Fuzzy memories of soccer’s good (ironically) old days

You may not have noticed this, but I’m old. I’m not yet in the AARP, but by the standards of modern journalism, I’m a fossil. (How ironic in an age of long life expectancy that our media keep getting younger.)

Today, I wound up in a fun Twitter conversation about soccer journalism, and we wound up winding back to the days in which the U.S. soccer media barely existed. We also had scant access to the U.K. soccer media, so we weren’t able to keep up with the tabloids’ totally fictional transfer rumors or the pundits’ Cro-Magnon dismissals of women’s soccer. (Gee, what a shame.)

But we had a few lifelines. If you grew up in the 70s, you watched Soccer Made In Germany and learned terms like “equalizer” and “relegation” from Toby Charles:

I was vaguely aware that the USA had its own league, the NASL, but I never watched it. I don’t think I was a Eurosnob. I think it was a function of my father controlling the TV and watching a lot of PBS. He also was a biochemist who had traveled quite a bit and had a casual appreciation for the Bundesliga. Or maybe he just liked to say “Bundesliga” in his Virginia/Georgia drawl.

In any case, the bulk of my exposure to the NASL was Soccer Made In Germany‘s report on Franz Beckenbauer signing with the Cosmos. A couple of years later, the Atlanta Chiefs were reborn, and I read game reports in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Never made it to a game, though.

I also learned about the World Cup. When I realized I would be away at summer camp (where we did occasionally play soccer with oddly shaped cube-shaped goals), I asked my mom to cut the World Cup scores out of the paper and mail them to me every day. I dutifully kept group standings in a notepad at my bunk.

Five years later, I was in college, where I had the opportunity to heckle Tony Meola (belated apologies, Tony, but we did these things at Duke), marvel at Mia Hamm, and recoil in horror at the dirty play of Tab Ramos’ N.C. State teammates. I had also discovered Soccer America, which carried standings and scores from leagues all over the world.

Then I was back in the wilderness, rarely getting a chance to catch a glimpse of soccer beyond some assignments to cover high school games. The 1994 World Cup was a welcome relief. After that, a lot of us asked the same question: “Now what?”

Home Team Sports, now a Comcast Sports Net affiliate, provided another lifeline, picking up an hourlong Premier League highlight show. Tony Yeboah quickly became my favorite player, with the last two goals on this reel etched in my memory:

I also occasionally listened to shortwave radio. But at the time, it was kind of random. I knew if I tuned into the BBC on Saturdays, I might hear something soccer-related.

By 1995, I’d discovered the Internet and the North American Soccer mailing list, to which I paid tribute last fall. We argued about the direction Major League Soccer was going as it prepared to launch, and we shared information about any soccer we were able to see — APSL games, USISL games, colleges, broadcast info and so forth. Then I found the wonderful rec.sport.soccer archive site, which looks exactly the same today, and Soccernet, which doesn’t. Thanks to them, I knew what I was watching on ESPN’s weekly games, and I knew when to search for the BBC on my shortwave to hear Coventry City escape relegation once again. (This was 1997, when the Young Player of the Year was a Manchester United lad with swept-up hair named David Beckham.)

Of course, I also set my VCR while I was at work so I could come home and watch this:

(Note the MLS logo that the Clash had to paint over.)

Meanwhile, back in the world of non-broadcast media, a few of us were fighting to get coverage for this long-derided sport. In 1999, at a wire service, I pitched coverage of the Women’s World Cup. A contemporary of mine said, “What?” I explained. He laughed, “We don’t even care about MEN’S soccer in this country!”

(Same guy called Duke a school for Ivy League rejects. No idea how I made it through a year of working there without resorting to violence.)

I moved on to USA TODAY, which had a history of legitimate soccer coverage. But as space in the paper shrank, soccer coverage was the first thing to go. Online, I was sneaking bits of coverage onto the site however I could.

In my day (no, you can’t get through this without reading that phrase), there was no such thing as a “soccer journalist.” Steven Goff had other duties at The Washington Post. Online, the Post’s site featured editor Alex Johnson’s World of Soccer column. Grant Wahl mixed soccer and college basketball at Sports Illustrated. Jeff Bradley was more or less the voice of soccer at ESPN’s site, though he was busy with other beats.

Nothing in this story should be surprising. But I find it’s often forgotten. We wake up Saturday mornings and flip on the TV to hear Rebecca Lowe introducing the first of three EPL games, and we forget how far we’ve come.

It’s too easy for today’s Twitterati to think soccer journalism in the USA started with MLS. (Some in the Twitter world actually think all soccer journalists in the USA are employees of MLS, which will surely make local newspapers, SI and a bunch of newly flourishing websites wonder why they’re paying all these people.)

Some of us grew up on the world’s game and followed it any way we could. We watched the Bundesliga and the Premier League, then went out to see USISL games with 30-minute stop-action countdown clocks and a “shootout” on the seventh team foul.

That’s the way it was and … well, I wouldn’t say we liked it better than today’s 24/7 soccer landscape. But it’s an experience we’ll never forget, and it helps us appreciate what we’re seeing today.

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