BY MARK GODFREY
Think you know the story of American soccer and more specifically the NASL? Well, you probably don’t; certainly not to the extent that Ian Plenderleith does anyway.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer – The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League is quite a publication. Thicker than a whale omelette, I suspected I would struggle with a book of over 400 pages (my problem with a short attention span not a weakness of the book’s composition). However, teasing myself with a chapter at a time, I was able to sustain my interest in a subject I personally lacked a depth of knowledge of.
The NASL, for the uninitiated, was the USA’s first stab at a nationwide soccer league that ran from the late 1960’s to the mid 1980’s, and like so many rock ‘n’ roll bands of the same era, they endeavoured (not by design) to burn out rather than fade away.
Plenderleith’s (US-based British writer for When Saturday Comes, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, Soccer America) superbly researched, fact-packed book sets out not only to recap the excesses we know about, but also to remind us and celebrate that, with so many of its innovations it was ahead of its time.
There was so much more to the NASL than cheerleaders, fireworks and razzmattaz – but in the good old US of A, there’s no reason you can’t throw them in for good measure!
The book is a chronological record of the boom and bust; from the early days of struggle and confrontation trying to get the league going in the first place, right through the glory days of wild abandon and expansion in the mid-70’s to its final, painful debt-ridden demise at the hands of incompetent owners and administrators.
As you might expect, some of the more well-worn topics are covered in great detail in Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer – financial ruin, gimmickry, rule changes, the import of ageing foreigners like Pele, Beckenbauer, Best, Marsh and Cruyff, the English influence, the girls and the parties…
But you’ll also find out a lot of stuff from the periphery and the far-flung outposts of the NASL that you may never have known without reading this book. The league wasn’t just about the New York Cosmos, you know!
Plenderleith also pokes around the murky world of the moneymen and politicians of the NASL and how, eventually, those in charge really didn’t have the first idea how to run a soccer club or a league (the Jimmy Hill chapter was an eye opener for me).
As well as being an engrossing eulogy to the madness and magic of NASL, there’s a healthy smattering of entertaining facts and stats intertwined between chapters. This book is highly recommended whether or not you’re an aficionado of NASL or MLS. This cautionary tale is part of our game’s weird and wonderful history and one that is too often shrugged off with snobbish disdain by European observers as a mere far-away, inconsequential circus. Once you read this book, you’re likely to have changed your mind. The NASL’s legacy may be more visible than you think.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer – The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League is well worth your hard-earned buck. It is available for £14.99 from Icon Books.