The XI team settled on the theme for issue one of the quarterly with surprising ease. The aim was to choose a topic that would allow contributors to explore strands of North American soccer that distinctly shape the sport, to tell entertaining, original stories, to provoke thought and highlight areas of the game often forgotten. We settled on “Coming to America,” with eleven samplings on how the game has and continues to be molded by that great theme of American history, its diverse intake from abroad.
The issue begins with a multi-page illustrated story by Steve Welsh (of Miniboro fame) on a father-and-son with an oft-forgotten connection to North American soccer: Gil Heron and his son, Gil Scott-Heron. Gil Senior was born in Jamaica and moved to North America in the 1940s, becoming a renowned striker in top level semi-professional play.
Welsh’s illustrations portray both Heron Senior and Junior, mixed with verse from both that brilliantly draws on how the game shaped their lives: while his son was just an infant, born in Chicago, Heron Senior was spotted by a Celtic scout and left the country to become the first black player to appear for the Glasgow club’s first team.
I’ll remember all the great ones
Those that I have seen
Those who I have played with
Who wore the white and green
And it was on a Sunday that I met my old man
I was twenty-six years old
Naw but it was much too late to speculate
In Siler City, North Carolina, Paul Caudros looks at how a small southern town has been transformed by Hispanic immigration – and how Latina soccer players are adapting to life in America with their participation in the sport they love.
Women’s soccer in the U.S. is typically known as a bastion of bright, fair skinned, blonde ponytail players kicking the ball. But these players are very different. They are Latinas and they want to play, too. What’s most remarkable about them is that many of these players are not youth players but older women, moms even, who want to play competitive soccer on the weekends just like their husbands and boyfriends. In living out their soccer dreams they are transforming these traditional soccer spaces from being predominantly male to something else. And in the process these futbolera pioneers are challenging the limits of traditional female roles and transforming the norms of femininity in their own families and communities.
The women are dressed in royal blue jerseys and white shorts with matching white socks. They look impeccable. Ready to play. It’s an understatement to say this team of Latina futboleras is well organized. Every player knows her position on the field and on the team. And they all arrive on time, something rare in the Latino community when games start with fuzzy times. But these futboleras know better than to show up late to a game managed by Debra.
From the unknown Latina players in North Carolina, we move on to one of the most famous soccer players to ever come to America: Johan Cruyff. Leander Schaerlaeckens and Pieter van Os – who wrote a book about the Dutch legend’s spell in the NASL – tell the full story of his tenure in the United States for the first time in English.
Legendarily hubristic, cocksure, singularly combative and ruthless, Cruyff was forever embroiled in power struggles or embarking on ideological crusades. If his talent for manipulating a ball and orchestrating an offense was immense, it was (and is) dwarfed by his capacity for inciting conflict and playing mind games.
But the Dips didn’t know any of that yet. In 1980, all they knew was that they’d landed the player considered one of the greatest of all time for his second season in the now-defunct North American Soccer League.
Cruyff had spent 1979 with the Los Angeles Aztecs. In his first game, fresh off the plane and badly jetlagged by the long trip and nine-hour time difference from his native Netherlands, he had scored twice in his first seven minutes and gave an assist before coming off. He would bag 13 goals and 15 assists, lead his team to the conference semifinals and be named the league’s Most Valuable Player that year.
And now, not quite 33, he was – in name anyway – a Diplomat, part of the ambitious, newly cash-rich club eager to emulate the dominant, star-studded New York Cosmos.
The board members took Cruyff to Tiberio, the restaurant where Washington’s movers and shakers ate. None of the senators, congressmen or other power brokers paid him much mind. And then, to the stupefaction of them all, every busboy, dishwasher and cook in the building trickled out into the dining room for a picture, autograph and a chat with him.
Academic Andrew Guest takes a macro-look at immigration and American soccer in his essay, Making It In America. For Guest, this is a story not just about soccer, but about immigration and American society more broadly.
