Finally! Some 80 years on the heels of its first World Cup Soccer appearance, with a respectable 3rd -place finish, the United States National Soccer Team is finally earning the respect it’s been seeking ever since. And, finally, my family and friends are beginning to appreciate why I become so pumped up, during all of the World Cup matches, following my brief participation in soccer (when stationed aboard the U.S.S. Springfield-CLG7, during the mid-1960s), while home-ported in Villefranche-sur-mer (about 5 miles east of Nice, France).
Anyone watching the recent 2010 World Cup match between the “Yanks” (U.S. team) and the Algerian National Soccer Team, not sensing the frenzied stadium atmosphere, probably won’t understand why I still get goose-bumps watching international competition. And, the U.S.-vs- Algeria nail-biting match served up all of the excitement one needed, when Mid-Field Striker Landon Donavan (jersey #10) slammed in his stoppage-time goal for a 1-0 win over Algeria.
Yet, one of the more interesting side notes, for me, was the significant number of African-Americans rounding out the roster of the 2010 “Yanks,” as well as African-, American- and/or foreign-born blacks on the rosters of several international teams.
It represents a sharp contrast from the period of my mid-1960s’ introduction to the sport. Following my high school football (American football) and track years, I only became interested in playing when the Commander of the U.S. 6th Fleet (aboard the Springfield) decided to participate in the military’s “People-to-People” program by fielding a soccer team. I knew nothing about soccer, or “international football,” then. And, I only joined the 6th Fleet team because I was still hungry for athletic competition (also, joined the ship’s 8-man American flag football squad), as well as looking for an alternate means of “seeing the world”– with someone else footing the expense. But, one of my flag-ball teammates suggested my speed and athletic ability might be an asset to the soccer team- and, I fell for the flattery. Before joining the Navy, he also played soccer in a New Jersey high school/ club league. The 6th Fleet team (called “Springfield Free-Booters”) was comprised of U.S. Navy and Marine Corp personnel. Most had played before, some even in Europe, having been born to military families, overseas. Our two player-coaches, one Marine 1st Lt and one Navy LTJG, came from the latter group. An added benefit was the lessening of the on-going, natural friction between shipboard Navy and Marine personnel.
The three seasons of competition that followed taught me more about the acute need for world peace, and possible means of achieving it, than the nearly five years of military service, years of youth and high school athletic competition and many summers visiting and working on my grandparents farm, within the Zanesville, Ohio German-American farming community- all combined. Mostly, we competed with foreign military units, American universities and remnants of middle-aged guys from Mediterranean, industrial league-type soccer clubs.
However, one weekend’s informal scrimmage with several local kids probably changed us forever. Yes, a bunch of bratty but scrappy little kids, mostly teenagers, who were cracking up over our awkward styles, while we were practicing in an empty Algerian stadium, in coastal North Africa. But, our “mistake,” in teasingly inviting them to “put up or shut up” by playing us, was exactly what we needed for a realistic tune up before the match with a Spanish military club, in Rota, Spain. These youngsters stomped our butts! Their forward strikers and mid-fielders ran rings around us! They were unmerciful. Thankfully, we kept no scores! But, we were humbled by the experience. Frankly, we told no one back on the ship, for a long time- especially since their youngest player was only 12 years old!
But, a week later, in Rota, we had our best showing ever- but, still lost 6-1! It was very cold outside and our shorty-shorts just didn’t seem long enough that day. But, the warmth and graciousness of the “large” crowd of 75-100 spectators kept us motivated. As the Springfield’s Left Fullback/ Defender, with minutes remaining in the game, and our goalie out of position, I was able to stop their 7th goal, sacrificing my already battered body to the cold, hard, muddy ground, stopping the ball- with my face! A few bystanders screamed “Pele, Pele, Pele!”
At the time, I actually thought they were cursing me for preventing another score!
However, after the game, I learned that it was their term of adulation in respect for my efforts, since I was the only black athlete on the field- their tribute of sorts to the black, Brazilian soccer player, Edison Arantes de Nascimento, a.k.a., “Pele.” It was the first I’d ever heard of him. But, eventually, I developed a deep respect for him and an intense love for the game, after learning of his humble beginnings and celebrated field exploits in becoming a 3-time World Cup medal winner and Brazil’s national hero. Mostly playing for Brazil’s Club Santos, in his 20+ year’s career, he played two years in the United States, for the New York “Cosmos,” before retiring in 1977.
Privately, it’s one of the reasons why Brazil remains my favorite international team, today- except, for our hard-charging “Yanks.” It’s also why I was very proud to see the solid contributions made by Donovan’s (#10) African-American teammates, like Goal Keeper- Tim Howard (#1), Defender- Oguchi Onyewu (#5), Forward Striker- Jozy “Black Electricity” Altidore (#17), Forward- Robbie Findley (#20) and Mid-Fielder- Maurice “Mo” Adu (#19). There are others, but these were the ones that caught my attention during World Cup play. Truly, I said to myself, international soccer has evolved a long way from its early beginnings, chock-full of ethnic slurs and scarce black representation on many clubs.
Yet, the observation that impresses me the most, about FIFA (“Federation Internationale de Football Association”), today- especially the American Team- is the laudable “non-recognition” of the racial composition of its players and officials, at least publicly, no matter what corner of the globe spawns a team. I’ve often said to others that, next to the International Olympic Games, and athletics in general, I feel that World Cup/ FIFA competition offers one of the greatest opportunities for all nations to further explore the illusive idea of world peace.
Actually, there were several other interesting soccer-related experiences, while overseas; but, the matches with the gracious Spaniards and scrappy Algerian teenagers occupy a special shelf on my bookcase of recollections.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? Can athletics, national or international, favorably impact the quest for peace in the world, or better understanding? Will the remote possibility of a U.S. World Cup Championship enhance the potential for world peace? You already know what I think. What do you think?
“Backstreet Djeli” (w.d.s.)
(Previously posted @ rizingcubenterprises.com on 06/24/2010)