Guy St. Vil, the pride of Haiti, fielded a pass from Jamaican Asher Welch and booted the ball past Dennis Connaghan of Scotland, and the first goal to be scored in America's ambitious new professional soccer venture was historical fact. The goal won a game for the Baltimore Bays over the Atlanta Chiefs.
This was the first exposure on national TV for the National Professional Soccer League, the nonsanctioned organization that has a million-dollar contract with CBS for the season, covering 21 games. Anxiously watching in the wings were the owners of the United Soccer Association, a group that has the approval of soccer's international governing body ( FIFA) but no subsidy from CBS. The United Soccer Association was in the peculiar position of hoping that its rivals would be exciting enough to whet the American appetite for the world's most popular sport but not so good as to overshadow United's own teams.
The USA owners should have been pleased with what they saw televised from Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. The 8,434 spectators who sprinkled the stands—and were studiously avoided by the TV cameras—were not nearly enough to make the Baltimore Bays a fiscal success, but the game itself had sufficient charm to make the television audience want more.
Eric Barnett, a young Australian in the U.S. studying television techniques who has played soccer at club level in Australia, New Zealand and England, watched the proceedings with a mildly jaundiced eye. When it was all over, he opined that the level of proficiency was about that of third-or fourth-division play in England. This would be the equivalent, say, of Triple A baseball in the U.S., which is not too bad for teams assembled only recently from the four corners of the earth.
The action, as might have been expected, was brisk and confused. As might not have been expected, it was at times remarkably cohesive.
"The dribbling in midfield was now and again brilliant," said Barnett. "I mean, it approached first-division quality. But the chaps seemed a bit confused when they got within the 30-yard line and were a mite too hasty in taking their shots. But you must expect this in teams which have only just come together, you know."
Compounding the difficulties of each new team is the Tower of Babel aspect of the operation. The Los Angeles Toros, who began their season before 9,048 lonely partisans in the 101,574-seat Coliseum, had to open their own English class for their club, which is coached by Max Wozniak, a Pole. Wozniak's charges speak a total of 12 languages and hail from everywhere from Ecuador to Turkey.
Coach John Szep of the Philadelphia Spartans is a Hungarian who speaks three languages but not Spanish. Recently, when he was forced to take a Spanish-speaking player to task in practice, he used the services of Laszlo Kaszas, another Hungarian who learned to speak the language fluently while playing in Madrid. Szep's impassioned complaints were toned down by Kaszas, who says, "I leave out the emotion when I translate."
The real star of the TV game was a retired soccer player who is regarded as the best produced in Ireland in a generation—Danny Blanchflower. Blanchflower was the color man for Jack Whitaker, a CBS sports announcer who struggled manfully, and, on the whole, successfully with the problem of presenting soccer intelligibly to an audience that must have known little or nothing about the nuances of the game. Blanchflower, speaking in a crisp, engaging accent, was refreshingly honest in his comments. It is quite evident he has a lot to learn before he becomes as reluctant as American announcers to criticize. His estimate of the action on the field was clear and biting.
"Here they need a bit of a clever play," he said once as Baltimore was preparing for an indirect free kick. "The man taking the kick can't score directly, you know. He must roll the ball at least its own circumference before kicking for the goal, so he will probably pass it."