Forty years ago the Atlanta Chiefs of the North American Soccer League played across the baseball infield, over gridiron markings and beside a smoking teepee – called into action for goal celebrations – to bring the city its first sports championship

Stadium demolition is something of an American art form. They typically attract crowds who chronicle the devastation for later enjoyment. The destruction of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium early one day in August 1997 was no different. Some 30,000 people turned out so they could experience first-hand the seismic jolt triggered by a chain-reaction explosion that in half a minute buried a brief three decades of sporting history.

In its place is a car park adjacent to the current baseball stadium. A sign indicates where, in 1974, a ball launched from Henry “Hank” Aaron’s bat landed to give the black Atlanta Braves outfielder possession, until last year, of baseball’s career home-run record, previously held by Babe Ruth.

Lacking is any mention of the Atlanta Chiefs of the North American Soccer League, who 40 years ago played across the baseball infield, over gridiron markings and beside a smoking tepee – called into action for goal celebrations – to bring the city its first sports championship.

The Chiefs, it is true, offer only a footnote to the events of 1968. Sporting concerns were trivialised by the assassination in early April of Atlanta native Martin Luther King Jr and by his funeral five days later, when 100,000 marched to the small brick Baptist church, a mile and a half north of Atlanta Stadium, that had catapulted King from co‑pastor to the Nobel Peace Prize.

With the first NASL season not yet a week old, King’s death and the consequent urban riots shocked the Chiefs side, a multi-racial union of 21 players from nine countries. Matches for the 17 league teams were cancelled. Recalls Dick Cecil, then vice-president and business manager of the parent Braves baseball club, of the players’ response: “They didn’t say much, because they didn’t know quite what to say.”

Instead, the Chiefs persevered in their mission. Led by zealous player-coach Phil Woosnam, a physics teacher from Caersws, Wales, and an inside-right for West Ham and Aston Villa, players and coaches established grassroots suburban soccer leagues and, working in pairs starting at the end of the 1967 season, directed youth clinics across the American south. They once instructed inmates at the Georgia state ­penitentiary in soccer fundamentals.

If not full participants in King’s non-violent struggle against racial injustice, the Chiefs offered a living model for ideals of coexistence. To Cecil, the team, without intending to do so, made a counter-­cultural statement in what then was a provincial state capital still struggling to negotiate tension between blacks and whites. Cecil says that Chiefs supporters were more progressive than other Atlanta sports fans, some of whom actively protested the Braves’ integration efforts: “It was the anti-­Vietnam War group... The soccer people were the ones that liked something different.”

The 1968 Chiefs team included players from Africa and the Caribbean who lived – again, according to sensitivities of the era – apart from the others in a predominantly black part of Atlanta.

Writing about supporters at the Chiefs’ opening home game in April 1967 – when the Chiefs had been part of the renegade National Professional Soccer League – Atlanta Journal sports editor Furman Bisher drew a contrast with the typical Atlanta sports crowd: “There were more beards in the group. More of the apparent hungering intellectuals, pseudo or real. More youth.”

Atlanta lacked the rooted immigrant populations that had established ethnically oriented leagues in urban enclaves along the Atlantic seaboard and in the Midwest. When the Chiefs arrived, officials estimated the region’s ­soccer-playing population at 150, consisting of a few schoolboy teams at elite preparatory academies and Scottish expatriates working for the defence contractor Lockheed-Georgia. Emory University, where the team trained and near where the 11 British members of the squad lived in suburban flats, had started a soccer program in 1958. To find opponents, however, Emory had to schedule coach excursions to Florida and North Carolina.

Sonny Carter, who played at Emory and became the Chiefs’ first American-born signing in 1970, said of his home town 80 miles south of Atlanta that “we wouldn’t have known if [soccer] was a vegetable or disease”. Many in Georgia pronounced the word “saucer”. He learned by training against and watching the Chiefs and “saw the movie Goal! five straight times when it was shown in the biology building at school”.

The Chiefs’ surprising 18-month trek to the pinnacle of North American soccer and the simultaneous explosion in the school and suburban game came from a combination of what former NASL president Clive Toye calls Woosnam’s “Welsh mysticism” and boosterism that fell into American “cornball” traditions. Cheerleaders, marching bands, ticket giveaways and the firing of a cannon after goals featured on match days. “Usherettes” wore faux Indian costumes. Promoters hired a woman to ride on horseback in Lady Godiva fashion down Peachtree Street, an Atlanta thoroughfare, in advance of one of two 1968 friendlies against Manchester City, both Chiefs victories.

Attendance averaged 5,627 in 1968 in a stadium with 57,000 seats. Santos of Brazil drew 27,000 for an August visit, a 6-2 defeat for the Chiefs. But the most important numbers for the future were registrations with a new state soccer association. An estimated 8,000 children and adults were playing in the Atlanta region by the time of the Chiefs’ 3‑0 aggregate victory over the San Diego Toros in the NASL championship game in late September 1968. “Atlanta is American soccer,” assistant coach and midfielder Vic Crowe, Woosnam’s team-mate with Aston Villa and Wales, could say the following year.

Disappointingly, just 15,000 attended the second leg of the final in Atlanta Stadium to witness goals by Peter McParland (Northern Ireland), Delroy Scott (Jamaica) and Kaizer “Boy Boy” Motaung (South Africa), who finished after dribbling from midfield. Motaung was to found the Kaizer Chiefs in his native Soweto two years later.

But already, supporters were staging “Keep Our Soccer” forums as word spread of mounting financial losses. The team would survive until 1973, following one season as the “Apollos”. Woosnam, who briefly coached the USA national team, became NASL commissioner during the league’s heyday.

Before the Chiefs went their separate ways after the 1968 season, Braves owners bought the players keepsake rings styled like those worn by other American championship teams. Cecil says the rings were an impulse buy; the ­players would have ­preferred soccer’s traditional medals. 

From WSC 262 December 2008

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