The 1970 World Cup final was the first soccer match I ever saw on TV … and I saw it on a six-month delay.
ABC’s Wide World of Sports rebroadcast the final between Brazil and Italy on Dec. 26 of that year, even though the match was actually played on June 21, 1970, in Mexico City.
Brazil won, 4-1, with Pele scoring the first goal and ending his World Cup career with three titles.
As a 9-year-old in Birmingham, Alabama, I was mesmerized by the skill and artistry of the game. And seeing more than 100,000 fans in the stands – singing, chanting and cheering – left an indelible mark.
If I had to pinpoint one thing that ignited my passion for The Beautiful Game, this would be it.
Soon I was learning everything I could learn about soccer, and trying to get up to speed on world class players such as George Best, Johan Cruyff, Eusebio and Sepp Maier.
Still, soccer was not something easily accessible for an American fan in the American South, at least not in the 1970s.
Except for occasional blurbs in the local newspaper, the library was the only place where I could learn about the game.
That’s why to this day I still owe a debt of gratitude to three names you might not even recognize – Clay Berling, Toby Charles and Zander Hollander. These were men who brought the game to me through word and voice.
Berling published a biweekly newsletter called “Soccer West” in 1971 and a year later it went national as “American Soccer” magazine.
What morphed into “Soccer America” became my go-to source for the sport, and I cheerfully parted with my allowance in order to pay for a subscription and read great work from great writers.
Berling, who died last October, was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1995, honored as one of the sport’s builders in the United States.
In 1976, however, I was introduced to both the TV series “Soccer Made In Germany” and the annual publication “The Complete Handbook of Soccer.”
For me, it completed an association football holy trinity.
Charles provided play-by-play for truncated broadcasts of West German competition, an hour of soccer beamed into my home each week thanks to the Public Broadcasting System.
One of his most famous phrases, reserved for off-target shots, was “high, wide and not too handsome,” but the fact that he had such knowledge of the game increased my knowledge of the game. Thanks to YouTube I can still hear his terrific voice – and get a taste of “Soccer Made In Germany.”
As for Hollander, who spent much of his career editing encyclopedias of every major sport, I’ll be forever grateful for “The Complete Handbook Of Soccer.”
The first was published in 1976, and I own two copies.
Shoot, I still read one from time to time; the other is on display in my fan cave.
What made it such a valuable resource for me was that it featured previews of each North American Soccer League team, profiles of 100 of the NASL’s top players, an overview of the American Soccer League, a breakdown of college soccer, and a handful of features.
One story in the 1976 edition, written by Andrew Cagen, profiled NBA legend Bob Cousy, who had taken over as commissioner of the ASL.
Until the handbook came out, I certainly didn’t.
Hollander died in 2014, but I like to think he’d be pleased to know that my bookshelf is stocked with much of his work.
By 1976, I felt as “caught up” on soccer as I could possibly be.
Between reading “Soccer America” and “The Complete Handbook Of Soccer” and watching “Soccer Made In Germany” to the soundtrack of a Welsh broadcaster, my love for the game was cemented forever. It led me to build a makeshift goal in my backyard and go on to enjoy a highly undistinguished high school playing career.
So, if you ever ask me who my “heroes” are in the sport, the names Berling, Charles and Hollander won’t be the names you expect.
They will, however, be the names you’ll hear.