Football: The pitman who signed up Pele

Simon Turnbull reports on a North-east pioneer preaching the American soccer gospel
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The Independent Online
THERE can hardly be many better Trivial Pursuit posers of a football nature. Name, if you can, the Englishman who signed Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff. The answer in question is Gordon Bradley. Gordon who...? Gordon Bradley, who started his working life as a fitter at Easington Colliery in East Durham and, after playing for Bradford Park Avenue and Carlisle United, went off to pursue his particular American dream. He could have been excused for thinking he had cracked it when crowds of 78,000 filled Giants Stadium to watch his New York Cosmos team in 1976. Only now, though, does the pitman-turned-pioneer consider the game to have taken a significant hold on the American sporting consciousness.

The revived professional league is two years old. The national team have qualified for a third successive World Cup finals. Soccer, as Bradley has come to call it, is making a name for itself. "When the US qualified for France last weekend there were big headlines in the Washington Post," he said. "And when Washington DC United won the Major League Soccer title last month there were 57,000 in the RFK Stadium. The national team play El Salvador in their final World Cup qualifying match in New England this Sunday. It's a meaningless game for the United States but it's still a 60,000 sell-out.

"Soccer is on national television here now. People like me don't have to explain what it is any more. You have adverts on television with kids kicking a ball around. It's in the houses. There are 20 million registered players at grass roots level. We don't have the Peles, the Beckenbauers or the Cruyffs any more but it's a longer-term thing. Everyone has learned from the mistakes of the North American Soccer League."

Bradley was one half of the English duo who shot for the stars with New York Cosmos in the fleeting boom years of the NASL. Backed with big bucks from Warner Communications, Bradley, as coach, and Clive Toye, as general manager, lured Pele and Beckenbauer to a team that was temporarily out of this world. Later, as coach of the Washington Diplomats, Bradley signed Cruyff and he almost succeeded in prising Kevin Keegan from Hamburg. As the rich got richer, though, the poor found the dollars running out. The NASL, formed in 1968 by Phil Woosnam, the former Aston Villa and Wales inside-forward, finally came to grief in 1984.

"The problem with the NASL," Bradley reflected, "was we started at the top of the pyramid. We didn't have a base. We didn't have the myriad kids playing the game then. But we do now. We've got the base. And the United States Soccer Federation has got it right with Major League Soccer. The clubs operate through the league, which owns the rights to the players. All of the transfers and wages are capped. They're looking to build a foundation. They don't want to see teams drop out.

"In fact, Chicago and Miami will be joining next year, which will make 12 clubs. And below that we now have what we call farm teams playing in leagues across the states. It's a feeder system to the Major League Soccer clubs. They can pull a player up from your farm team and drop one down. Then there is the college system. The youngsters come through that way."

Bradley is helping them come through. He runs soccer clinics at the George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where he has settled with his wife, Vera, and their two sons, Paul and Douglas. He also works as a summariser on television coverage of Major League Soccer.

When Bradley first moved across the Atlantic, in 1963, to play in a Canadian league for Toronto City, his team-mates included Stanley Matthews, Johnny Haynes and Danny Blanchflower. Bradley was never quite in their class as a player but as a coach and long-time inspiration he now stands alongside the greatest player of all. At 63, he has been voted into the United States Soccer Federation's Hall of Fame, taking his place with his old pal Pele.

"It's funny," Bradley said, chuckling, "but it was Dr Henry Kissinger who clinched the deal that brought Pele to the Cosmos. He was a big soccer fan, you know. He used to come to our games. And he got on to the Brazilian government and said, 'We've done a lot for Brazil. Can you help America ?' The Brazilians said, 'Hold on a minute... Brazil helping America... What do you want?' And Dr Kissinger said, 'Could we borrow Pele to help us build up the game of soccer in the United States.' That was how we got him in the end."

Twenty-two years later, the building work is back in operation. And this time, instead of reaching through the roof for the stars, Bradley is helping to lay down some lasting foundations.

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