THE TIME BEFORE PELÉ, CRUYFF AND CHINAGLIA was a barren one for the North American Soccer League, or NASL to you and me. Born in 1968 following a merger between the United Soccer Association and the National Professional Soccer League, NASL had wholly humble beginnings.
So humble in fact that many regard the inaugural NASL season as an unmitigated disaster. Fans were few and far between and the high wages paid to foreign stars financially crippled many of the competing teams. Things were so bad that the 1969-70 season saw 12 of the original 17 founding clubs drop out of the league after only one season. Times were tough.
Luckily there was one shining beacon of hope, and his name was Janusz Kowalik, a troublesome Polish striker who became NASL’s first superstar. In the league’s first season Kowalik scored 30 goals while playing for the Chicago Mustangs, a record that lasted for over a decade. So how did a man from Nowy Sącz end up in Chicago? It wasn’t a smooth journey, that’s for sure.
I. A bright start
From an early age, it was clear that Janusz Kowalik was destined to be a footballer. Brought into the youth set up of Polish side K.S. Cracovia at an early age, Kowalik made headlines in Poland when he debuted for the club aged just 16 in 1960, becoming the youngest player to debut in the Polish top flight. That same year would see Kowalik make his debut for the Polish under-18 squad and the following year the young man proved pivotal in Poland’s second place finish in the 1961 UEFA under-18 Championship. As bright starts went, it didn’t get much better. Unfortunately, the political situation in Poland soon provided some bumps in the road.
During the 1960s Poland was a much different world than it is today. Back then the Poland communist government sought to control every facet of their citizens’ lives, including sporting organisations. This resulted in some very interesting implications for Polish athletes, such as the decision that all footballers must be amateurs meaning that clubs were encouraged to pay their players a pittance. Given the time spent training, playing and travelling to and from games, many Polish players resented the low wages being paid to them, including the young Kowalik.
Voicing the concerns of his fellow teammates, an 18-year-old Kowalik approached the Cracovia directors about improving wage structures within the club. Initially it seemed a reasonable request, but matters soon spun out of control when one of the directors accused Kowalik of trying to blackmail the club out of money. The rest of the board followed suit and Kowalik found himself banned for two years by his club.
It was a message to the rest of the team not to rock the boat; a message that was hard to ignore. Kowalik spent the next nine months on the sidelines until an act of clemency saw the rest of his ban uplifted.
When he returned to action in 1964, it was clear Kowalik had grown weary of Polish football but now he knew better than to tell anyone about it. The next two seasons would see Kowalik go about his business whilst secretly planning his escape from Communist Poland.
II. The great escape
On the face of it, the 1965-66 season was a high point in Kowalik’s career. Alongside a solid year for his team, the striker also made six appearances for the national side, the sixth coming in a 1-1 draw with England at Goodison Park. Many were tipping him to be the next Polish star on the international stage. Few, however, suspected the game against England would be his last for Biało-czerwoni, few except Kowalik. At the end of the season, Jan bid farewell to his Cracovia teammates under the pretence of a summer vacation. His vacation was in actuality, a pan-European escape mission. It was not without its difficulties.
During the 60s, Polish players were not allowed to transfer out of the country until after their 30th birthday. This, as you can imagine, posed a problem to 23-year-old Kowalik. Harassing every possible contact he could think of, Jan somehow managed to get his hands on a Polish passport, which would allow him to travel across borders.
He first went to Belgium under the pretence of a holiday but word soon got to the Polish football authorities about the young striker’s plans. Efforts were made to bring him back to Poland but they were too late. Kowalik had boarded a plane for the United States. Janusz’s American dream was about to become a reality.
III. Becoming an Eagle
Once in America, Janusz made his way to the Windy City, Chicago. At the time Chicago boasted the largest Polish presence in the United States, which included members of Jan’s own family who had fled the communist regime shortly after the end of World War Two. Once guaranteed of a place to stay, Jan quickly set about finding employment. After all, a footballer can only remain idle for so long.
