Ahmet Ertegun and Lamar Hunt | Adding spice, foreign and domestic, to American soccer

With the Turkish foreign minister and Istanbul governor paying homage, the body of Ertegün is laid to rest on Dec 18. (Osman Orsal | AP)

Istanbul | New York Times popular-music critic Jon Pareles refers in the opening paragraph of his appreciation to the “sheer improbability” of Ahmet Ertegün‘s career (“A Mogul Who Helped Mold Pop Culture,” Dec 16). A reading of Ertegün’s life, even a superficial reading, demonstrates the often covert international influences on seemingly indigenous American art forms—on soul music and rhythm and blues, in Ertegí¼n’s case—and on American soccer.

Ertegün’s death on Dec 14 at 83 as well as the death a day earlier of Lamar Hunt, 74, meant the loss of two men whose interests and largely beneficent wielding of money and influence beginning in the mid-1960s provided momentum for a moribund sport.


Hunt, the son of billionaire oilman Haroldson Lafayette (H. L.) Hunt, has been American soccer’s constant since a terrace-based encounter with Shamrock Rovers in Dublin in 1962 and his viewing, with other Americans, of the BBC broadcast of the 1966 World Cup final from Wembley Stadium (Frank Dell’Apa, “Hunt a Quiet Pioneer of U.S. Soccer,” ESPNsoccernet, Dec 13). Andrei Markovits and Steven Hellerman in Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism (Princeton, 2001) deliberately choose “ubiquitous” to characterize Hunt’s involvement.

For one, Hunt seemed attracted to upstart projects and mixing in the alphabet soup of nascent sport leagues. In 1959, he joined several prospective team owners to create the American Football League, a rival to the burgeoning popularity of the NFL whose 12 franchises had proven a closed shop. The AFL would launch with eight teams the following year, before merging with the NFL in 1970. Four “Super Bowls”—a name suggested by Hunt—were contested between the two leagues, with Hunt’s Kansas City Chiefs winning the last between the AFL and NFL on 11 Jan 1970.

Almost simultaneously to the heated AFL-NFL wars, Hunt, as owner of the Dallas Tornado, joined the leadership of the North American Soccer League, a quickfire merger of two leagues—the National Professional Soccer League and the United Soccer Association—that launched in the spring of 1967 to fill a soccer void. In just two years, however, club soccer’s presence in America had dwindled to five professional teams. The league’s survival, according to Markovits and Hellerman, until the Cosmos’ founding and the infusion of overseas talent was due to league commissioner Phil Woosnam and Hunt, who brought the credibility of the Chiefs’ 1970 championship.

The presence of Hunt, a highly respected businessman from an extremely wealthy family, gave the shaky league its sole anchor of legitimacy and hope. Yet, highlighting the ephemeral nature of professional soccer in America and the completely unconventional—even weird—manner of building its teams, Hunt’s Tornado embarked on a global odyssey that carried the team to twenty countries, playing forty-five games of which it won ten, lost twenty-seven, and drew eight before the team had played its very first game in Dallas. (165–66)

The Dallas side folded in 1982. No NASL team ever made a profit. Yet more important than the unworkable business model was the investment that Hunt and others had made in developing a nationwide awareness of the world’s most popular entertainment. “[G]reater numbers of American youth and, notably, American women,” write Markovits and Hellerman, “began to take up the sport as the saga of the NASL wound down.” While the recently released film Once in a Lifetime emphasizes the Cosmos’ excesses and glamour, soccer found its form in America in open fields, as a game for girls and boys who might not have found comfort in the more indigenous sports.

Columbus general manager Mark McCullers says “the embodiment of [Hunt's] legacy is Crew Stadium,” pictured on 29 Apr 06. (pinkertons | Flickrâ„¢)

Hunt’s place as “soccer’s guardian angel”—the words of former FC Dallas (née Burn) general manager Andy Swift—became assured with his sustained interest in the sport through the 1994 World Cup finals and with the Hunt family’s ownership of three Major League Soccer teams in Columbus, Dallas and Kansas City. (The Kansas City Wizards were sold in August to local owners.) Perhaps Hunt’s most vital contribution to the American club game was seeing, from his study of stadia abroad during quadrennial trips to the World Cup finals, the ingredient offered by the game’s surround. The first American arena constructed for outdoor soccer, Columbus Crew Stadium, rose after Hunt persisted through two earlier denials in 1997 and 1998 (Shawn Mitchell, “Hunt Saw His Vision of Soccer Come True,” Columbus Dispatch, Dec 15; not available online). These investments in concrete, made also in stadia in the Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Denver areas (Toronto, New York and Washington, D.C., to come), show that soccer has established a physical as well as a cultural presence in its last frontier.

“I have no doubts that [soccer] will be a major sport in the United States,” said Hunt in 2002, although he might have had reason to employ the present tense.

I’m probably not going to live to see that day because Americans are a little afraid of getting interested in something at which they’re not very good. … [W]e’ve made huge strides since the 1990 World Cup, USA ’94, and obviously since ’98. Unfortunately, those strides only register with the public once every four years. But I have no question that we’re going to see the sport become a major success in the United States, with high attendance at club games.

Markovits and Hellerman emphasize Hunt’s contribution toward a global perspective among the next generation of soccer investors, “a cogent sense that soccer is the world’s only truly global team sport and the world’s most popular form of entertainment” (185).

Born in Istanbul, the son of the one-time Turkish ambassador to the United States, Ertegün’s international credentials are more immediately apparent. Due to his father’s posting, Ertegün found himself in Washington, D.C., by the mid-1930s, and one imagines him plying the city’s U Street corridor, the home ground of Duke Ellington, as well as listening to jazz music at desegregated soirées in the Turkish Embassy. Social gatherings in the capital still were segregated, as well as housing, schools and shops (see “Explore DC: The Segregated City”).

Ahmet (left) and Nesuhi in the Turkish Embassy record room, sometime in the 1930s. (William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)

Ertegün earned his undergraduate degree at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, a unique American college based on a great-books curriculum in literature, philosophy, theology, political science and history. Three years later, in 1947, with $10,000 in start-up capital Ertegün created Atlantic Records and would cultivate his early exposure to jazz and gospel music through the business, signing artists such as Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and, later, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones.

His founding of the Cosmos, partnering with brother Nesuhi, had origins in the label’s acquisition by Warner Communications. According to the account in Once in a Lifetime, Nesuhi remained in the fold only after convincing Warner CEO Steve Ross to invest in a New York NASL franchise that would become Cosmos.

Pareles in his New York Times appreciation emphasizes that an interfaith coalition of the Muslim Ertegün, African American musicians rooted in the church and Jewish producers helped forge a new direction in American popular music. A similarly offbeat blending of these members of the Turkish diaspora, glad-handing American moguls, an iconic Brazilian (Pelé) and elite European footballing talent created a media burst that for a period made North American soccer palatable for mass consumption.

But beyond such flash, Hunt’s and Ertegün’s connections to a wider world facilitated the humble gift of a kicking game.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (2)

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  1. Karsten says:

    Turks can be proud of those two brothers, who did a lot for African American society in the U.S. Maybe that was so much like Martin Luther King did. That soccer thing should be seen more as fun.

  2. [...] to the island since 1959. Cosmos president Clive Toye, making connections through Lamar Hunt (see 20 Dec 06) and George H. W. Bush, helped arrange a Cosmos trip to Beijing and Shanghai in 1977 and also [...]

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