Football: Jago at home in the land of the big sell: Phil Shaw finds a veteran English coach in Dallas who has been happy to adapt his talents to the special demands of the American six-a-side game

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The Independent Online
ONE by one the players sprint out on to the pitch, past the flashing lights built into the goalposts and through clouds of dry ice, before running a gauntlet of 'high fives' from team- mates. The loudspeakers are pounding out 'Born To Be Wild' and the fans put down their burgers and bagels to applaud the spectacle.

Welcome to 'soccer', Texas- style. This is not, however, the World Cup in the Cotton Bowl furnace, but the air-conditioned cool of the nearby Reunion Arena. On the eve of the quarter-final between Sweden and Saudi Arabia, the Dallas Sidekicks hope to edge closer to retaining their Continental Indoor Soccer Leage title by beating the Portland Pride. And the last man to jog along the line slapping hands looks strangely familiar.

Gordon Jago, now 61, has been the Sidekicks' coach for 10 years, though his pedigree dates from when six-a-side was what street urchins played with a battered ball in ration-book Britain. His career spans the decades from Winston Churchill and Stan Matthews to Bill Clinton and Cobi Jones.

Having started as a teenaged defender with Charlton in 1950, Jago blossomed into one of Britain's brightest football brains and was once interviewed for the England managership.

Don Revie was chosen to succeed Sir Alf Ramsey, and Jago went on to manage Millwall and Queen's Park Rangers before heading for Florida 16 years ago to coach the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

He remains involved in 'real' football, combining his Dallas duties with the role of Fifa's technical director for North and Central America plus the Caribbean, yet defends the indoor variant as an exciting sport in its own right.

'Our players are part-timers who have nearly all come from outdoor college soccer, so they've had to learn that this is an entirely different game,' Jago said. 'They must get used to playing off the boards, and the rapid transition from attack to defence means they've got to get back when they lose the ball.

'They have to be all-rounders. There aren't as many specialists as in 11-a-side, but in its own way it's Total Football. Technique has to be very good.'

And it is. Skill levels might surprise visitors who come armed with prejudice rather than popcorn, and the finishing is often spectacular. European interlopers might feel uneasy about the 'time-outs', when play stops for a television advertisement; and the 'on the fly' substitutions, whereby players constantly come on and off, jar as much as a non-stop soundtrack of rock music.

Then again, there are no queues for overflowing urinals, while some 20 stalls selling everything from Mexican dips to pots of yoghurt serve the 4,595 crowd (for play-off games the Sidekicks have had 17,000). Reunion also stages basketball and ice hockey, and Jago points to similarities with those sports in terms of atmosphere as well as action. 'It's a young crowd, professional people who come out with the family to be entertained.

'They and their kids have grown up playing soccer, whereas Americans of 40 and over neither know nor care about it. They're into the traditional American sports, and they've been fed this massive media myth that it's a dull, low- scoring midfield struggle with hooligans abounding.'

There is nothing low-scoring about tonight's game of four quarters (each of 15 minutes). The Sidekicks win 10-5 despite having their best player, a wily Brazilian called Tatu, banished to the 'penalty box'. The booing that follows his temporary expulsion is the kind that greets pantomine villains.

But would these 'boosters' support Major League Soccer, the 11-a-side set-up due to start next year? 'The big problem is that there aren't enough stadiums of the right size, with a 20,000 capacity,' Jago says. 'There's talk of a Dallas team playing at the Cotton Bowl, but 10,000 in a ground holding 66,000 would be suicidal.

'The World Cup is having a fantastic impact. The crowds have been large and festive, but I'm not sure it's going to be a lasting impact. MSL may struggle to get off the ground because there's still a lot of money to be raised.'

Jago will not be involved - 'I'm close to retirement' - but believes the market will eventually be there in the United States. 'I'm confident the corporate backing will come forward because they're seeing the benefits of the World Cup. We've also got 160,000 kids playing soccer in this city, but we must be patient. Right now they're participants, not spectators.'

Still, football looks set to continue growing. Since last summer, CISL membership has doubled to 14, the franchises including the San Jose Grizzlies (coached by the former Arsenal full-back, Bob McNab) and Sacramento Knights (under the guidance of ex-Chelsea player, Keith Weller).

It really is a whole new ball game, right down to the ball itself, 20 per cent smaller than the outdoor Size 5 to encourage high-velocity shooting into goals 7ft 6in high. Jago has 'no problem' with such innovations but admits his thoughts often stray from the boys of summer to wintry Saturdays across the Atlantic.

'It was always a joy to take a team to Highbury or Old Trafford, and I still follow the results avidly. If it were soccer alone I'd still be there, but the lifestyle keeps me here. Bring the Premier League to the USA and I'd be in paradise.'

(Photograph omitted)

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