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How Soccer Explains the Sports Page

When a handful of newspaper reporters helped introduce America to the ‘Beautiful Game’ 32 years ago

For decades, the American sports page … what’s that? What was the sports page? That was the place we got our news, our opinion, our agate type. The man you see yelling about sports on TV? The sports page is where he hatched. I’ll continue.

For decades, the American sports page acted like a python on the imagination of the sports fan. The sports page was loath to admit out-of-the box fare like fantasy baseball, advanced stats, pro wrestling, and fighting sports other than boxing. The World Cup found itself among the unloved. In 1982, a columnist named George Vecsey went to his New York Times editors with a proposal. Vecsey wanted to go to Spain to cover the Cup. For weeks.

Vecsey is 74 now, with glasses and a professorial white beard. We had lunch the other day in Brooklyn, trying to duck Times reporters who might transform us into a bogus trend story. What’s interesting about Vecsey’s ’82 voyage, which he writes about in his new book, Eight World Cups, was its untrendiness. It’s a view of American soccer writing in its pre-hipster, pre-Buford, pre-Foer state. As Vecsey put it, “I was spectacularly unprepared.”

If the sports page was going to send someone to the World Cup, Vecsey was in some ways an ideal pilgrim. He had played soccer at Jamaica High School in Queens. But one day in October 1955, he found himself drifting off the pitch during a match — here lies a metaphor for soccer fandom in America — to listen to Game 7 of the World Series, which was blaring from a nearby radio. “If you want to listen to the ball game, you can sit on the bench,” Vecsey’s coach said. His soccer career was over.

Vecsey worked as a Newsday sportswriter in the ’60s as one of the pirates on New York’s loopiest sports section. A decade later, he felt the sports page’s python squeeze and abruptly left the beat. Vecsey went to Kentucky and covered Appalachia for the Times. (He cowrote Coal Miner’s Daughter with Loretta Lynn.) Then he became a Times religion writer, sending back copy from the ’78 papal conclaves in Rome. Two years later, Vecsey was back in the sports department, not because he loved it so much but because he felt tapped out on religion, too. Red Smith died in 1982. Vecsey was given a column.

Still: It was sports. “I liked the routines,” Vecsey said. “I knew them. But then to see managers burping and eating and deriding reporters’ questions all at the same time, I just had to remind myself … I covered Buffalo Creek. I covered heavy stuff. I thought, I have to approach this from a different level.”

In 1982, soccer was at a different level, one 10,000 feet above the sports editor’s office. There were signs of hope. Pelé and the New York Cosmos (1970-85) had provided endless bylines to a small group of soccer buffs in the New York papers: David Hirshey and Lawrie Mifflin of the Daily News, Phil Mushnick of the Post.

But the World Cup was a big “ask.” Want to go to the Davis Cup final in Grenoble? Sure, send a bushel of copy on John McEnroe. The Tour de France? Write me a profile of the first American entrant, Jacques Boyer. The World Cup had no local hook — the U.S. team didn’t qualify. ABC Sports agreed to televise the final live for the first time, but refused to replay it two days later because the network didn’t want to preempt General Hospital.

Vecsey, who did not lack for stones, took his proposal to Times sports editor Joe Vecchione. “My reaction was obviously a go,” Vecchione said. The sports pages may have lacked for imagination, but they didn’t yet lack for money.

By 1982, soccer writing had begun to take on some of the contours we’d recognize today. It was already a Model United Nations for writers. As Alastair Reid quoted an American diplomat saying in The New Yorker that year: “I have come to believe quite firmly that if the United States had a national soccer team that played regularly against the established soccer-playing nations … the whole conducting of diplomacy would be considerably eased and humanized for us.”

Did you think covering Team Italy would help you learn something about Actual Italy? I asked Vecsey.

“It was less learning than experiencing,” Vecsey said. “To be around the Italian team, it’s so freaking Italian. I mean, cases of Barilla pasta in the hallway …

“You have to look at it another way,” Vecsey said. “It was also a way for me to get to Barcelona … I’d rather spend two weeks in Barcelona than Philadelphia or Cleveland.”

Click here for more on the 2014 World Cup.

