Welcome to Milan

A background of Grizzlies and Stompers may prove the right preparation for Portsmouth, says Mike Woitalla

In the USA, Milan Mandaric owned teams called the Earthquakes, Stompers, Storm, Grizzlies and Thundercats between 1974 and 1999.They were outdoor and indoor teams, and covered three different states in four different leagues. They’re all dead. But one made a major impact on the American soccer landscape and another led to his investment in Portsmouth.

Mandaric studied mechanical engineering in his native Yugoslavia and managed his family’s machine business. In 1969, he arrived in the northern California region that became known as Silicon Valley as it evolved into the world’s centre of microelectronics technology. Mandaric, to say the least, knew when it was time to stop investing in typewriters.

He founded a firm that manufactured printed circuit boards just when the world decided it couldn’t live without them. When his company, LIKA, became one of the USA’s biggest, he sold it, and started founding and investing in other related businesses. So many, in fact, that tracing his soccer involvement in four different countries seems simple in comparison.

Mandaric first applied his Midas touch to soccer in 1974. By launching the San Jose Earthquakes he made the North American Soccer League’s west coast expansion possible. In their first year, the Earthquakes averaged 15,000 fans per game, while baseball teams in nearby San Francisco and Oakland drew 7,800 and 9,100.

This at a time when the American media were writing things like “The way to beat it is constant vigilance and rigid control. If soccer shows signs of getting too big, swat it down” (San Francisco Examiner).

He sold the team in 1977 and started another, the Oakland Stompers, then phased out his NASL involvement before the league slid into the abyss. But the Earthquakes deserve credit for turning northern California into a soccer hotbed.

Clive Toye, the former Express man who brought Pelé to the New York Cosmos and worked in the NASL from beginning to end, says: “Milan was absolutely fantastic. He was one of the very few owners who actually understood the game. There were times when he and I argued for the cause of the game against the lunatic owners who were taking over the asylum. He genuinely loves the game.”

Ted Howard, an NASL administrator, agreed. “I’ve always felt he was a great guy. Always very down to earth, although he could get volatile. But he was always reasonable.”

And a bit of a spendthrift, or he wouldn’t have invested in three indoor teams. The St Louis Storm, in 1989, were the first. Then 50 years old, Mandaric would fly from California a day before home matches to practise with the team. One Storm player, fellow Serb Predrag “Preki” Radosavljevic, ended up in Portsmouth in 1994. Mandaric went to see him play. It must have left an impression.

From WSC 150 August 1999. What was happening this month