Struggling Towards Orbit: The International Soccer League, Part Four

Following the International Soccer League’s solid beginnings in a New York relatively starved of sporting competition in the summer of 1960, the nascent league consisting of the New York Americans and a variety of high-profile visiting international clubs had begun 1961 with expanded horizons. This including growing the league from 12 to 15 teams, and moving beyond its home at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan by setting up a second location in Montreal, Canada.

The 1960 season had featured network television coverage on Saturday nights, and a crowd of 25,000 for the final, won by Bangu of Brazil at the Polo Grounds. Its appeal had been high-quality soccer aimed at ethnic audiences who retained a love for the sport and would cheer on teams often billed by nationality (“Italy”, or really, Sampdoria for example).

In a lengthy interview early in the 1961 season, the league’s impresario Bill Cox was interviewed by Arthur Daley of the New York Times. Cox was described as “polished and urbane”, a man who “communicates confidence in success with the convincing assurance of an astronaut.”

Cox explained that though he was not making money from the league, he saw the ISL as a “long-term investment.”

In this vein, Cox asked “How do you define success? Is it measured by profits or by the fact you broke even and can see a bright future ahead? Everything included, gate receipts and television income, made us quite happy with our first year of results.”

Cox was open and honest about exactly what the league needed to do in order to be sustainable fiscally. An average crowd of 8,500 would be needed, he said, at an average ticket price of $3.25 per spectator – good value given most match-ups were double-headers. Cox compared this favorably to a game in Milan he had seen – $8 a head, and featuring teams “that couldn’t win a game in our league” – or $8 for a Broadway show.

The expensive business of flying in teams from around the world was also revealed by Cox: totaling $800,000, $100,000 of that went on chartered planes alone. The ISL covered hotel bills, and $6 a day per man for meals: “They can eat well enough at that price,” Cox said, “because we have the recreation director we assign to the hotel supply them with lists of restaurants catering to each nationality. Only the French might find it low and only if they insist on fancy wines with their meals.”

Wages for each game well-exceeded the $1,000 per game foreign teams had been used to in the days before the ISL, and reports from various teams suggest they were paid somewhere between $1,500 and $3,000 per game, while Cox said his New York Americans made more than $100 a man each per week.

Overall, the New York Times concluded that for Cox, “the launching of the soccer capsule went off beautifully.” The only doubt in Cox’s mind, it seemed, was “how soon he’ll get into orbit.”

Take-Off?

Once again, in 1961 the league was divided into two separate mini-leagues, with the winner of each playing in a grand final – though this time, the final would be contested over two games instead of a single game.

The first mini-league, section one, contained defending champions Bangu of Brazil, who were joined by a strong Everton team from England, West Germany’s Karlsruhe, Romania’s Dinamo Bucharest, Turkey’s Besiktas, Scotland’s Kilmarnock and two North American representatives: Montreal Concordia of Canada and the New York Americans.

It was Everton – the “Merseyside Millionaires” – who came most feted, and with a match fee of $2,500 per game, a considerable amount at a time that England had only just ended its restrictive maximum wage for players.

In the early weeks, Everton took charge of the league with a string of victories. Meanwhile, the Romanians quickly earned a reputation as a physical and aggressive team. These might be summer exhibition games for the Europeans in theory, but the practice of the ISL was for tough games marred by expulsions and with rowdy crowds sometimes interfering with the play on the field.  Their opening game, a 0-0 draw with Bangu, saw the Romanians called for 22 fouls.

Yet they were hardly alone in their rough approach to play. On June 11th, Everton suffered a 2-0 loss to Bangu at the Polo Grounds, in a game that saw 34 fouls called. The physical play resulted in Darcy de Faria, Bangu’s left-back, fracturing an ankle: he was rushed to Columbia Medical Center. Everton’s Northern Irish international, Billy Bingham, was sent-off for punching Bangu’s Carlos Beto.

“Bangu’s infractions,” the New York Times commented, “were not nearly so glaring as Everton’s.”

Everton versus BanguPerhaps there were scores to be settled: the two teams had actually met two months earlier, at Goodison Park in Liverpool, a 1-1 tie.

This, after all, was an era when international club play was still feeling its way; there would be many more, higher profile violent battles between European and South American clubs with their different understandings of “fair play” to come later in the decade.

When Everton faced Dinamo Bucharest, sparks inevitably flew. A 4-0 win for the Liverpudlians was described as a “very brutal affair”, with fisticuffs breaking out more than once. Both teams had a man expelled, Everton’s Bobby Collins and Bucharest’s Ivan Dimitru.

This was hardly the sort of play that Cox was paying good money for. Meantime, the New York “Americans” were still little more American than they had been in 1960, mostly made up of British players on tour for a dollar, though they did include some players from the American Soccer League: Ukrainian Nationals’ Gene Vinyei and New York Hakoah’s Alex Chantraire and Ben Zim.

The Americans achieved a mediocrity that was hardly likely to win over a New York enthralled by a magical season for the Yankees, on their way to a World Series win, with Roger Maris breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. ISL games often went up against Yankees’ games on Sundays.

Meantime, there were problems in Montreal. Crowds were poor at Molson Stadium, with one rain-sodden game between Concordia and Karlsruhe seen by less than 1,000 fans in June. The home team, Concordia, won only two of its seven games.

Section one’s limited excitement ended in Montreal in mid-June with a one-sided affair. Everton crushed the New York Americans 7-0, sealing the section one title before the mini-league’s final two games with six goals in the second half. Bangu, in second place, could not catch Everton whatever they did in their final game the next day, the defending champions unseated.

Cox’s high hopes had taken a hit in the first section. Most talk had been about foul play rather than good soccer, and crowds had been sparse at times. The North American teams had performed without distinction. Would the second section and the grand final revive the prospects for America’s major soccer league?

To Be Continued . . .

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