>In honor of the 2010 World Cup, which I have been following every minute for the past month, I am going to talk about a book I loved in my youth, when only two things mattered to me: soccer and KISS. Back then I was going to be a professional soccer player and a rock star. Things didn’t quite turn out that way.
I was a ten year-old 5th grader when I fell in love with soccer, in 1977. That’s when I first started playing via the YMCA. My dad built me a goal in the field in front of the house, with a net that had had a previous life containing wood chips on the trucks that would haul loads in and out of the paper mill where he worked. I bought a subscription to a little magazine called Soccer Digest that dealt primarily with the American professional league at the time, the North American Soccer League (NASL). It had articles on players, team rosters, records, etc. In those days, the biggest news concerned international superstars who were coming to the USA in the golden years of their career, players like Pele, Eusebio, Franz Beckenbauer and George Best. Johan friggin’ Cruyff too, for crying out loud. The league was so overloaded with foreign talent that one of the rules was that, if I recall, teams had to have at least two North Americans on the field at all times (a rule that was skirted when players like Giorgio Chinaglia became naturalized citizens). One of the first and biggest American stars was a brash, afro-and-porn-mustache-sporting goalkeeper named Shep Messing.
The Education of an American Soccer Player is Shep’s autobiography, published in 1979, and I loved it when it came out. Pre-internet, there really wasn’t a means for “inside information” about the stars that were fueling my imagination, and Shep pulled the curtain back for everyone to see. He described coming up through college playing a sport which, at the time, was virtually unknown in this country. As the goalkeeper for the US National Team, he was at the Munich Olympics of 1972 when Palestinian terrorists took eleven Israeli athletes, coaches and officials hostage. Turning pro in the fledgling NASL, be played with and against some of the biggest names in the history of the game. He wrote of athletes who were gods in my eyes — including my favorite athlete of all time, Brazil’s Edison Arantes do Nascimento: Pele. I was shocked, SHOCKED!, when he describes hearing Pele say “fuck” in an argument with the blowhard Giorgio Chinaglia. Shep also talked about drinking beer and playing poker with the legendary Eusebio, the “Black Pearl” of Portugal (a man, still honored above all other players in that country, whom I was happy to see in the stands with other Portuguese officials in South Africa last week). For a young fan like me, it was heady stuff. It seemed almost unreal, even more exciting than the antics of musicians I was reading about in magazines like Circus and Hit Parader.
Shep in those days was also a rebel and amusing character whose personality really shines in the words on the page. He wasn’t shy in talking about his various run-ins with league authority. He posed nude for Viva Magazine. He did more for making it seem that athletes could also be “rock stars” than just about anyone else I’d heard of. His experiences made it seem like being a professional athlete was about the most fun a person could have. He emphasized the sense that playing soccer, and being a fan, was viewed as a kind of almost subversive act in the USA, even though it was years later before I was mature enough to understand that. I just knew that Shep seemed cool, and I wanted to be like him. His only failure was that he never made me want to be a goalkeeper; I was too big of a fan of players like Pele and Gerd Müller for that.
This book can be a challenge to find, but it’s out there. People interested in the early days of professional soccer in America should seek it out — it really is a fun read. Shep is still around as an announcer and broadcaster, and hearing his New York accent always makes me smile; it seems perfect for the image I have of him in my imagination.
I would also recommend the movie Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos, which is a fantastic documentary of one of the greatest teams of all time. It is a fascinating look at soccer in the 70s, and all the cultural stuff swirling around the sport at that time in America. The movie is readily available via NetFlix, and I strongly recommend it. Even if you aren’t much of a soccer fan, it is an excellent bit of storytelling that fans of documentaries in general should find entertaining, especially if you are geek for the 70s like I am.
Thanks as always to Patti Abbott for handling the Friday’s Forgotten Books project! Visit her site for the whole list of this week’s offerings.