In the popular imagination, soccer has only gradually become “American.” The legendary 1950 U.S. World Cup team, for example, beat England on a diving header by Joe Gaetjens—who was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and later played for Haiti against Mexico in a World Cup qualifier. But even in 1950, only six of the seventeen players on the U.S. roster were born abroad, equal to the number born in St. Louis. Forty-four years later, at the 1994 World Cup hosted by the U.S., the American roster had a nearly identical ratio of foreign-born: 1 out of 3. So when I first looked at the U.S. roster for the 2010 World Cup I was interested to find only two of the players on the final thirty-man roster were born abroad: Stuart Holden was born in Scotland and Benny Feilhaber was born in Brazil, with both moving to the U.S. by age 10. But then, when I tracked down their family histories, it turned out that at least 60 percent (or 18 of players for which I could find the relevant information) had at least one parent who was born abroad. In contrast, only around 20 percent of all young Americans have at least one parent born abroad. If the World Cup team is any indication, immigrant families still have massively disproportionate success in American soccer.
While this does imply that soccer is still something of an “immigrant’s game,” I think there is also something more complicated going on, something that social scientists call “the immigrant paradox” or “the immigrant advantage.” It turns out that when accounting for prior socio-economic status, several first and second-generation immigrant groups do better than expected in multiple life domains beyond the soccer field. Asian and African immigrant youth, for example, do significantly better than their socio-economic status would predict in the American education system. Likewise, Hispanic immigrants often have better health outcomes than demographically similar non-immigrant American groups. It is worth emphasizing that such successes are relative: while immigrants come in all types, on average the contemporary U.S. immigrant population does face significant economic disadvantage even before accounting for potential political and social marginalization. Immigrant advantages also tend to dissipate over time, sometimes creating a sadly ironic association between assimilation and vulnerability across generations. But the success stories of immigration do offer valuable lessons, particularly in the face of declining American social mobility, about how the ‘land of opportunity’ could work.
The story of Howard University’s soccer team – one built from an unusually large intake of foreign students from the 1920s to today – is told by Tom Dunmore. Notably, these foreign students happened to be mostly black foreign students: a difference from the DC college’s peer institutions that resulted in one of the great sporting stories of the 1970s, following Howard’s unprecedented victory in the 1971 NCAA final, led by legendary Bisons’ coach Lincoln Phillips.
At half-time, the score was 2-2. At the break, Phillips made a call that changed the game: Keith Aqui, the Bisons’ star Trinidadian striker, sidelined from the game with a fever, was introduced for the second half. “Aqui came to me with tears in his eyes and said he wanted to play,” Phillips later recalled, admitting Aqui’s illness should have kept his prolific forward off the field: “I knew he should not have played, but I just couldn’t tell him no. Once he got on the field, St. Louis changed their attack. They put two and three men to guard him, which left an extra two of our men free.” And so the space opened up for Howard’s powerful attack and when Stan Smith, Howard’s captain, found forward Alvin Henderson with a driven through ball, the moment had arrived for the Bisons: his right footed shot powered past St. Louis’ keeper Al Steck into the top left-hand corner of the goal to give Howard a 3-2 victory. At the final whistle, Jet magazine reported, “Three hundred Howard University students, faculty and alumni streamed onto the field … with the assistance of a 40-piece pep band, the crowd celebrated the most amazing and spectacular victory in Black collegiate sports.”
In the locker-room later, Phillips faked receiving a congratulatory call from President Nixon; “Ah, Mr. President,” Phillips deadpanned into the empty line, “I’m disappointed. I thought you would call sooner.” He did not have to wait much longer: the next day, a telegram from the president arrived offering Nixon’s “heartiest congratulations to you and the Howard University soccer team. Your team, your victory yesterday (December 30), the perfect season of fifteen wins and no losses, and your NCAA Championship make Washington very proud.” Howard’s victory was appreciated both locally, as a rarity in Washington D.C. sports (it was the first championship, collegiate or professional, by a team from the area in 25 years), and nationally in the black American community, praised highly in publications such as Jet, who headlined “Soccer World Is Shaken By Championship Victory Of Howard” and The Baltimore Afro-American, which wrote that “It was a historic night for Howard and for black colleges and universities as it marked the first time in sports history that any NCAA Championship had been won by a black university in any sport.”
That takes us to about the halfway point of issue one – tomorrow, we’ll give you a peek at the rest of the publication, and you can be the first to read the issue by subscribing now, with a special introductory offer available through the end of this month.