The setting is only just short of desolate. A hotel room, smokily conspiratorial. Glimpsed through a half-curtained window is the standard detritus of an airport perimeter: freight sheds, a retired-looking 707, a parking lot. Beyond, miles and miles of flat Indiana, gray and saturated after a morning rain. But the neat man sitting on the edge of the bed, his eyes as dark and compelling as a magician's, is going to change all that. "Let me blue-sky for a moment," he says. No tornado comes twisting across the plain. The airport hotel fails to levitate and spin. But the little group of businessmen who are his audience is headed straight over the rainbow, firmly attached to the magician's Prince of Wales check coattails.
It is the summer of 1990, and 100,000 fans at the Rose Bowl stand for the anthems of the competing countries: first for The Star-Spangled Banner, then for the national hymn of the other team—Brazil? West Germany? England? Argentina? And out there in TV land, envying the ticket-holders, wiggling its collective person closer to screens that glow from Tokyo to Cape Horn, an audience of 900 million settles to watch the finals of the World Cup. The World Soccer Cup, of course, arguably the world's premier sporting event. In the magician's own words, it is the moment when the greatest game will finally and indisputably have come to the greatest country.
By degrees he brings his audience back to Indianapolis, pausing on the way to impart another vision of the sunlit uplands—of the day, perhaps somewhat nearer, when the Kicks or the Rowdies or the Cosmos meet Dynamo Kiev of Russia, or Ajax of Holland, in the World Club championship playoff. Or could it be—just possibly and if everything has gone right—could it be that it is Indianapolis lined up against the powerhouse of Europe.
As he freely confesses, the magician—Phil Woosnam, commissioner of the North American Soccer League—is blue-skying. But it should not be too easily assumed that this is for the sole benefit of the group of Indianapolis businessmen who are thinking of applying for a soccer franchise in their city. What makes the magic possible, what makes it so easy to drift up, up and away on the commissioner's coattails is that this apotheosis of soccer in North America so firmly believes in himself and in what he is saying. Half-jokingly, one of the Indianapolis group had introduced him as "the white tornado." In Wales, though, where Woosnam was born and raised, they use a single and more precise word for the prophetic quality of his words.
"The hwyl," they say. "He has the hwyl." The word, pronounced "hoo-eel," dates back to the great Methodist revival meetings of the last century when an evangelist, warming to his subject, would suddenly change the pitch of his voice until he was almost singing in a tense and emotional heightening of language. The hwyl, the spirit, had seized him, and the converts would line up to declare their salvation at the pulpit.
Woosnam does not actually sing, but when moved to talk about the soccer paradise that awaits the U.S.A. if it follows the righteous path, his accent takes on the singsong Welsh rhythm that otherwise seems to have eroded away after more than a decade in this country. Outwardly, Woosnam is an urbane, well-tailored, self-possessed man who looks younger than his 44 years. Inwardly a passion glows.
The Welsh, from a sportingly passionate nation, would find nothing strange in this. What they might find extraordinary is that this fervor has been channeled into soccer. Rugby is the national game. Normally, a boy with the stamina, skillful movement and speed that Woosnam demonstrated early in life would scarcely have been given the chance to kick a round ball. He would have been drafted, a natural scrum halfback, into the nearest rugby team. But Woosnam was born not in the rugby proving grounds of steelworks and coal mines but on a remote farm in the green and pastoral county of Montgomeryshire, a couple of miles outside the little village of Caersws. Dangerously near the English border, a Welsh rugby fan would tell you, right on the banks of the Severn River, which a little to the south becomes the border itself.
Exposed to these alien influences, young Woosnam cycled 12 miles to school every day and played soccer. He was small. At 14 he was still under 5 feet. But biking up and down the Montgomeryshire hills gave him, he believes now, the exceptional endurance he showed as a player, his high work rate and possibly his slow heartbeat—about 39. He did well at soccer, representing Wales both at schoolboy and under-18 levels. And then he did something else out of pattern for an athlete of his promise. He went to the University of Wales and graduated in physics. In Europe, physicists do not normally become pro soccer players. The graduate schools of the latter are Glasgow tenements or Rotterdam docks.
Even more unusual, while still at the university, he played for an English First Division club, Manchester City, one of the last occasions when an amateur played in the major league. That was in 1951. Manchester wanted to sign Woosnam as a pro, but he still had his military service to perform. He was commissioned in the Royal Artillery and customarily would have been posted to a gunnery range in the Welsh mountains, where the C.O. was a sports nut who permitted no weekend passes for athletes because he wanted them playing on camp teams. But Woosnam's papers somehow got mixed up. He was assigned to a somewhat relaxed unit in London, which was happy for him to play each weekend for a pro team, Leyton Orient, during the whole of his two years of service.
After teaching high school physics for two years, he had a distinguished playing career. For West Ham and later for Aston Villa, Woosnam won 17 international selections for Wales, mostly as a midfielder. By 1966 he felt he had his career well figured out. He had already qualified as a staff coach with the English Football Association and he reckoned he still had two good playing years left in him before he switched from the field to management.