The Beautiful Sport
A pickup game in the rest of the world, soccer has a triumphant history here—but are we organizing it to death?By D.J. Wilson
Photograph by Tony Quinn/MLS/wireimage.com
Pelé, the Brazilian soccer legend, grew up kicking a ball made of rags through the dirt-road slums of Tres Coracoes. Zinedine Zidane, the French soccer great, was born of immigrant Algerian parents and grew up poor in Marseilles. As a child in Belfast, George Best kicked a tennis ball to school and back every day, perfecting his dribbling skills, then signed at 15 with Manchester United.
In America in general and St. Louis in particular, those rags-to-riches tales don’t fit soccer in 2005. Soccer worldwide has an egalitarian feel; stateside, it has evolved into a more elitist pursuit. “When I travel, it’s kids playing pickup,” says Janet Oberle, a former collegiate player and coach who is now director of compliance for the Saint Louis University athletic department. She’s joined pickup matches on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu in Peru, along the banks of the Rio Futaleufu in Patagonia and in city parks in Eastern Europe. “It’s very different in the rest of the world,” she says. “Here in the U.S., kids don’t do stuff that they’re not involved in officially.”
That’s true of many youth sports, but it’s even more true of soccer because the push to organize and specialize sports at a younger age coincided with soccer’s growth spurt in the ’90s. First there was the U.S. men’s decent showing in the ’94 World Cup, then the national buzz created by the U.S. women’s team’s World Cup win in ’99.
But placing children—many 10 or younger—on “select” teams that play one sport for 10 months of the year recalls an almost Cold War–era, East German Olympic model of plucking promising youngsters from free play and seasonal sports. The main difference is that in the Dresden of the ’60s, the socialist state funded the machine, whereas today, in suburban soccer, families foot the bill. Soccer, the beautiful game, gets turned into bourgeois ball.
That image is slowly beginning to slip away on the men’s World Cup team with the ascendancy of African Americans Eddie Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley, both from urban backgrounds. But signs of race or class diversity in soccer are rare in St. Louis, perhaps in part because of the legacy of this city’s dominance in U.S. soccer 50 years ago.
The movie The Game of Their Lives, about the ballyhooed win by the 1950 World Cup team over England, was filmed here because local players dominated the team. Saint Louis University won 10 of the first 15 national collegiate championships, beginning in 1959, because its teams simply had the best players, virtually all from St. Louis. Their roots were mostly ethnic and Catholic. And when those folks packed their bags and moved west, soccer went with them.
Bill McDermott, now a TV announcer for Major League Soccer games, played for SLU, but he started playing at his North St. Louis parish, St. Philip Neri, which is now closed. McDermott has coached his daughter’s club teams for a decade. “The girls were from all over the place—MICDS, Nerinx, Parkway Central, Rolla, Union—but none from the city proper,” McDermott says. “Ask any coach of any select team, and he’ll tell you much the same.”
In May, McDermott broadcast a DC United game during which he called the 15-year-old pro Freddy Adu “magnificent.” Born in Ghana, Adu is now a naturalized U.S. citizen. “If there is any-body who is going to project a Tiger Woods image to young African Americans,” McDermott says, “it’s going to be Freddy Adu, because Nike is going to make sure you see him everywhere.”
Having an icon is a start, but it’s a long way from seeing spontaneous soccer games sprout up in city parks like pickup basketball games on patches of city asphalt. New urban immigrants, mostly Bosnians and Hispanics, have re-energized the scene somewhat, with Vedad Ibisevic going from playing at Roosevelt High School to SLU to a professional gig in France for Paris Saint-Germain. For the upcoming season, former soccer pro Pat McBride, now the soccer coach at St. Louis Community College–Forest Park, has brought in five Bosnian players from city public high schools Roosevelt and Soldan.
But help is needed to trigger a renaissance of soccer in the city. Pelé may have used a rag ball, but his father played semiprofessionally and helped teach him the game. Zidane was poor, but he was sent to a state school that specialized in sports. And Best had the fundamental spark that makes most kids want to play, pickup or pro. “They asked why he always dribbled a tennis ball to school and back,” McBride recalls. “He said it was fun.”