Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League
By Ian Plenderleith
Icon Books, 2014
In the last year, the MLS has recruited Kaka, David Villa, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Sebastian Giovinco. It’s not a bad haul of modern talent but it’s hardly Pele, Beckenbauer, Eusebio, Cruyff and Best. To think that five of the very best players of all time played in the US in the 1970s is hard to imagine, no matter how old and injured they were. But then, the North American Soccer League (NASL) as a whole was a pretty unbelievable concept, and that’s why Ian Plenderleith’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is such a brilliant and necessary read.
Between 1968 and 1985, America made an audacious move into the ‘soccer’ market, putting a very local spin on the more traditional European game. The maverick NASL served up cheerleaders, 35-yard shootouts, ‘blatant commercialism’, and plenty of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – entertainment, in other words, or ‘a good circus’ as one New York Cosmos player describes it. FIFA didn’t like it one bit, but for a while, the people of America seemed to. Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is a hugely enjoyable, anecdotal trawl through the ‘crash and burn’ history of the league.
It’s one big Shakespearean tragedy, a tale of ridiculous over-expansion, where clueless owners like Jimmy Hill, Milan Mandarić and Rick Wakeman interacted with the player power of old pros like Pele, Cruyff and Eusebio with his ‘one knee that looked like Mount Everest’. The true superstars in Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer, however, are the American players who got wrapped up in the circus and lived to tell the tales. Best of all is Bob Iarusci, who was a teammate of all three during his eventful NASL career, and has a thing or two say about them.
Plenderleith’s tone and structure is a great fit with the subject matter. Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is full of amusing asides and dry wit, from the chapter titles – ‘Debit does Dallas’, ‘Learning from your alcoholic dad’ – right through to the ‘Fun Facts’ sections for each season. But best of all is the ‘Half-time’ lists section in the middle of the book, which features ’20 odd names in the NASL’ plus the ‘NASL Soundtrack’.
Not that the book is all fun and frolics, however. Plenderleith writes very well on the social background to his stories, whether that be Washington DC or, more significantly, Britain. Many players, he argues, ‘fell in love with the country and its beaches, its possibilities, its openness. They escaped the claustrophobia of a socially conservative society.’ Especially for born entertainers like Rodney Marsh and Frank Worthington, the relaxed glamour and showbiz of American soccer was a marked improvement on the dull tactics and hooligan fans back home.
The book’s second line of argument is that the league was a prototype for football as we know it today. ‘The NASL introduced the idea that a soccer game could be an event and a spectacle, not just two teams meeting to compete for points’, Plenderleith contends. 3 points for a win, 3 substitutes, the backpass rule, names and number on shirts – all these innovations started with the NASL. The first experiment rarely gets the recipe right but it’s hard to disagree that ‘the biggest leagues on the planet became extensions of what the NASL had begun.’
Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer takes a relatively unknown area of ‘soccer’ history and brings it to life in all its spectacular glory and failure. Sure, there’s a little bit of excess (the book’s over 400 pages long) but what would you expect? This is rock ‘n’ roll after all.
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