Thoughts On Soccer & A Long-Ago Look At Pelé

It’s one of the world’s great sporting events: Starting this morning and lasting through the final game July 11 at Soccer City in Johannesburg, South Africa, the quadrennial competition of the World Cup will take over much of the world’s attention.

In most of the world, of course, the sport is called “football.” We have our own version of football here, thanks, and when we think of it, we call the world’s beautiful game “soccer.” And we do think of it more and more these days with burgeoning youth and school programs, and a growing interest in professional soccer. There are many here who love the game, many more than there used to be, oh, thirty-some years ago.

Still, the predictions of some folks from thirty-some years ago have not come true. We were told that soccer would become the sport of all sports for us here in the United States, that our interest in baseball and our silly version of football would fade away and we could join the rest of the world at the grown-ups’ table.

It hasn’t quite worked that way, and I don’t think it ever will. As I noted above, however, there’s far more interest in soccer here than there used to be. There are, I suppose, many reasons, and a few – by no means all of them – come to mind:

First, we have the changing demographics of the United States, with more and more residents over the past thirty years coming to this country from the rest of the world – especially, I think, Latin America and Africa – and bringing their soccer balls with them.

Second, I see the search by parents for an autumnal athletic activity for their children that is less brutal than American football.

Third – and this one may be sketchy – in the past thirty years, there’s been a greater interest among Americans in genealogy, in knowing who our ancestors were and where they came from; along with that has come an interest in the cultures our ancestors left behind, and in almost all of those cultures, soccer is the major sport. I think that’s piqued our interests.

Fourth, the Internet has made it far easier than ever before for folks here in America to learn about the game, its history and its current state. It’s easy enough now for me to be a casual follower of the German Bundesliga, where I track the fortunes of the team called Werder Bremen, chosen because the city of Bremen lies within a hundred miles or so of Ostfriesland, the area that was home to two of my German ancestors who left there for the United States during the Nineteenth Century.

So the pundits of thirty years ago were partly right: Soccer here in the U.S. is a far more popular sport now than it was then. And coincidentally, considering the events taking place half a world away beginning today, it was thirty-four years ago this week that I saw Brazilian legend Pelé play a North American Soccer League (NASL) game at Minnesota’s Metropolitan Stadium. Pelé was a member of the league’s New York Cosmos – later known simply as Cosmos – and led his team against the Minnesota Kicks on the sun-drenched evening of June 9, 1976.

The story – literally – began for me about six months earlier, when I was in the middle of my internship for the sports department of WTCN, an independent television station in the Twin Cities. One morning, my boss called me into his office and we had a long discussion about soccer. A NASL team in Denver – the Dynamos – had been bought by some Twin Cities businessmen and was coming to Minnesota. Why didn’t I get in touch with the team’s president and see if he could come in for an interview, and while I was at it, why not finds some members of the Twin Cities soccer community and get some reactions? There might even, he said, be a multi-part series in it.

A digression: There have been, in the thirty-four years since 1976, many lame nicknames bestowed on professional athletic teams in the U.S. None, not even the Orlando Magic or the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, have been as lame as the Minnesota Kicks. (Well, the Minnesota Fighting Pike of the Arena Football League come close.) And the team’s colors of orange and light blue? Well, it was the 1970s. (I believe that’s the Kicks’ Ace Ntsoelengoe in the orange and blue to the right.)

As I worked on my assignment, I never did find much of a soccer community in the Twin Cities. It was there, no doubt, but my reporting skills and contacts in the Twin Cities were both lacking at the time. I did, however, beat the rest of the Twin Cities sports media on one part of the story. Jack Crocker, the president of the Minnesota Kicks, agreed to meet me at the TV station for an interview. We talked for about twenty minutes – this was a few years before the days of reliable video tape, so it was recorded on 16mm film by one of the station’s cinematographers – about all aspects of the Kicks’ arrival in Minnesota, from the chances to have a competitive team to the prospects of the franchise succeeding as a business.

One of the larger news stories during the NASL off-season had been that of Pelé agreeing to play for the Cosmos. And as my conversation with Jack Crocker neared its end, I asked if the team’s schedule had been set yet. It had, he said, and it would be released in the next month or so. So I asked if by chance, the Cosmos was coming to Minnesota to give us a chance to see Pelé. He grinned. And he said, “I can’t say anything, but I think the smile on my face gives you your answer.”

My interview with Jack Crocker – including that disarming and revealing ending – got into the six-minute sports segment on our news show that evening. It might have even been the lead sports story, but after thirty-four years, I’m not entirely sure. But I am pretty certain that I was the first sports reporter in the Twin Cities to learn – even if it was implicitly – that Pelé and the Cosmos would play the Kicks that summer.

As it happened, for that summer and a few summers to come, Minnesota Kicks games were the cool place to be. The parking lot at the Met was huge, and tailgating was encouraged. The partying crowds were enormous. Still, I was able to get tickets for the Kicks’ game against the Cosmos, and three friends and I took our places among more than 50,000 others folks at the game that evening thirty-four years ago this week; it was the largest crowd to that point in the history of the NASL. I don’t recall the score of the game or even who won. I remember seeing Pelé run up the field, but I don’t know if he scored. But I was there, among a sea of fans wearing orange and light blue.

(The Kicks had a five-year run as a viable franchise, winning some division titles and playing once – that first season of 1976 – in the league’s championship game, where they lost 2-0 to Toronto Metros-Croatia. Starting in the fall of 1979, the team also played as an indoor team for two seasons. After the summer season in 1981, the franchise folded.)

And now, to bring some music into this, here are a few tunes pulled from the deeper portions of the Hot 100 for the week ending June 12, 1976, the week I saw Pelé play football.

Candi Staton’s “Young Hearts Run Free” was at No. 50 and would eventually get to No. 20, as well as to No. 1 on the R&B chart.

Here’s the album single version of the B.T. Express’ “Can’t Stop Groovin’ Now, Wanna Do It Some More.” The single edit was at No. 59 that week and peaked a week later at No. 52.

Crown Heights Affair’s “Foxy Lady” was sitting at No. 70 as of June 12, 1976. The record peaked at No. 49 six weeks later.

Finally, there’s a group listed Fool’s Rain on the Billboard list I have; the group was actually Fool’s Gold, which was Dan Fogelberg’s backing band. The record was “Rain, Oh, Rain,” and it was at No. 80 as of June 12, 1976. It peaked at No. 76 for two weeks as June turned into July.

We’ll see you tomorrow with a Saturday Single.

(Error in history of Minnesota Kicks corrected since first posting; B.T. Express video changed March 28, 2014.)

Tags: , , ,

2 Responses to “Thoughts On Soccer & A Long-Ago Look At Pelé”

  1. AMD says:

    Lovely post. Great to see the great Ace Ntsoelengoe being remembered.

  2. jb says:

    Great to see the summer of 1976 being remembered, too. I was a North American Soccer League fan that summer as well, and although I don’t watch much soccer anymore, I’ll probably look in on some of the World Cup matches.

    On the subject of horrid nicknames, I nominate the Zion/St George Pioneerzz, a minor-league team in Utah, which must have had some connection with the Utah Jazz, because nothing else would satisfactorily explain those two stupid Z’s

Leave a Reply