Luckily, Jan couldn’t have come at a more exciting time in American football. In the spring of 1967 two professional football leagues had emerged in the US. One, the United Soccer Association, had been officially sanctioned by FIFA, whilst the other, the National Professional Soccer League, had not, meaning that many regarded it as a renegade operation. In effect, the US was in the middle of a ‘soccer war’ with dozens of teams spreading across the nation.
Initially, however, this ‘war’ had no meaning for Jan. Due to his hasty departure from Poland, the young striker was effectively a footballing refugee, unable to sign professional forms with any side as to do so would require the approval of Cracovia and the Polish football authority, the PZPN. Instead, Jan was forced to sign with amateur side the Chicago Eagles, who at the time were plying their trade in the National Soccer League.
NSL was an indoor amateur soccer league, which for its time, proved to be a breeding ground for new talent, as Jan found out when he lined out with fellow Poles Hubert Miller and Walter Kaszubski. The Polish trio proved to be lethal, propelling the Eagles to that year’s NSL Championship. Jan’s first season with the Eagles had been a success and thankfully for the striker, word had reached the professional leagues of a Polish striker hungry to make his mark. In 1968, the Chicago Mustangs approached Jan about joining the franchise, a proposal the Pole quickly accepted.
There was just one problem: signing Jan would require the Mustangs to enter into negotiations with Janusz’s former club Cracovia. The same Cracovia that Jan had abandoned just months previously to start a new life in America. Compounding matters further, it soon emerged that the Mustangs would also have to negotiate with the Polish government and the PZPN for Kowalik’s services.
Unsurprisingly, negotiations lasted for several weeks before Chicago agreed to pay somewhere in the region of $20,000 for the striker, although some maintain that the actual figure was much higher thanks to ‘unseen payments’. In an attempt to save face, the Polish government and FA insisted that any stories about Janusz’s Chicago transfer were forbidden lest any other Polish players follow his example.
IV. Making a name in Chicago
Kowalik wasn’t the only new addition to the Mustang squad. Within two months of Jan’s arrival, the Chicago side had secured the signatures fellow amateur players Edward Murphy, Tomas Fotiatis, and Fotis Dakouvanos. Soon after, Ajax midfielder Werner Schaaphok and Norwegian goalkeeper Ray Olsen joined the side. Remarkably these players were signed, not with a view to the 1967 United Soccer Association League in mind, but rather for the 1968 inaugural NASL season. This meant that for one full season Kowalik and several of his team-mates spent day after day sweating it out in training.
In January 1968, Kowalik and his soon to be NASL Mustangs were unveiled to the Chicago public. While the reaction was a mixture of curiosity and amusement, the local media were quick to notice Kowalik’s talent.
In their first training match, the Mustangs faced off against New College, a local university side. Showing little pity for their opponents, the Mustangs bagged seventeen goals against the fresh-faced collegiate side with Kowalik netting six. Perhaps in a bid build confidence, the next few months would see the Mustangs face off against a host of questionable teams, including a side made up of circus performers and a Mexican-American all-star team comprised of entirely migrant workers. Regardless of the opposition, Kowalik was clearly the Mustang’s danger man and, by the end of June, the Sarasota Journal was referring to Kowalik as soccer’s Joe DiMaggio.
Whilst many of their NASL rivas were content to hold their pre-season games in the United States, the owners of the Chicago Mustangs took the bold decision to go on a European tour in a quest to truly test their team prior to NASL’s opener on April 14, 1968. During March, the Mustangs travelled across Europe, taking on sides such as Athletic Club and Red Star Belgrade, with mixed results.
In the club’s first game against Austrian side FC Wacker, the Mustangs lost 5-2 with Kowalik finding the net twice. The Wacker loss was followed by a 4-0 defeat to Red Star Belgrade and 1-0 loss to FK Sloboda. By the end of their ten game tour, Chicago had lost eight, including an 8-0 hammering at the hands of Athletic and won only once.
It was a far cry from the team’s 17-2 win earlier in the year. What’s worse, Kowalik had picked up an ankle injury and would miss the beginning of the season. The only silver lining from the whole adventure was that the Mustangs had, for the most part, played admirably well against much stronger sides, something they hoped would be in their favour when they returned to the US.
