Sports History Files: Remembering an American soccer pioneer

“The rules of soccer are very simple, basically it is this: if it moves, kick it. If it doesn’t move, kick it until it does.” — Phil Woosnam

Like a lot of Americans raised on baseball, basketball and gridiron football, I didn’t really come around to soccer until the 1994 World Cup. As a thirtysomething, I hadn’t played it, vaguely understood what the rules were, thought it was the province of people coming to these shores from somewhere else.

Even in the suburbs of the 1970s, the sport struggled to gain respect. I remember a high school classmate who played on the boys soccer team, and his open contempt for certain members of the ├╝ber-popular football team was undeniable. He couldn’t contain himself when the starting goalkeeper was recruited to put on a helmet because a placekicker was needed.

This was the cultural environment during which Phil Woosnam tried to plant the seeds of soccer as commissioner of the North American Soccer League. In the fantastic New York Cosmos documentary, “Once in a Lifetime,” former Cosmos general manager Clive Toye talked grimly about the task of “breaking through this crust . . . of indifference.”

Woosnam, who died Friday at the age of 80, worked for many years, alongside Toye in particular, to break through that crust during his days leading the NASL, which ran from 1969 to 1982. He the coach of the league’s first champion, the 1968 Atlanta Chiefs (I was too young to remember this), coming over from his native Wales after an English playing career that included stops at Aston Villa and West Ham.

Longtime Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner is a British ex-pat who called NASL television games in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In his remembrance, he referred to Woosnam, Toye and Lamar Hunt as “the three madmen . . . who were too blinded by their faith in soccer to realize that the pro sport had died the death in 1968 when the North American Soccer League withered, overnight, from 17 teams down to a mere five.”

“Faith” is the key word there. Even after the NASL folded in 1984, Woosnam never stopped believing. He returned to Georgia to help with the Atlanta Olympic soccer tournament, and decided to stay.

That’s when I got to know him, covering soccer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A few short years after that 1994 World Cup came the landmark 1999 Women’s World Cup, the beginning of Major League Soccer and a media explosion for the sport in this country. The proliferation of cable outlets and the creation of soccer fan blogs created the critical mass for what soccer as a spectator sport in the United States has become now.

Here’s what I quickly posted to Twitter on Saturday, so forgive me if you’ve read this before.

I got to know him covering soccer at the AJC, and at times I felt like he was fighting a lost cause, especially after the NASL folded. But I knew he was extremely proud of how the game had grown in this country. He never wavered in his optimism. Whether it was the World Cup coming in 1994, the rise of women’s soccer and the arrival of MLS, he always believed the sport had a better future than the naysayers ever imagined.

When the second coming of the Atlanta Beat (WPS) was announced about four years ago, Phil and his wife were there at the press conference, lending support. I was truly impressed, because I knew he hadn’t been in the best of health, and there were skeptics about women’s pro soccer after the first Beat team went down with the WUSA.

And yet he was wearing his typically sunny smile, and with his gentle Welsh lilt said he believed women’s pro soccer’s day was going to come.

That’s still a work in progress, obviously, but he knew from experience that many setbacks were likely before something sustainable could be built.

A few years ago, I went to see “Once in a Lifetime,” the terrific documentary on the New York Cosmos (that airs from time to time on ESPN Classic), and Phil was there with this family.

Now both of us live in the same Atlanta suburban community, about 20 miles away from this Atlanta intown theatre, and we chatted for a while after the film was over. His wife, Ruth, and his son, David, were there. If you know Phil’s family at all, you know that David was a member of the 2004 U.S. Paralympic soccer team.

I rarely saw Phil get emotional in my dealings with him, but when I met with him for coffee once he talked about his son making that team, and he was on the verge of tears. I suspect he couldn’t have been any prouder of anything that happened involving soccer than that.

Today is supposed to a celebration of soccer in Atlanta with the Gold Cup quarterfinals here, but there obviously is quite a bit of sadness. It’s going to be hard to watch those games and not think of him, knowing how pleased he was to see the game finally come back here after so many years since the he and the Atlanta Chiefs first arrived in 1968.

When Turner Field opened for baseball after the 1996 Olympics, Phil fought vainly to keep the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium so it could be used as a soccer venue. The powers-that-be in the city brushed him and others aside — in Atlanta, “progress” is always on the march — in a way that I thought very undignified, even though the odds for the soccer advocates prevailing were long. It was another seeming lost cause that Phil gave his name, time and energy to.

But Phil Woosnam never stopped believing, and I’d like to think he’ll be smiling anyway as those games kick off at the Georgia Dome this afternoon.

Forgive my indulgence but Phil was just a very dear man in addition to being a very critical figure in the rise of soccer in the United States, and I wanted to pay him some sort of tribute here.

RIP to a terrific man.

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