Our pilgrim had one problem. He didn’t know much about international soccer. That was the dilemma with writing about soccer in the pre-digital world — there was no cheat sheet to help you learn the sport. Inquiring minds eventually discovered Paul Gardner in Soccer America. If you read Spanish, you could find El País at better New York newsstands. Beyond that …

“I bought crappy English newspapers which just had snippets of stuff,” Vecsey said. “Not the Guardian we see today. I was buying the Mirror. ‘Will Keegan Be Well Enough to Play?’ Well, who’s Keegan? And why do you only refer to him by his last name?” He supplemented that with a handful of wire stories and set off.

Spain was groaning from a nasty heat wave when a small group of Americans landed to cover the Cup. They included Grahame L. Jones, who wrote “On Soccer” for the Los Angeles Times; Dave Kindred of the Washington Post; David Hirshey, watching as a fan; Hubert Mizell of the St. Petersburg Times; and Dick Schaap, who was filing smooth jazz for ABC News.

They began sending back copy. None of it is the stuff of best-sportswriting anthologies. But it’s interesting as a look at a group of brainy, open-minded guys trying to find their way. Kindred and Schaap filed jovial dispatches. Vecsey’s were a bit more austere. One of his first columns, published on July 4, 1982, was about the dancing he saw on Las Ramblas:

People strapped on soft shoes as a modest band began playing the solemn notes of the Sardana. Several elderly people formed a circle, held their hands above their heads, and performed the gentle steps … The summer sun glanced off the face of the cathedral, designed by a mason from Rouen 600 years ago. First, there was one circle of dancers, then two, then four, then eight. A few blocks away, La Torcida [a group of Brazilian fans] was surging up and down the Ramblas; and in front of the cathedral the people of Catalonia were also dancing in the streets.

It was the kind of pure atmospherics that would not be assigned by an editor. “God bless, there was no email,” Vecsey said. “No cell phones. They had to get you on the hotel phone or when you called in. So if some idiot editor had an idea, it would take a while to get dropped on you.” And by the time the editor got through, Vecsey could always say, “Geez, Chief, I was just about to file.”

The pilgrim-writers were surprised to discover that FIFA didn’t much care about them. There were few press-release printouts, no postgame media availability after the final. It’s as if FIFA assumed everyone already knew about the world’s game. “There is no introduction of the players,” Kindred wrote in the Washington Post on July 11. “There are no announcements of who scored the goal, with assists by whom, and whether this is a record for red-headed Poles on the third Sunday of July.

“Because Americans are hooked on sensory overload,” Kindred continued, “we look for new stimuli. The game alone is not enough … So the promoters give us more than a game; they give us a sound and light show of sports. For many other nations, soccer is the only escape from a dreary routine, the only connection to a success that is theirs as truly as it is the players’.”

In the ’82 dispatches, you can see writers trying to explain soccer by the most direct means: using the metaphor of American sports. In the group stage, West Germany and Austria connived to have a 1-0 game — a move that bumped Algeria out of the second round based on goals scored. Vecsey, in a June 28 dispatch, compared it to a basketball team running the four corners offense. When normally defensive-minded Italy went on the offensive to beat Brazil, Kindred wrote that it was as if Joe Montana’s “49ers declined to throw the ball and insisted on winning with defense.”

By ’82, soccer had been called the world’s game enough that dispatches didn’t have to repeat the charge. “It’s patronizing to both your readers and to the stature of the sport around the world to be stating, ‘Hey, it’s the world’s most popular sport, folks,’” said Lawrie Mifflin.

But there were gentle reminders in Vecsey’s accounts. In his story about the Italy–West Germany final, he included a line right at the top that said it was “the most important soccer game in the world.” In the age of the ESPN dog pile, it’s almost hard to fathom there were sports fans who didn’t know.

To write about soccer, Vecsey had to retrain his reporter’s brain. At NFL games back home, he often browsed the newspaper. Sitting in the press section at Barcelona’s Estadi de Sarrià, often just a few yards from the field, Vecsey found players like Argentina’s Diego Maradona were simply moving too fast. To keep up with the game, Vecsey taught himself to capture a “60-second loop of memory,” he writes in Eight World Cups, that could record how a goal came to be.

I asked him to give me an example. He mentioned the U.S. team’s recent World Cup tune-up game against Turkey.

