I became this newspaper's first soccer writer 15 years ago, confident that I was going to be chronicling a significant chapter in sports history.
A telecast of the World Cup the previous year had stirred America's interest in the world's most popular game, and some of the country's most prominent sports entrepreneurs were committing big money to establish a soccer league here.
Everyone connected with this venture was convinced that it would succeed. And, surely, it would succeed in Washington, whose international community already knew the game and would provide a hard core of fans for any franchise here.
Of course, the heady optimism that prevailed in those days seems woefully misguided now, especially after the Washington Diplomats went out of business last month. The club lost $1 million last season, and that hardly was atypical in the North American Soccer League.
There is a great irony in the failure of soccer to take root as a spectator sport in this country. The founders of the league had a grand strategy for popularizing the game. They would promote their product aggressively, of course. And they wanted to build from the ground up, creating a generation of soccer-playing youths who one day would provide the nucleus of their customers. The irony is that the entrepreneurs succeeded in these aims beyond their wildest dreams; and still the ledgers of soccer clubs are drenched in red ink.
"We saw our first job as propagating the gospel of soccer," said Clive Toye, who was general manager of the late Baltimore Bays in 1967 and now is president of the NASL's Toronto club. "Our high hopes have borne full fruit. Our efforts were singularly successful. The game has become an inextricable part of the lives of millions of people."
But the soccer boom that can be seen on the playing fields of suburbia has not spilled over significantly to the professional box offices. The one city that had a thriving junior soccer program as early as the 1960s, St. Louis, could not support an NASL team. The proliferation of soccer leagues in greater Washington couldn't enable the Diplomats to survive. "Perhaps," Toye suggested, "the parents who drive their children twice a week to soccer practice balk at hauling them to a game, too."
The explanation may be more fundamental: the games that Americans play are not necessarily the games that Americans watch. Millions of people in this country bowl, and few of us have ever wielded a hockey stick, but these facts have nothing to do with the relative success of the National Hockey League and the pro bowlers' tour.
The efforts to popularize soccer got another significant boost from a source that the early entrepreneurs might not have anticipated: the players themselves. In the first season of professional soccer here, a team came in toto from Aberdeen, Scotland, to play as the Washington Whips, and to an American sportswriter they were a revelation. They probably had the same stature back home that members of the Redskins or Bullets do here, but they were utterly unspoiled and unaffected. After a game, they would go out as a group to drink beer and sing team fight songs and talk soccer with their fans.
The subsequent generations of soccer players who came to Washington have been much the same. "The Diplomats were loose, ordinary guys, not at all like American athletes," said one of the Post's now-disenfranchised soccer writers, Donald Huff. "After every game, they'd go to the lounge in the stadium or to a bar and spend a couple hours talking to their boosters. The fans could get to know each player personally. They knew they had to go out into the community and promote the game."
A club owner couldn't ask for a better form of public relations, and yet such promotion hasn't enabled the game to thrive, even though a local group, headed by former Diplomat Coach Gordon Bradley, is still hopeful of putting together a franchise through public financing. What, then, is the problem?
People who have followed the NASL's development closely over the last few years blame bad management of many individual clubs as well as league headquarters. The NASL seemed on the verge of success in 1977 when, Toye said, "The league, with a rush of blood to the head, expanded to 24 teams and sowed the seeds of its own destruction."
Now the NASL is shedding its weak components and hoping that having fewer, stronger franchises will enable it to thrive. Maybe. But there may be a more fundamental problem that people in soccer have been unable or unwilling to recognize since the sport was introduced here.
The problem, simply, may be that too many Americans do not like the game. We are too oriented toward fast-paced, high-scoring sports such as football and basketball to appreciate soccer's more deliberate tempo. We want action.
Perhaps it would be a more accurate, less harsh indictment of the game and its American audiences to say that we have not learned to understand or appreciate soccer. Our enthusiasm for baseball proves that we do not need nonstop action in our sports. Baseball's appeal lies in its subtleties; there are times when an intentional base on balls may have so many ramifications that an aficionado can be mesmerized by a play of total nonexcitement.
Soccer is similar, a game in which the movement of 11 players on the field involves an enormous amount of subtle strategy. As I covered those early games back in 1967 and 1968, I regretted that I lacked the sophistication to appreciate what was happening on the field besides the obvious dramatic moments. Many of those who attended Dip games probably had the same problem. Unfortunately, it is difficult to learn to appreciate new subtleties in the game when there is no longer any game in town.