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The Sport of the 80’s…and Total Football!

Is it Friday, yet?

With Pele arriving in 1979, the word on the street, at least in my small world was that soccer was going to be the sport of the 80’s! Following in Pele’s footsteps were Beckenbauer, Chinaglia, Gerd Muller, and more importantly for me, George Best and Johann Cruyff. Bringing the best coach in the world, Rinus Michels from Holland, and signing Cruyff, the best player in Europe, both architects of a concept called “Total Football” was huge for the LA Aztecs. George Best was brilliant, but he was obviously in Hollywood mainly to have a good time, and his glory days of soccer were behind him.

Every Friday night, we used to go to every Aztecs game at the Rose Bowl. But one game was extra special! I will also remember the excitement of Johann Cruyff’s first game. Even though he was almost past “his prime”, he seemed to dance through the opponents as he scored 2 and had 3 assists in his very first game. Cruyff’s teammates said he got upset with them because they just stopped playing to watch him play. I too was mesmerized and convinced that soccer was indeed the sport of the future. Boy, was I naïve.

At the time, I was oblivious to what a niche sport soccer was in 1979. In our soccer league, my mom and a few of her “foreign” friends hosted a dance each year for the league. It was the first time I had really seen a “melting-pot” of people all celebrating together. Although my mom was from Leeds in the north of England, at the St. Patrick Days parties she held, for some reason, they always sang most passionately, “We love you Liverpool”. I think the connection was the Catholics who labored mercilessly in both those industrial cities when they first came over from Ireland.

To this day, Liverpool and Leeds are my two favorite teams.

The LA Aztecs, my local team, on the other hand, and the entire NASL league folded in 1983. The reality was that professional soccer did not really exist, at least in the eyes of the media, from 1983 until MLS was formed in 1996. For any kid my age who loved soccer, American soccer had become a wasteland and any kid who aspired to play professional soccer, the dreams were crushed with the collapse of the NASL.

But in the years before the league disappeared into oblivion, I was hooked on soccer. I played whenever I could and, at school, I became the soccer guy. I was always chosen first in kickball, and in my warped mind, soccer made me feel important. In my third year, I was on the Panthers, scored the most goals, and I was finally the star. I was making all-star teams and we traveled a bit.

During the summer, my parents signed us up at the Cherif Zein soccer school, and we went through the basic fun soccer camp type activities for a week. Cherif was from Egypt that I have run into many times throughout my life. He was an intriguing and controversial character in the Southern California soccer community and beyond. He had one assistant who was not much older than me named Afshin Ghotbi. He was a really good player, but a bit arrogant.

In my fourth year playing soccer, I was drafted by the Cobras. Everybody wanted to be on this team, as their coach, Earl Hanson, bought team jackets for all the players. As a kid, I would always see baseball jackets, but we were the first to have soccer jackets. I had one other friend at school from our soccer team. Joaquin Ochoa and I always wore our soccer jackets to school. The design was a bit edgy, and someone must have complained as the teacher told us we could not wear the jackets to school anymore as it was seen as gang gear. Back then, parents didn’t confront teachers, so we stopped wearing them to school. 

The not so subtle hatred of soccer

In my younger days, as great as the attention I was getting from soccer, I was also becoming more aware of negative comments about my favorite sport. I ignored most of it, but I did start to notice a subtle attitude against soccer. Well, maybe not so subtle with comments like:

  • “Why are you playing that foreign sport?”
  • “Soccer’s a sissy sport”.
  • “Soccer is gay”
  • “Only Mexicans play soccer” “It’s not a real sport, you can’t even use your hands.” and
  • “It’s not American” the worst comment of all…at least to me.

I started to notice signs in the parks with the soccer ball crossed out, with “No se permite fútbol”. Yet the concern to keep the grass in good shape did not pertain to baseball and American football…only soccer.

What is sad is I still see these signs at parks today.

At my middle school, we usually played American football at recess and lunch time on the asphalt parking lot. Many a time, kids went home with bloody knees or elbows, and ripped pants. The kids were curious about soccer, so one day I decided to teach them what I knew, my first attempt at coaching! I brought a soccer ball to school and all the kids wanted to play. I split up the teams, put some backpacks down for goals, and we started playing. Besides you can’t use your hands, and you score over there, and you stop them from scoring over here… that was it. We just played, and everyone was having fun, until one of the teachers noticed us playing the “wrong” type of football. He came over and said we could not play soccer anymore. We asked why, and with obviously no real answer, he said it was just too unsafe. I replied “…and football’s not.” He snarled and asked whose ball it was. I said mine, and he snatched the ball away and he said I could get it back at the end of day and never bring it back to school again. I was so angry, but what could I do. I could only imagine what would happen in today’s world if that happened.

At some of my team soccer practices, even though we had the permits, any time a baseball coach would show up out of the blue to train some baseball players, we would have to leave. Every freaking time. I would start noticing subtle comments on TV making fun of soccer, and how soccer was portrayed as this immigrant sissy sport. It seems they would purposely go out of their way to demean soccer. I grew up a Miami Dolphin fan. I collected Baseball Digest, and I loved Magic Johnson and the “Showtime Lakers”, so I didn’t see why those sports fans were making fun of soccer. What were they afraid of?

I still ignored it all, and even though my hero, Cruyff, stayed only one with the Aztecs for one year, he had inspired me to think I could play pro soccer. And it started in high school…except we had no team.!