Finding inspiration in the North American Soccer League

It’s nice to be reminded sometimes that when we (the United States) have reached for our better angels, we help create a kinder, more equitable world.

This reflection for me came recently, in all places, while reading the history of the North American Soccer League, both in Ian Plenderleith’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer and, more directly, in Patrick Horne’s Black Pioneers of the North American Soccer League, as well as in an essay by South African sports scholar, Chris Bolsmann. The combined story they tell is one in which a strange amalgamation of economics and marketing let to a situation in which American culture—simply as a model—helped alter racial politics a world away.

The easiest way to tell the story is to start with failure. Most people have a loose thumbnail sketch of the North American Soccer League, which ran from 1968 to 1984, in their heads. Beginning with 17 teams, the league was reduced to only five after twelve folded after just one season.

One of the lessons learned from this immediate failure was that the league, facing an audience who didn’t understand soccer, needed to find ways to make the game more interesting to everyday Americans. As a result, and at the encouragement of NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam, the league not only instituted a number of technical changes that worked to both speed up the game and lead to higher scoring, but the league also encouraged a number of stylistics changes that encouraged spectacle not generally seen in the European version of the sport–cheerleaders, fireworks, tailgating, concerts and so forth.

Even with the success such spectacle began to manifest, the league discovered, much to its own surprise, that they were not getting the audience they expected at the games. While attempting to draw the largest possible audience, they had expected first generation immigrants from nations where soccer was a national sport to be the first fans. 

Newsweek reported at the time, however, that the owners found this group staying away, telling pollsters that they found the quality of play in the league to be inferior. A 1979 essay in MacLean’s observed that when the league surveyed this intended audience, they discovered that these populations thought the game was undeveloped in America (i.e., not very skilled). 

While pleased that the growing NASL audience was largely made up of “professional, active suburbanites, including men, women and children,” the league needed, and desired, a larger following. Faced with the desire for the largest possible audience, the league maintained the “rock n roll” distractions while also beginning the high stakes strategy of bringing in established, high profile soccer stars from abroad in order to enhance the “appearance” of a highly skilled game. 

In order to pay the large salary of these stars—including, Pelé, Franz Breckenbauer, Giorgio Chinanglia, Carlos Alberto, Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Gerd Müller, Bobby Moore, Eusébio, and George Best, while also continuing to raise the level of play, the teams begin to search for players globally who were talented but undervalued (a mid 70s form of moneyball).

This often meant bringing in African players from around the globe for a variety of reasons. First, because of policies like apartheid in South Africa (which forced the black players to play in a separate league) and, secondly, because of the implicit racism of European leagues, where black players were only slowly being integrated into teams, NASL teams were encouraged to racially integrate teams quickly if only because it was the cheapest way to raise the talent pool. 

As a result of this strategy, Ian Plenderleith argues that the NASL was the first soccer experiment of “mixing several ethnic backgrounds” into one team, an experiment only later pursued by the Premier League and other leagues.  While FIFA and the European game despised the distractions of the NASL, the move to a more inclusive game, a move away from the tastes of lower incoming working class white men toward global audiences ultimately required some of the same changes brought by the NASL. 

Importantly, as Chris Bolsmann notes (and this is where my eyes were really opened), in South Africa, apartheid laws meant that black and white players could never play against one another. Hence, when they came to the US to play, it was the first time any of them had played integrated sports and the first time they had played against some of their fellow country men. 

As a result, both black and white players went back to South Africa later, almost universally energized against apartheid and confident of their ability to succeed in joint struggles again racism. Kaizer Motaung, who played for the Atlanta Chiefs and later returned to South African to found the successful Kaizer Chiefs football club, noted that “America was an eye opener for me. I am in a foreign country, but here are black people holding high positions being respected worldwide.”

Moutang continued to recruit South African players to the NASL , leading to more challenges to apartheid.  Moreover, as Patrick Horne notes in Black Pioneers of the North American Soccer League, while the league hired a number of African players, it was most important for South Africans because the country had been banned from international games as a result of apartheid policies. 

Patrick “Ace” Ntsoelengoe, who ABC’s Jim McKay promised to make a household name because of his high level of skill, attributed the NASL as being the only route he had toward international fame and for playing regularly against a global audience. South African Webster Lichaba played in Atlanta in the early 80s and bemoaned life under apartheid and compared the treatment in South Africa to the treatment in the US “as chalk and cheese.”

“You were allowed to eat in any restaurant,” he said. “You went into any club if you wanted to: you stayed in any area you wanted to, unlike in South Africa… It was different, a different lifestyle all together. You were treated as an equal.” He, too, returned home, with an imagination to change things.   

Trinidad and Tobago’s Leroy DeLeon played in the league for over a decade, becoming a mentor and coach of other black players. DeLeon chose to play in the NASL rather than sign contracts with European teams, he notes, because when he want to see an English game on a recruitment trip, he saw only one black player (Clyde Best at West Ham United). The Washington Darts, however, alone had seven different Trinidadians on the roster. 

Additionally, because so many of these players were played low wages, they contracted to take other jobs in America.  Kenneth Mokgojoa played with the Washington Diplomats but also contracted to coach youth soccer in the area to make ends meet. As Horne notes “Many of those who were exposed to these black pioneers were among the first generation of Americans in the modern game, many of whom went abroad and were successful” elsewhere. 

Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Lincoln Phillips played for the Baltimore Bays, than went on to coach Howard University (the first black HBCU to win an NCAAA championship in 1974). He also later started the Black Soccer Coaches Association in 1996 to help move black coaches up the administrative ladder in soccer. Bermudan Kenneth Horton played in three different teams in the NASL and returned to his native Bermuda, turning to politics, eventually becoming the Minsters of Education, Sports and Recreation. He insisted that his time in the NASL prepared him for working with a wide variety of people. 

What was going on here? I mean, we are a nation, like all nations, with issues with racism—both overt and systemic. How in the heck did this strange configuration of the need for skilled, low cost players, lead to a group of Black pioneers in the sport taking so much inspiration from their time in the North American Soccer League?

Part of it is romanticism, of course, but part of it is simply comparative contextualization. These men were coming from systems of legislative and overt racism that helped make their experiences here seem almost utopian. And while no one could look at the history of this nation during the NASL and since, and see it in any way as free of racism, it did act as a localized form of inspiration for others.

I have no interest in romanticizing our past or present, or the economics that brought many Africans and those of the African diaspora here. After all, they were recruited because they were undervalued and could be paid below market value. So much so that many of them still had to take on second jobs while playing soccer. But it is nice to know that, when we are doing our best as a people, we can offer inspiration elsewhere. 

It’s not that there isn’t a lot to fix. It’s not that anything about “us” is perfect or close to it. It’s more that, when we are at our best, we are striving toward that ideal. 

And it’s nice that a case study in soccer, of all things, helps highlight this.

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