Carson’s next guest | Beckham’s posh brand of football has vanguard to follow

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In advance of an August 1968 exhibition between the North American Soccer League’s Atlanta Chiefs and Santos, an Atlanta Constitution editorial cartoon by Clifford “Baldy” Baldowski mentions Chiefs star Kaizer “Boy Boy” Motaung. The South African, invited to play for the Chiefs due to apartheid-era strictures, in 1970 would found Kaizer Chiefs of Soweto to honor his NASL sojourn.

We have offered our two cents—at current exchange rates, slightly less than one pence—on David Beckham‘s touchdown (bad metaphor?) in the United States. The article appears in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Sunday “@issue” section (“Summer of Beckham,” Jul 15).

Beckham falls in line with legions of globe-wandering footballers who almost since the codification of association-football laws in 1863 have acted as cultural and economic bridge-builders with a ball at their feet. Beckham, to be sure, is better equipped than most to evangelize the sport.

But there have been precursors. We share some memories, not included in the AJC story, of our beginnings in the lower divisions of the Tilden Woods Recreation Center league in suburban Maryland.

Our league launched, like so many others, in the excitement generated by Pelé’s three-year turn, from 1975–77, with New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. Pelé was the only player I knew as a boy, primarily from the way he leaped, clad in the yellow Brazilian jersey, into teammates’ arms during the “thrill of victory” montage on Wide World of Sports.

In the time I played, coaches treated our team as if we were wooden figures on a foosball table, positioned on rigid metal arms. If the ball came toward the defense, they yelled, “Defenders, move in!” We then had permission to step out of the quasi-military formation that resulted when philosophies of American football were grafted, in the absence of preexisting soccer teachings, onto what is by nature an improvisational, free-flowing game. Public-address announcers celebrated long kicks, even if they flew 50 yards out of bounds. The highest compliment our coach could muster was to say that “you spent the entire half with the ball on your shins.” I’m still not sure what he meant.

By contrast, urban and suburban youth of these times demonstrate composure and ball skills with both feet, emulate the goal celebrations of Latin and European heroes and intuit the game’s multicultural appeal. The “soccer nation”—annoying phrase—may be denied by the talk-radio curmudgeons. But it’s already here.

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.

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