By Glenn Davis - HOUSTON, TX (Oct 19, 2004) USSoccerPlayers – Everybody in American soccer knows the name Paul Gardner. Currently a columnist for such magazines and newspapers as World Soccer, Soccer America, Futbol Mundial, and the New York Sun, Gardner has always played a variety of media roles. His book ?The Simplest Game? has gone through several reprints since its original release in 1976.
On the television side, Gardner covered the North American Soccer League during its heyday and was a color commentator for networks like ABC, CBS, and NBC covering two World Cups and the NASL. He also served as an advisor and writer on the Pele Instructional videos in the 70’s. USSoccerPlayers’ Glenn Davis spoke with Gardner about his career following American soccer.
Your book titled ?The Simplest Game? was one I read many years ago when I was younger.
Oh that’s great! Make me feel old? That was many years ago? That’s a good start Glenn!
Paul, I’ve broken the forty mark.
I am thinking how old the book is. You’re right, it is old. The first edition was in like 1976 or 1975 maybe. Thirty years ago.
There weren’t many soccer books for people like myself back then in the United States. It was a very definitive book and very important book. In it you posed the question: What is soccer? In the 28 years since then have you figured it out?
No, I haven’t. In fact I am probably even more confused than I was then. Glenn, you must begin to know this now. The younger you are the more you know. The older you get the more you realize you don’t know. It gets puzzling after a while. No, I’m not sure what soccer is. It’s a thousand different things to a thousand different people.
Can you compare the NASL and MLS?
It’s probably not fair to compare the two because the NASL was basically working as a traditionally structured league based on nothing more than, if you like, crude capitalism. You throw in the money and hope to make a profit and hope to succeed. If it doesn’t work you cut your losses and get out and that is exactly what happened to the NASL. That is my understanding of American capitalism.
MLS has chosen to follow a rather different route with the single entity structure where basically everybody is limited in the amount of money they put in and it is a joint effort, and they’ve got commitments lasting for a certain number of years regardless of what the success picture looks like.
The whole point of it is to stop what happened in the NASL: traditionally thought of as clubs vying against each other within the league not against external opponents and working against each other and going bankrupt. That always seemed a bit stupid. So they got rid of that with the single entity structure. Now they all work together.
What do you think of the single entity structure?
It doesn’t matter what I think of it or for that matter what you think of it. The fact of the matter is there would not be a league without single entity or something very similar to it.
So it has been good for survival?
I think it has, yes. Taking it just objectively and out of context, whether it’s a good way to organize a sports league I think that determines to be seen. I suspect that it probably isn’t in the long run. But if the league is nurtured through these perilous early days when the baby is vulnerable? if it can get through those days, then later quite a lot will have to be changed with single entity to bring the league closer to the competitive leagues in other sports and in soccer around the rest of the world.
Will that include the privatization of clubs in the future?
Yes, I think it must. That’s the way it’s got to go.
Switching gears, how do you like the quality of soccer in MLS?
Quality is a difficult thing to define. Every league in the world has good and bad teams and good and bad games. The MLS has the same but what it seems this season not to have is variation in teams. Any team could qualify for the playoffs. There is a tremendous leveling off of teams which may or may not be a good thing. It would be a good thing if the caliber of play were acceptably higher, unfortunately I don’t think it is. I think the caliber of play is certainly below what I would like it to be. Not only the caliber of play but also the nature of the game being played. The type of soccer being played which on the whole I don’t find agreeable.
What type of soccer is that?
It’s too European. The US is not a European country. If you listen to the soccer people and talk to the people that run soccer in this country, if you look at the list of people that run soccer in this country, if you look at the staffing of the US Soccer Federation, if you look at their coaches, the coaches of the National Teams, the coaches of MLS, they are all European born or pro-European in their attitudes. This is a ridiculous state of affairs for this country.
This is not Europe. We actually sit right next to one of the biggest Latin American soccer countries in the world. And just below them we have obviously some of the greatest soccer countries in the world including Argentina and Brazil. We need to look south a bit instead of constantly looking east.
We are sitting on an absolute gold mine of talent in this country. We have more talent at the youth level than any European country and I’m not saying that as something that just came off the tope of my head. Most of the talent at the moment is Latin American because that is where the big waves of immigration are coming from. By and large that talent is being ignored. We have a blinkered coaching system. Too many blinkered coaches who do not want to look at it and do not want to exploit it. Now I’m hoping the Chivas arrival in MLS will alter that.
Let’s cut to the chase. Are you saying there is prejudice?
I’m afraid it is. I have resisted that conclusion for many years. I see no point in beating around the bush. It’s not racial prejudice. It’s not racism. It’s prejudice against a certain type of soccer, Latin soccer. If we want skillful soccer, a la Brazil – which is certainly what I want, and it clearly is what the majority of the world wants, that’s the sort of soccer they want to see – then that prejudice has to go.
Now, if we decide in this country either by default or by some perfectly deliberate decision that we don’t want to play like Brazil and would much rather play like Germany or England, then I think we are being stupid for two reasons: A) because Brazil plays much more attractive soccer. B) Because we have the players in this country who can deliver that much more intelligent type of soccer to us. And we’re not using them. We’re not even looking at them.
Do we have an indigenous type of soccer in the US? A definitive style?
No we don’t. And we’re not gonna get one as long as we deliberately ignore fifty percent of our soccer players? in terms of talent I would say seventy five percent of our soccer players. We are not using the resources we have got. We are underplaying our hand here calamitously.
So then what did you think of the US World Cup team’s performance in the 2002 World Cup?
In terms of results it was obviously very good. But remember, they squeaked out of the first round. People tend to forget that. But we had a very, very good game against Mexico and Germany. So we did do well ultimately there. But in terms of type of soccer being played that’s not half of what we could offer.
Were you not proud of the type of soccer being played?
I don’t go for nationalism. I’m not proud of any of these things. I want to see what I want to see in terms of soccer which is skillful, on the ground, exciting, attractive game. The United States had most of those properties at some level, though not at the level I wanted to see. But in terms of creativity and artistry – both elements that are absolutely essential to the sort of soccer I want – we were pretty low on those two. You can get by on a game of effort, work, and industry. You can win games like that. Germany has been doing it for years. But to build a team on the essential soccer skills is not easy.
Is it difficult for you as a writer to come up with ideas?
No, not usually. This is a global sport with a million games being played every weekend, in a hundred different countries, with a thousand different players doing good things, bad things, stupid things and odd things.
Is it important for a writer to be liked and disliked?
No, I am a columnist now and that is a title you sort of acquire when you get older I suppose. A columnist obviously has to have opinions. If you don’t have opinions you are not much of a columnist. If you have opinions then you are going t make some friends and some enemies. There is nothing you can do about that. People like that, they want to read things they can strongly agree or disagree with. Love you or hate you sort of things. That’s part of life.