In Lieu of Giants: The International Soccer League, Part Two
In 1960, the New York metropolitan area’s 16 million inhabitants had fewer options to spend their sporting dollar on than they would at any point later in the twentieth century. The International Soccer League, promoted by Bill Cox, looked to take advantage of the opening – in the first part of this series, we looked at the launch of the 12 team league, featuring some of the best club teams from around the world playing in Manhattan and New Jersey.
As summer drew on, much of the city still mourned the absence of National League baseball, especially the Brooklyn Dodgers, who had moved to Los Angeles less than three years earlier, while the Giants had also moved to California around the same time.
Only the Yankees were left, and they played in the American League. Roger Maris led the league in RBIs and slugging percentage, but it was not a particularly remarkable year for the New York Yankees, though they still reached the World Series, losing in game seven to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Bill Mazeroski hammering the winning home run for Pittsburgh in the ninth inning. The Maris and Mantle magic would really start the next year.
A new football team was on the horizon – the Titans of New York (later to become the Jets) would begin play in the autumn of 1960 in the brand new American Football League at the Polo Grounds. The New York Giants, meanwhile, were already playing a key role in the growing popularity of professional American football – far from the behemoth it would later become – reaching but losing in the NFL championship game in both 1958 and 1959. The Giants had moved from the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, their home from 1925 until 1955, and now played at Yankee Stadium in The Bronx.
In ice hockey, Original Six member the New York Rangers had not won the Stanley Cup since 1940, in the early decades of suffering through the “Curse of 1940”.
All in all, the ground appeared fertile for the International Soccer League (ISL), one of four major attempts to create a lasting outdoor professional soccer league in the United States during the twentieth century before the formation of Major League Soccer, according to the Society of American Soccer Historians.
As Sports Illustrated put it in early summer 1960 in a piece titled In Lieu of Giants, “Sport drew the world a little closer together last week when some of Europe’s top footballers arrived in New York City for an off-season of international soccer. This experiment in global unity was no bit of dreamy idealism on the part of well-intentioned do-gooders, but a solidly businesslike and sense-making piece of sports promotion, and as such we applaud it.
“Since the defection of National League baseball to the West Coast, New Yorkers have been hungry for a good summertime sport. Since New York is a cosmopolitan town, veteran Sports Promoter William D. Cox concluded it might prove a fertile field for soccer.”
As we saw in the first part of this series, the ISL was put together by former Philadelphia Phillies owner Bill Cox, aiming to appeal to newly-arrived immigrants on the east coast already keen on soccer. They would, he thought, flock to see the world’s best teams play in America, importing 11 teams from overseas while founding one local team, the New York Americans. His business plan, while not skimping on expenses, was not outrageous: the league could break-even with average crowds of around 10,000 per game.
The ISL kicked off in 1960, with the schedule dividing the teams into two sections of league play, with the winners of each facing each other in the championship game in early August. Kilmarnock won section one, finishing ahead of Bayern Munich, Nice, Glenavon, the New York Americans and English champions Burnley in June, and we left off our account just before the start of the second section’s season in early July.
In May and June 1960, the ISL had gotten off to a decent, if not remarkable start. All the competing international teams sent their best players – including several national team stars – and attendance was strong at the games at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan. Games were competitive and hard-fought. The reviews of television broadcasts proved positive. Few fans, though, showed up in Jersey City for games at Roosevelt Stadium. Cox’s dream would depend on how the rest of the season panned out, but so far, he had shown a strong head for marketing and promoting professional soccer in North America.
Importantly, the ISL had become the first American league to feature regularly on national network television, with ten games broadcast in primetime on a Saturday night. High profile media coverage was evident in the extensive coverage given to the league by the New York Times.
The first section had consisted of a majority of British teams and players (even the New York Americans featured six British professionals). The second section Cox put together was far more multi-ethnic. It would put to the test Cox’s belief that appealing to numerous ethnic minorities in New York by bringing over high-quality teams from their homelands would bring out big crowds for the round-robin games to be played between July 2nd and July 30th by the six teams in section two, with the winning team to play Kilmarnock on Saturday, August 6th. This time, all the games would be played in Manhattan at the Polo Grounds.
