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ROCK N ROLL SOCCER: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League, by Ian Plenderleith. This is the blog to back the book hailed as "fantastic" by Danny Kelly on
Talksport Radio, and described as a "vividly entertaining history of the league" in the Independent on Sunday. In the US, Booklist described it as "a gift to US soccer fans". The UK paperback edition published by Icon Books is now available here for just £8.99, while the North America edition published by St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books can be found here for $11.98. Thank you.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Karl-Heinz Granitza and the German will to win

While watching Sebastian Schweinsteiger chew out Mezit Özil for failing to put Germany 8-0 up against Brazil in the last minute of the World Cup semi-final (Brazil immediately counter-attacked and scored), I was reminded of Karl-Heinz Granitza, the Chicago Sting's prolific, left-footed German striker from 1978-84. Granitza not only scored 128 goals in 199 games for the Sting, making him the North American Soccer League’s third all-time leading scorer behind Giorgio Chinaglia (193) and Alan Willey (129). He was also notorious for yelling at his team-mates whenever they made an error.

"I thought he had a great left foot," says former team-mate Don Droege, "but he was an asshole. He was one of those guys who I thought treated the American players like a piece of shit." Ex-Hibernian defender Derek Spalding says, "Granitza was the type of guy who could demoralise younger players. With him, you had to know how to handle him. I knew how to handle the guy. He watched who he gave it to. If he went after you and you turned round and snapped back at him, he didn't like that."

Granitza (12): "I see someone make a
mistake, I go crazy."
American defender Tim Twellman, though, had no problems playing with someone as pushy as Granitza, and doesn’t think the German especially picked on Americans – he faulted everyone. "He didn’t have a lot of respect for any player, no matter what nationality they were," says Twellman. "He demanded perfection, which helped you play better. The first game I ever played with him, and they put me in at half-time, I hit a ball in to Granitza and he just let it go. He said, I wanted the ball to my left foot, and I was like, Really? He was pretty much laying out the groundwork for who was boss. It [Chicago] was not an easy place to play, but it helped you get better because it pushed you so hard. I don’t think that was a bad thing at all. We were all playing for our livelihoods."

Back in 1981, Granitza defended himself in similar terms. "I see just one way for the team, winning, and when I am on the field and see someone make a mistake, then I go crazy," he said in Soccer Digest magazine. "I'm a crazy soccer guy maybe because always I push. If we're winning 9-1, I'm pushing everyone because I want more. In the indoor [league], I would go crazy sometimes when we would miss so many opportunities. I know people would wonder why, but it is no good to miss opportunities. This becomes so important later. In every situation, you must try to the last second."

It's this quote especially that makes me think of Schweinsteiger and Özil. Schweinsteiger wasn’t bothered about notching up an eighth goal. Instead he was saying to Özil: Do that in the final and it could cost us the World Cup. You fluff an easy chance, then the other team runs down the other end and scores on a counter-attack. In my view, Özil had his best game of the tournament in the final, and that could well have been down to Schweinsteiger's relentless professionalism.

"People must understand that sometimes my crazy style on the field is a winning style," Granitza went on. "I am fair during the games. It is only because I want us to win so bad and for everyone to play good that I sometimes get mad. Many times we fight among ourselves in the game and in practices, but it is only between ourselves and we always talk things over afterward. Everyone knows I always give credit to the players who make the good plays."

We've all played with men like Granitza – it's not just in the professional game that you come across this sort of player. You answer a late call to fill in for a short-handed team playing what you thought was a casual friendly, and five minutes in you find yourself being yelled at by some red-faced psycho for failing to spot his run 40 yards ahead of you. There are two ways to react. Either you tell him to fuck off and ignore him for the rest of the 90 minutes, or raise your game to prove that you're worthy of playing in the same team (depending on my mood, I’ve done both, but usually try and opt for the latter).

Granitza was the kind of player who proves that many Europeans did not just come to the NASL to relax, take the family to Disneyland, and then fly home after a year or two with a wad of dollars. His unstinting will to win was nurtured  at Chicago under German-American coach Willy Roy, who also signed Granitza's compatriots Arno Steffenhagen, Peter Ingo and Horst Blankenburg. The Sting were NASL champions in 1981 and 1984 in an era when the West German national team won, or came close to winning, numerous titles. That spirit has been revived by the current German team, exemplified by the tireless Schweinsteiger, who was most people's choice for Man of the Match against Argentina in the World Cup final last weekend.

Had Özil forgotten about Schweinsteiger's verbal mauling by the time they lifted the World Cup on Sunday evening? If he hadn't, he probably no longer cared, or was even grateful for the little pep talk (while mentally making a note to sit next to someone else on the flight home). You can also be sure that when the Chicago Sting players were celebrating their Soccer Bowl victories in the early 1980s, they still did not exactly love Karl-Heinz Granitza. They would have known, though, that he provided a vital ingredient to achieving success at the highest level – being an asshole.

[Sources: author interviews; Soccer Digest, September 1981] 

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