgio Chinaglia, the Welsh-raised Italian World Cup striker who came to New York at 29 and scored 193 goals in eight years, said: “The world’s stars descended on the US to play on astroturf, wear garish strips and generally make fools of themselves while topping up their retirement funds.”
Some pitches in the league, which lasted from 1967 to 1984, had fake grass. But NASL kits look conservative today. They certainly met a higher definition of dignity than the Europeans in one respect: the NASL never slapped adverts on their players’ chests. Most importantly, the idea that the stars were old and washed-up is a fiction easily debunked by a close look at who really played. Hugo Sánchez joined the San Diego Sockers at 21 and played for two seasons before becoming a hero with the two big Madrid clubs. Paraguayans Roberto Cabanas (19 when he joined NASL) and Julio Cesar Romero (20) played three seasons with the New York Cosmos. They are now known as two of South America’s greatest players.
Perhaps someone should ask Trevor Francis (23) and Mike Flanagan (26) if they were embarrassing themselves while scoring 36 and 30 goals. Peter Beardsley (20) played three NASL seasons. Liverpool signed 23-year-old Bruce Grobbelaar from Vancouver Whitecaps in 1980. And 19-year-old Mark Hateley – well, he may have been embarrassing himself.
Many of the older imports – Pelé (34), Gerd Müller (33), Johan Cruyff (32) and Rodney Marsh (31) – performed wonderfully in North America. Cruyff played for Ajax and Feyernoord after three seasons in the NASL. Franz Beckenbauer (31) was European Footballer of the Year when he joined the Cosmos in 1977. After three seasons in the NASL he returned to Germany for two more seasons and won a Bundesliga title with Hamburg. In his autobiography, he writes: “We had players from 14 nations in New York, but we weren’t a circus troupe. We played highly technical and successful soccer. We beat Hamburg, Lazio and Atlético Madrid.” If you caught George Best on a good day– the San Jose Earthquakes resorted to paying him upon arrival at the stadium – you may have seen one of his 54 goals.
Clive Toye, a Daily Express writer before spending more than a decade with the NASL, brought Pelé, Beckenbauer and Chinaglia to the Cosmos. “British media have been almost totally blind to football in the rest of the world – until the huge invasion of foreign players made them realise there was something else going on,” he says. “So, if the rest of the ‘known world’ only existed as an abstract, how could anything which happened in the USA be other than rubbish?
“Never mind that Steve Hunt played for England after leaving the Cosmos, or that Toronto, when I was there, had to repeatedly release Jan Moller to keep goal for Sweden and Jimmy Nicholl to play for Northern Ireland, and that we turned down $750,000 from Juventus for South African Jomo Sono. The standard of play was not only high, but exciting, full of players with skill and charisma from countries which the British media would hardly accept existed.”
Horst Bertl, who joined the Houston Hurricane after helping Hamburg win the Bundesliga in 1979, has a theory. After a Hurricane goal, music blared through the AstroDome, the scoreboard flashed cheering instructions while pom-pom girls ran on to the field. But after surviving that distraction he encountered damn good football. “The music and cheerleaders, not the level of play, made it easy for the foreign press to mock the league,” he says.
For NASL fans, overlooking the cheerleaders was easy. We were witnessing the most intriguing collection of international football heroes ever to play in one league.
From WSC 171 May 2001. What was happening this month