From Yugoslavia came Red Star, league champions, featuring the enormously popular and gifted Dragoslav Šekularac, known as a showman. From Austria came Rapid Vienna, champions of Austria. The important Italian representative was Sampdoria, who had just finished eighth in Serie A. Also arriving were Sporting Club of Lisbon, who had just been pipped to the Portugese title by Benfica, and the Swedish champions, Norrköping. The division was completed by perhaps the most interesting team, the only South American side in the ISL, Bangu of Rio de Janeiro – who would later play in the 1967 United Soccer Association as the Houston Stars.
Cox had originally invited the state champions of Rio and São Paulo, Fluminese and Palmeiras respectively, but both were already committed to another tournament. Bangu, runners-up in Rio, were the next to be invited, and quickly cancelled their plans for a tour of Europe to head to New York instead – seeing the competition as a genuine club world championship that would establish an international reputation for themselves. Bangu sent 17 players, along with a radio journalist to cover the event and the club’s president, Cesar Mauricio Buscácio. Amongst the 17 was Zózimo Alves Calazans, who had been part of Brazil’s 1958 World Cup winning team.
Bangu began with a, uh, bang – they won their first two games comfortably, and even more importantly for Cox, helped to draw the league’s largest crowd to date at the Polo Grounds on July 10th as they took on Rapid Vienna: 19,804, paying between $2 and $4 each, provided strong gate receipts. The game was half of a double-header that also saw Sporting defeat Norrköping 4-3. Bangu’s game was no less exciting, as they defeated the Austrians 3-2, in hot, humid weather.
Notably, the New York Times reported the results not by using the club names, but by the respective nationalities, emphasising the ethnic nature of the intended appeal (see lineup cards to the right).
The physical play that had peppered the first section of games in June appeared again in the second section. Against Rapid Vienna on 13 July, three times the Swedes were reduced to ten men for extended periods as players received treatment on the sidelines, though their neat and tidy passing still led to a slightly surprising 3-1 win.
Bangu soon proved they were the class of the competition by crushing Sporting 5-1 at the Polo Grounds in front of 8,441 fans on 16 July. Bangu’s stars were their tricky wingers, brothers Beto Rinalho Macedo and Luis Carlos Macedo. The former had scored five goals in just three games. The game was marked by an unsavoury incident when several Portugese players chased around the referee, who had overruled his linesman to allow a Bangu goal. In the New York Times, Gordon White reported that the Sporting players pushed the referee and “had some help from eager fans who pushed a bit, too, but gave up, after a few minutes.” Before the end, a Sporting player was sent-off for kicking the ball away after a Bangu goal: this, according to White, “gave the fans a chance to sound as if they were old Brooklyn Dodgers rooters.”
The second double-header of the second section, on July 20th, attracted a solid 12,338 fans to the Polo Grounds. They saw Red Star defeat Sporting 3-0 while Norrköping – the surprise package so far – held Bangu to a 0-0 draw, the first game the Brazilians had failed to score in a game.
Sampdoria’s third game against Norrköping – they had been poor so far with one draw and one loss – was eagerly anticipated due to the arrival in America of Sergio Brighenti, an Italian international forward just purchased by Sampdoria, who had scored 43 goals in 95 games for Padova before his transfer (he would go on to be the top scorer in Serie A in 1960-61).
The game, though, was overshadowed by fan violence that left Norrköping goalkeeper Rune Lind unconscious and with a broken tooth. After a challenge in the box on Italian forward Bruno Mora that left him in a heap, 20 irate Italian fans ran onto the field and attacked the Swedish team, some – including the spectator who struck Lind – wielding sticks, swinging wildly. Order was soon restored – amazingly, no arrests were made – and the game continued, Sampdoria winning 6-4.
The Italians would have to win their next game, against Rapid Vienna, to retain any hope of catching Bangu at the top of the division. This they did on July 23rd in a controversial game. Gordon White was again forced to lead with a report of spectator misdeeds instead of the exciting play on the field: this time, right after a goal by Sampdoria in the first half, “a half-dozen fans in the crowd of 6,129 ran onto the field and attacked one linesman from the rear.” The linesman reportedly received a “hard punch” to the face.
This was quite a shame, as the crowd trouble deflected attention from the brilliance of Brighenti: he struck a hat-trick in Sampdoria’s 3-2 win.
That result kept the Italians alive, just, in the race for the title: along with Red Star, they sat two points behind Bangu heading into the final round of games.
Ahead of the last set of games, Cox gathered his investors and the media for a luncheon at the Playbill Room in the Manhattan Hotel to outline his future plans. The league had been a success so far, Cox said. Once the league had moved past its initial error in scheduling games in New Jersey, moving all the matches for the second section to Manhattan, attendances had risen and the league might even break even, despite the expenditure of $400,000 in 1960 money. The league would be back in 1961, he said.
