Just before dusk on Saturday night, the Firestone blimp lumbered into the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains investigating a report of a football game in the Rose Bowl. As the balloon dipped low, the cameraman in the belly might have reported back to his network.
“Uhhh, there must be a mistake, boss,” he could have said. “There’s a huge crowd in the Rose Bowl, and they’re screaming and doing the wave and eating hot dogs, but there’s something wrong. These players are normal-shaped and they aren’t wearing helmets. And they’re kicking a round ball!”
“Thanks for warning us,” the man at network command probably said. “Just a bunch of ethnics watching a soccer game. We’ll go with the synchronized swimming re-runs. It’s a good tie-in with our fall programming.”
In his imagined scenario of the blimp flying by, Vecsey encapsulated the hope and frustration for soccer fans that remarkable night in Pasadena created. For France were playing Brazil, and it was the final of the Olympic Games soccer tournament. The crowd of 101,799 was the largest ever to assemble in the United States to watch a soccer game; and it brought the total attendance for the entire tournament to over 1,421,627 million for the 32 games at an average of 44,500.
At the same time, nobody was watching it on television: ABC’s Firestone blimp did indeed pay it scant attention. The tournament came in the dog days of the NASL, the glory days of Pele past and professional outdoor soccer seemingly dying an unlamented death in the United States.
The success of the Olympic tournament could not have come at a more crucial moment, then, for it set the U.S. on the track to host the World Cup and launch a new professional league that we now know as MLS.