European players flocked to the North American Soccer League in the mid-70s for one main reason – the opportunity to make money. Once here, however, many found good reasons to stay longer than they’d intended. The change in climate, lifestyle and culture surprised many who’d grown up in a country like grey, repressive Britain. When they coached and communicated at the educational clinics that they were contractually obliged to conduct, players stumbled upon the chance to develop both their careers and their personalities. The open-mindedness, the vastness and the possibilities of America were still relatively unfamiliar concepts in the 1970s to young lads who’d spent their lives focused on nothing but themselves and their football within the very narrow environment of the British game.
|Gordon Banks can't quite shake|
off his roots in Fort Lauderdale.
In Chapter 3 of Rock n Roll Soccer, ‘Leaving old Europe behind’, several players cite the enthusiasm of the home crowd as a reason why they loved playing in the NASL, as opposed to the open hostility they would encounter from even their own supporters. As former St. Mirren defender Charlie Mitchell says, in Scotland ‘if you made one mistake then the crowd would boo you and be right on your back.’ You also had to ‘fight like a bastard’ to get into the team. At his new club the Rochester Lancers, though, the crowd didn’t understand the game well enough to know when he’d even made a mistake, and if they did, then they didn’t care.
Here’s a short extract reflecting how some of the NASL’s more famous names enjoyed finding themselves in a world where they could function as normal people:
‘One of the reasons I came to America was that I didn’t think I could live up to the standards I had set back home,’ said Gordon Banks, shortly after joining the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the late 1970s. ‘If I can’t live up to it, people here won’t be saying, I remember him when. This takes a lot of weight off your shoulders. I won’t miss the finger-pointing kind of thing. I wasn’t the kind of person who liked it anyway.’ Franz Beckenbauer was more explicit. ‘Everybody likes to be famous,’ he conceded. ‘But it is an enjoyable difference here [in New York]. In Munich when I went out at night I could read in the paper the next day every place I had been, who I went with, what I ate. Photographers and journalists followed me everywhere. I had a big house surrounded by a big wall. After a game I went home, locked the gate and shut out the world. In the US I can go unrecognized. I have a private life. I had none in Germany.’ The German press, he said, only aimed to ‘tear you down’.
Former Manchester United goalkeeper Alex Stepney came to Dallas in 1979 and enjoyed the simple pleasure of a trip to the amusement park with his family. Back home, he said, you ‘couldn’t go out for a quiet drink or dinner. There was always someone who knew who you were, and it became a bit of a bind. People were quite ruthless. When my wife and kids were here, we went to Six Flags, and it was absolutely fabulous. No one knew us. We wouldn’t do things like that in England.’
A trip to Six Flags amusement park was absolutely fabulous. The kind of activity most average parents dread for weeks and then endure for a long and expensive day was, for Stepney, a wonderfully mundane trip free of some knucklehead following him around and shouting out ‘Fuck Man United!’ Peter Osgood, upon arriving in Philadelphia in 1978, was also enjoying the lack of on-street recognition. ‘It’s nice and easy at the moment,’ he said. ‘Nice and quiet. You don’t get too many people bugging me. I’m enjoying the obscurity. It’s a much more quiet, much more relaxed life.’ Ex-Coventry forward Alan Green was happy to return full-time to the Washington Diplomats after a loan spell, despite a very English penchant for watching Benny Hill over a cup of afternoon tea. ‘One of the big reasons,’ he said, ‘was that when I came here I had a lot more confidence in my ability. I’m the type of player who needs a pat on the back, but in England you make one mistake and 25,000 fans get down on you.’
Bermudan striker Clyde Best – one of Britain’s first black soccer players in the late 1960s and early 1970s – left West Ham United for the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 1975 because of the naked racism in England at the time, both on and off the field. Even though he made almost 200 league appearances for the Hammers, and was eventually accepted by the home support, ‘I began to think, why should I go out there and perform when I have to put up with that sort of stuff? There were problems with the amount of abuse I was taking and I decided I didn’t have to put up with it.’ Rather than point fingers at the English, and without explicitly mentioning that the abuse was racial, Best generously called it ‘a situation that is all over the world. No matter where you go, you can’t find a place where that sort of thing doesn’t exist.’ In the US, though, such abuse was presumably less prevalent, given that he spent the entire final decade of his career there.