Desperate and frustrated, they just sat there in their cars on the Triborough Bridge, searching for running room and fulminating in Spanish and Italian, and only now and then could one hear that special brand of invective typical of the trapped New York City motorist. All of them were trying to get to Downing Stadium, a dismal, disfigured edifice of discomfort on Randalls Island in the East River. What could possibly be happening in Downing Stadium? A concert by Xavier Cugat? A Roman-style execution of the producers of The Untouchables sponsored by the Sons of Italy, maybe? Mamma mia! Not a soccer game! Soccer in this country is just a chapter in The Encyclopedia of Sports. Nevertheless, there they were, all those frantic, grousing people eagerly trying to become traffic statistics just to see a soccer game.
It was not an ordinary soccer game, however. Joe's Bar and Grill was not meeting Max Blob's for the right to drain a keg of beer—compliments of the loser—after the game. No, this was the "Dream Game," the "Match of the Century," the American Soccer League publicists emoted. This was A.C. Milan of Italy and Santos of Brazil, two teams which you may or may not be aware of, depending on the attention you pay to the two-paragraph fillers in your local paper. Milan and Santos are preeminent in international soccer, and to New Yorkers of Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and German extraction, steeped in the nuances and moved by the thrills of the game, it is gross ignorance not to know this. For them the appearance of the two teams was like the Irish bars on Third Avenue suddenly returning to the old and fondly remembered tradition of free lunch.
Last week 23,000 people turned out for the Milan-Santos game, bringing with them cushions for the hard stone on which they would have to sit, firecrackers and banners proclaiming their national ties. In the stands they jabbered about the esthetics of the game and, as they occasionally reacted with frightening hysteria at an outrage committed by a player or a blunder by an official, one could hardly doubt that the head of an incarcerated Dane had once been used as a soccer ball on some long-ago English playing field. Others played bongo drums, and all of them tenaciously clung to their sitting and standing space; nobody moved at the half despite the cries of beer vendors who were trapped in the runways leading into the stands.
Milan and Santos tied 1-1 and, despite certain provocations, the fans remained relatively docile. If they had not, Downing Stadium would have been leveled, a prospect that seemed not entirely unpleasant at the time. The players and referees, regrettably, would have been in a perilous situation. There are no iron doors in the stadium locker rooms as in Lima, Peru, where similar portals saved the players from annihilation in the riot of 1964. Nor is there a moat, as in Rio de Janeiro, separating the playing field from the stands. Anyway, who ever heard of a riot over soccer in the U.S.?
The fans left quickly, their-eyes surely strained from lighting that would have suited a Class D ball park, and they were only mildly dissatisfied. The Brazilian Pelé, probably the finest soccer player in the world, had not played. Seventeen thousand tickets had been sold before the promoters decided to tell the people—two days before the match—that Pelé would not make the trip. Those who were not aware of this were advised by signs on the stadium walls that they could get a refund. The game itself, although marked by patches of brilliance, consummate passing and balletlike footwork, for the most part left the fans unmoved. They saw cautious, defensive soccer that steadily dulled their emotions. Neither team apparently was going to risk injuries in a game that amounted to nothing more than an exhibition.
The attendance at the game, however, does raise an old question. Is soccer, called "the world's most popular sport," finally succeeding in chipping away at the apathy of the people of this country? Can it become a national sport? New York, made up of many ethnic groups that look upon soccer as other Americans regard baseball, cannot provide an accurate answer. Aided by a large local population to partially offset the conflict with more popular sports, the International Soccer League has been relatively successful, drawing 200,000 fans last year and more than a million in its five years of operation. But how would the game do elsewhere? The ISL relies on the appeal of topnotch foreign teams. What about American soccer?
There is now serious discussion concerning the organization of a national professional league, composed of 10 teams, by 1967. It will, to be sure, be a monumental job just to put the league in flight. Dearth of native talent and the powerful competition from other major sports are just a couple of obstacles blocking the success of professional soccer in this country. Nevertheless, optimism abounds among enthusiasts, much of it based on the grass-roots growth at the college and secondary-school level which could eventually provide the talent and the audience.
If success were achieved in the professional sport, it would be quite startling. Even in soccer's more popular days in this country it was a game that appealed to immigrants who missed the old country and, lacking cars and radio sets, had nothing else to do on a Sunday afternoon. Following World Wars I and II—when immigration to the U.S. was high—soccer was able to struggle along. There were good players among the newcomers and fans who appreciated them. Then immigration dwindled, television came along and harassed husbands finally consented to the wishes of their wives, who preferred a drive in the country in the new car on Sunday afternoon. Players became scarce, amateur play dropped off and professional leagues collapsed one after another. All that remains now are a few amateur and semipro leagues in a few cities. They are in existence only because of a handful of oldtimers who have developed a fondness for the feeling of an exhausted body and because some neighborhood social clubs persist in using soccer as a hangover cure following Saturday-night beer and pizza parties.
Soccer officials concerned with developing American players are no less persistent. Today more than 250 colleges and 2,000 secondary schools play the game, though for some of them this is simply a matter of economics; they cannot afford the cost of football. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that all a school needs to conduct a soccer program is a ball. The most significant development in soccer in the past decade has occurred in St. Louis, which has long been something of a soccer center. Even there, however, college soccer was dormant until 1959. A year earlier, a group of students had started an informal club at St. Louis University and requested $200 from the school. Robert Guelker, still the coach, arranged for his team to play nearby college groups, and one day in late fall they attracted 1,200 people in 15° weather. The university was impressed, and soccer was made a varsity sport in 1959. That year Guelker's boys beat the top teams in the country and won the National Collegiate title. They repeated in 1960, 1962 and 1963. This past season they lost out to Navy in the semifinals.
"I've got a built-in farm system," says Guelker. "There are nine different classifications of players in St. Louis, and we start them mighty young. The first age group is 6 to 8 years old. All in all, probably 10,000 to 12,000 people of all ages play soccer in St. Louis, and of that number 8,700 of them are under 21."
Obviously, more kids are playing the game, but it is improbable that a picture of Milan's Tanares Amarildo will ever appear on a bubble gum card or that people will ever exterminate each other over an out-of-bounds call at Downing Stadium. Nor is it likely that the prophecy made 25 years ago at a coaches' convention of the Nebraska State Teachers Association will be realized. "Fifty years from now," the speaker proclaimed, "soccer will supplant football as it is now played in the colleges." The speaker was Branch Rickey. You remember—he was Gussie Busch's adviser last year.