Too bad none of the members of the first U.S. World Cup team is around to see the dent that soccer is putting into the American sports scene these days. All 16 are deceased - the youngest would be 101 now - but it's safe to say none of them would have been able to imagine World Cup water-cooler talk on the same weekend of Yankees vs. Mets, U.S. Open golf and Lakers NBA title celebrations.
Arguments that Americans neither like nor understand soccer may persist among increasingly out-of-touch pundits, foaming at the mouth over thoroughly inappropriate baseball-basketball-football comparisons. But the fact is, with Friday's crazed U.S. comeback in the dying minutes against Slovenia, a significant portion of the U.S. citizenry had no choice but to jump up and shout.
Not a soccer nation? The United States has been making landmark progress since three crowds topped 97,000 at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Besides setting still-standing attendance records when they hosted the tournament in 1994 and staging two thoroughly successful women's World Cups in 1999 and 2003, the Americans reached the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002 and this year qualified for a sixth consecutive World Cup - one of only six nations riding such a streak.
None of this would have made much sense as recently as 20 years ago, and certainly not at the first World Cup, played in Uruguay in 1930. Not long before he died in 1993, Arnold Oliver of New Bedford, Mass., recalled for Newsday the experience of that inaugural tournament, before TV and Nike, starting with travel by ship from New York to Montevideo that "took almost three weeks. Everybody was seasick when we got there."
Oliver, like most of the national-team players then, had a full-time job in the Baltimore steel mills, though he noted an exception in World Cup roommate Billy Gonsalves, who played in various U.S. leagues for 25 years and sometimes was called "the Babe Ruth of American soccer."
The son of Portuguese immigrants, Gonsalves came from Fall River, Mass., then a U.S. soccer hotbed where factories employed large numbers of immigrants. "Bill didn't like to work much," Oliver said. "He just played soccer. Sometimes he did a little bartending."
Also from Fall River was Bert Patenaude, who apparently scored the first hat trick in World Cup history in the second U.S. game, a 3-0 victory over Paraguay that followed a 3-0 win over Belgium. (Some records list Patenaude's third goal as a Paraguayan own goal.) Thrashed by Argentina in what amounted to a semifinal match, 6-1, the Americans nevertheless achieved their best Cup finish in 1930 when Yugoslavia refused to play them for third place.
"After we lost to Argentina," Oliver said, "about six of us went to the stadium to see the final [Uruguay defeated Argentina, 4-2]. We had these berets on, with a Yankee patch, and we finally talked our way into the stadium. We were going to go back to the hotel and listen to it on the radio, but we wouldn't understand, because it was only in Spanish. So we got into the stadium.
"But if you didn't cheer for Uruguay, they'd drop you right over the side of the stadium. There were 93,000 screaming fans."
Too bad Oliver and his teammates can't hear the South African crowds and their vuvuzelas now. And watch an American team making real noise back home.