One thorny topic, though, was the fan violence marring the competition. A Brazilian suggested the ISL build a moat around the pitch to keep invaders out. Increased policing was more seriously discussed.
The next day, July 28th, the final round of games began with a double-header. Sampdoria lost to Sporting 2-1, eliminating them from contention for the title. Red Star, though, not only won but moved ahead of Bangu on goals scored average with an impressive 4-0 defeat of Norrköping.
That set up the competition’s final game perfectly. Red Star would meet Bangu on July 30th at the Polo Grounds, with a bumper crowd expected for the winner-takes-all match up, though the Yugoslavians also knew a tie would secure them the section two crown.
A fierce thunderstorm ruined the scene in Manhattan on Saturday night. The game was postponed, and rescheduled for the afternoon of the next day.
Over 20,000 fans still attended (20,017 to be precise), by far the largest crowd the ISL had attracted. The Brazilians were superb, and controlled play from start to finish. Bangu won 2-0, their second goal scored by José Maria Fidélis dos Santos, who would go on to play for Brazil at the 1966 World Cup. Eighteen-year-old Ademir da Guia, who later played nine games for Brazil and starred for Palmeiras, was named MVP of the second section.
Bangu had won section two, and would now face Kilmarnock of Scotland in the final. Little-known now both teams might be, but both unbeaten sides had generated considerable attention and praise for their achievements in this summer of international soccer in New York.
The Scottish team flew back for the game on August 3rd, greeted enthusiastically by KLM Airlines:
The ISL’s expectations were more than met by the crowd at the Polo Ground for the first ISL championship game for the “American Challenge Cup”: 25,440 enthusiastic fans saw a high-quality contest that raised hopes for the league’s future. Gordon White reported that “Competition next year is virtually certain. The fans left with the realization that they had seen what was probably the best match played in the United States in many a year.”
In a tight game, Bangu, in their red and white stripes, scored early on, but their second, title-sealing goal did not come until the 87th minute, with both goals scored by inside-left Valtor Santos. After a season with many games showing ill-feeling, there were no reports of crowd trouble, and mutual praise flowed following the final whistle. The Bangu players said Kilmarnock were the best team they had ever played, and the Scots returned the compliment. White concluded that “By winning, Bangu added considerably to Brazil’s growing prestige as an international soccer power.”
Only a couple of months after the final, the momentum of an exciting event was not something Cox was going to let dwindle. Sensibly, his first move to ask fans what they wanted, with more than 450 responses to an ISL questionnaire. Fans responded that they wanted more double-headers, and more games on Sundays instead of Saturday nights, and Cox moved to accommodate this. Instead of a single-game final, Cox announced the 1961 championship final would be a two-game series, with total goals determining the winner.
Another fan-friendly move came with the announcement by the City of New York that it would run special soccer trains to the Polo Grounds on gamedays, to reduce parking problems, leaving from 168th Street and Jamaica Avenue in Queens, stopping along the way in Manhattan to pick-up up to 2,000 fans per train.
Most importantly, Cox announced the league had made a small profit in 1960, and was expanding in 1961. The ISL would also feature on national network television again.
Cox held a media luncheon at the Manhattan Hotel, and his ambition seeped into his verbiage: “Soccer will be a new major sport here in 1961. Instead of six clubs in each of the league’s two sections, we will have eight teams, not necessarily all from Europe.”
Cox announced that Bangu would return, while the newcomers would be Besiktas of Turkey, Espanyol of Barcelona, an Israeli team, and possibly a French and a Canadian team (a Montreal entrant was soon announced). Most of the 1960 teams would return, Cox revealed, a sign the tournament had been successful for the competing clubs as well.
What about the Americans? Perhaps recognizing that New Yorkers had not identified with a team called the “Americans” with barely a native-born North American on it, Cox said that in 1961 “we’ll have five or six top American players”.
As 1960 drew to a close, Cox would have been happy to see the ISL featured in the New York Times review of 1960 in sports, a dramatic year of expansion in professional sports across the United States. Soccer hoped to catch this wave, while taking advantage of unusual room in the New York market for a summer sport. The International Soccer League “burst on the New York scene” in 1960, the Times enthusiastically mentioned. What would happen next?
To be continued. . .