“One of the American midfielders, I think it was Michael Bradley, made a bad pass,” Vecsey said. “A lazy, diagonal pass. One of the Turkish players picked it off. Now Turkey’s on the attack. They’re moving down the left side, they’re moving the ball in. I’m thinking to myself, This all began with a bad pass.”

The bad pass is where you started your 60-second DVR?

“Right,” Vecsey said. “Bad pass, midfield, I think by Bradley. That’s in there, in the back of my head. It’s soccer, so let’s say everything gets screwed up, nobody takes a shot, zip. You can erase it.” The DVR starts fresh with another small event, and with any luck, one or two of those chains of motion makes it into the column.

Franklin Foer recently tweeted that the ’82 Cup was the best ever. Beyond the roster of all-timers — Rossi, Bruno Conti, Socrates — there were mouthwatering geopolitical angles. Among Polish fans, Solidarity banners were unfurled, and quickly confiscated, when the team played the Soviet Union. Vecsey took to the Poles. During the tournament, Polish coach Antoni Piechniczek pulled a Klinsmann and said the team was aiming for third place. When the Poles faced Italy in the semis, instead of the glamorous Brazilian team, Piechniczek was disappointed. Losing to Brazil, Vecsey quoted him saying, “would be like falling off a good horse.”

“The only American I saw there was Henry Kissinger,” Vecsey said, “who was working to try to get the World Cup for America in ’86. He happened to be on my floor of the hotel, which was kind of bizarre. The murderer of Haiphong Harbor right down the hallway from me. I wrote that he got free tickets. The next time he saw me, he said, ‘I am not a free-load-uh.’ Go figure.”

We now know soccer writing as a battle between the game’s fans and its trolls. There were soccer trolls in 1982, too. “For Bob Ryan, soccer was a commie conspiracy played by grown men running around in pink shorts,” said Francisco Marcos, who did PR for the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the old North American Soccer League. (Ryan whacked soccer right up until the ’94 Cup, before finally giving in.)

The Times’ sports section was never the go-to for the rest of the country. But the gravitas of the rest of the Paper of Record gave the section the ring of truth. Vecsey’s columns, by their mere existence, became signposts that soccer was making progress. “We would copy those things, literally, and make them part of our press releases,” said Marcos.

What’s most striking about the ’82 American soccer dispatches is that writers were at the beginning of a decadeslong inquiry to figure out why the United States was slow in embracing the game. The great Times critic John Leonard probably got closest when he wrote: “Television is inadequate to any sport we don’t understand, any sport that hasn’t developed its sinew in a childhood psyche. Soccer also isn’t making any North American money.”

In Eight World Cups, Vecsey floats another theory. Anti-soccer sentiment among his generation, the children of World War II, wasn’t because they didn’t know Europe. It was because they knew Europe too well: “A fear of mobs and stomping boots in the generation that was young during World War II and the Holocaust and the Cold War and nuclear proliferation.”

Vecsey missed stuff in ’82, enough to get a 2014 reporter put on a plane home. “When I think of the things I didn’t know … ” Vecsey said sheepishly. The fact that Polish midfielder Zbigniew Boniek got a yellow card in the quarterfinals — his second of the tourney, thus assigning him to the bench for the semis — rated only two sentences in Vecsey’s July 5 dispatch. Vecsey knew there were European club teams, but didn’t know that Boniek and Italy’s Claudio Gentile both played for the Italian club Juventus. It would have made for a good column.

But Vecsey kept convincing Joe Vecchione to send him back to the Cup. And every four years, more pilgrims joined him. This year, the Times will send 15 journalists — the most the paper has ever had at a World Cup — to Rio.

Vecsey’s soccer writing got better. Through tireless reporting and precise observation, through the accumulation of what athletes call “reps,” he achieved, finally, one of the sportswriterly ideals: He began to sound like a smart-ass. “Mussolini once lamented that his was a nation of waiters,” Vecsey wrote from the ’90 Cup. “It is not stretching the truth to say that Italy is currently a nation of midfielders.”

It was a sign that soccer had gained some traction on the sports page that a Times reader was sufficiently outraged by that line to call the paper’s switchboard. The reader asked, what’s the name of the sports editor who would print this libel against Italians?

“It’s Mr. Vecchione,” he was told.

Filed Under: 2014 World Cup, Soccer, Sports Media, 1982 World Cup, George Vecsey, Dave Kindred, David Hirschey

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ curtisbeast