Ken Jones: Forget the idea that America will ever be seduced by soccer

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The Independent Football

In a mad moment during the summer of 1967, I agreed to act as a consultant to Toronto Falcons of the newly formed North American Soccer League. My main task was to provide the club's owner, Joe Peters, with a frank assessment of the game's chances on the only continent still cool to it.

A tough former lumberjack and professional gambler who had made his fortune in real estate, Peters wanted it straight. After a month in the job, I gave it to him.

"You're throwing money away," I said, a view enthusiastically endorsed by the former Tottenham Hotspur and Northern Ireland captain, Danny Blanchflower, who had been hired by the television network CBS to work with clueless commentators, providing technical insights.

Much to the annoyance of his employers and those who had invested in the great adventure, Blanchflower was more whimsical than supportive, constantly serving up jokes about the creaking efforts of veteran European imports, most of whom were playing from memory. Things came to a head when Blanchflower remarked upon the escape of a Falcon from a centre-field perch in the Toronto stadium.

"That just about sums up the game over here," Blanchflower told his audience.

Peters was furious. "What's this guy trying to do to us?" he asked.

"That's Danny," I replied. "But you'd better wise up to the fact that he's got it right. Historically, all around the world, soccer grew up as a ghetto game. The people involved here seemed to want to make it a white, middle-class sport. They're planting seeds in the suburbs, in the private schools, in the colleges. What is the ghetto game in America? Basketball? If you're betting on a sports explosion here I'll put my money on basketball."

Earlier this week, another Ulsterman, the Celtic manager, Martin O'Neill, echoed a notion first put forward 36 years ago and repeated many times since without much in the way of fulfilment.

Speaking to American journalists at a press conference preceding Celtic's 4-0 loss to Manchester United in Seattle, he said: "At some stage you'll get fed up with baseball. You'll also find out that, unlike in basketball, you don't have to be 6ft 10in to be a good soccer player. There are so many young people playing soccer here that one of these days you're really going to get into the sport and go for it."

Coming across O'Neill's remarks, and the similar sentiments of Sir Alex Ferguson in a droll report by Andy Martin for this newspaper, it seemed that both were making the mistake of failing to realise that no good can come from lecturing Americans on the supposed superiority of soccer as recreation and entertainment.

As you may have read in that report, Ferguson's assumption that the first attempt to establish a foothold for soccer in the United States was made in the 1970s is at odds with history. What that decade saw was a concerted but ultimately failed effort to raise the game's profile, led by the New York Cosmos under the presidency of Clive Toye, a former Fleet Street football writer who recruited such notables as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and Giorgio Chinaglia. When crowds in excess of 60,000 flocked to the newly completed Meadowlands stadium in New Jersey, some studious types imagined that the breakthrough had been made.

Beckenbauer sensed that the boom was temporary, suspecting that broadcasting organisations and newspapers conspired with traditional American sports to keep soccer in its place, way down the scale of public interest.

"Baseball, gridiron, basketball and ice hockey don't want their appeal to be challenged and big-name American sports columnists treat the world's most popular game with indifference," I remember him saying after returning home to play for Hamburg.

Over more years than I find comfortable to remember, on numerous visits to the United States for some sports event or another, I have watched soccer struggle to make its presence felt. When the 1994 World Cup finals proved to be a huge commercial success, attracting a new audience as well as ethnic groups, it was foolishly assumed that the last frontier had been crossed.

Well, the months wore on and nothing of significance happened. Plans for a new professional league fell into disarray, later to be resurrected but with no lasting impact. A creditable performance by the United States in last year's World Cup finals caused no great upsurge of interest.

After the collapse of the NASL in 1967, Joe Peters concluded that it would be wise to stick to what had happened, not to what might happen. Writing off soccer as a bad investment, he said, "Save me from experts. 'Ex' is something in the past and a spurt is a spray that never made it."