V. The start of something big
On 12 April 1968, the Mustangs lined up against the Cleveland Stokers to kick-start the NASL season. Sadly, few seemed to notice as only 1,300 fans bothered to turn up. In a stadium that could hold over 46,000 people, the gaps in the crowd were painfully noticeable. Without Kowalik to lead the line, the Mustangs failed to outscore the Stokers and lost the game 2-1. The second game of the season wasn’t much better either with the Chicago side losing 5-2 to the Kansas City Spurs. It wasn’t the start the franchise had hoped for, but things soon changed.
In early May Kowalik finally made his NASL debut for the Mustangs against the Atlanta Chiefs in front of just 336 fans. In an eerily quiet stadium Kowalik led the Mustangs to a 4-1 victory, netting two for himself in the process. He continued his rich vein of form the following week in a 3-3 draw with the Boston Beacons, scoring another two. Soon people began to take an interest in the Mustangs. Soon people began to take an interest in Kowalik.
Within a week of the Boston game, the Chicago Daily Defender published a profile on the Polish striker comparing him to legendary Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers and Ernie Banks, one of the greatest players in the history of the Chicago Cubs. Another newspaper, The Defender went even further announcing that Kowalik was going to propel soccer’s popularity in Chicago.
The ‘Kowalik effect’ was proving to be a strong one.
With Jan leading the line the Mustangs soon went on a 16-game unbeaten streak. Adored by the local press, Kowalik flourished, scoring goal after goal as the Mustangs became a force to be reckoned with. Memorably during this time, Kowalik capped off a fine performance against Dallas Tornado with a four-goal haul. The striker was taking NASL by storm.
It took wasn’t until July that the Mustangs first experienced defeat. In a turgid game against the New York Generals, the Chicago side lost the 4-3. Unsurprisingly, Chicago had entered the game without Kowalik. Despite Kowalik’s return soon after, the next month saw the Mustangs lose all of their games. For a team with playoff aspirations, it was far from ideal. In fact, it was downright dangerous. The Mustangs’ future was predicated on the assumption they would make the playoffs. A failure to do so would result in the franchise folding. In spite of the pressure, Kowalik continued to score goal after goal. The goals were sorely needed too.
The Mustangs were rapidly falling down the league table. On 30 July, the Mustangs lost 4-1 to The Stokers thereby relinquishing Chicago’s hold on the top spot. To compound matters, Kowalik left the field with a suspected concussion after scoring a consolation goal for the Mustangs. The Cleveland game proved to be a vital turning point in the Mustangs’ season. After the game the team, which had engendered so much goodwill in the early stages of the season, soon became the butt of everyone’s jokes. The Mustangs were finishing the season with a whimper.
On 4 September, Kowalik scored his 30th and final goal of the season in Chicago’s 2-1 loss against Cleveland. It was a bittersweet moment for the Pole. His goal had secured his place as the league’s top goalscorer but the loss had eliminated the Mustangs from the playoffs. The loss had put the final nail in the Mustang coffin. Everyone knew a failure to make the playoffs would see the club fade into extinction. Chicago’s final game of the season at home to Detroit proved was a sombre occasion. Despite their 2-1 victory, few fans could smile. They had just witnessed their local side’s last game.
On a personal level, the season had been fruitful for Kowalik. At the end of season awards, the Polish striker collected both the top-goalscorer and MVP awards, earning himself a new Volkswagen in the process. His 30 goals would remain an NASL record for over a decade until it was finally surpassed by the mercurial Giorgio Chinaglia. When the award show finished and everyone went home Jan set about finding a new club.
The next few years would see him line out for the California Clippers, Sparta Rotterdam and much later the Chicago Sting. He scored goals wherever he went but he could never surpass thirty. He gained plaudits wherever he went but it never surpassed the fanfare the Mustangs gave him.
Looking back on Janusz Kowalik’s career one thing is clear: Jan was a Mustang through and through, something that deservedly made him NASL’s first superstar.
By Conor Heffernan @PhysCstudy