LONG BEFORE A TEAM OF ANIMATED PUPPETS decided to take on the world under the banner of Team America, a hodgepodge collection of superstars and NASL underlings joined together in 1976 to take on Brazil, Italy and England in a one off tournament called the American Bicentennial Soccer Cup.
As the name suggests, the tournament was a celebration of America’s two centuries of independence, and it was hoped that the American Bicentennial Soccer Cup would showcase to both the American public and the wider world just what great strides American soccer had made since the inception of the North American Soccer League in 1968. Record attendances would be set, the American public would be infused with an interest in the beautiful game and people would begin to take American soccer seriously. That was the goal, anyway.
There was just one small problem: America would be facing England, Italy and Brazil, three of football’s greatest nations. An American soccer team, composed of fully-fledged American citizens, would be grossly unprepared to take on such giants. In fact, the year before the Bicentennial Cup saw the US national side play five games, losing all of them, conceding 22 goals and scoring one. If America could lose to Poland 7-0, just imagine what a Brazilian team featuring Zico would do. America wasn’t prepared and the organisers knew it.
Inspired by NASL’s policy of fielding both foreign superstars and US footballers, a decision was made to select a handful of NASL’s foreign superstars to represent Team America. Handful is something of an understatement; of the 31 players called up to the side, only 13 were American citizens. Only a quarter of them had been born in the US, the rest being foreign footballers that naturalized for the States.
In other nations this would have been a source of shame, but not America. In the programme for the tournament, one organiser prided himself in the knowledge that Team America had one of the strongest teams of the tournament on paper.
So who were these foreign superstars? Only Pelé, Bobby Moore, George Best, Rodney Marsh and Giorgio Chinaglia, to name but a few. Yes, the somewhat ironically named Team America fielded not one but two World Cup winners alongside some of football’s most well known entertainers.
Managed by New York Cosmos manager Ken Furphy, Team America would open the tournament on 23 May against Enzo Bearzot’s Azzurri side at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in the nation’s heartland, Washington DC. Not content with making up the numbers, Team America were confident of impressing. It was an attitude shared by the New York Times, who, in an article published one week before the Italian game, were salivating over the Team America line-upo:
“Imagine a trio of George Best, Giorgio Chinaglia and Pelé. No country in the world has three guys like that to play forward.”
Not everyone was as enthused. Speaking to the St. Petersburg Times on 22 May, Boston Minutemen manager Hubert Vogelsinger vented his frustration with the Team America concept:
“We’re making this series an ethnic affair, putting in these foreign players. Now we’re gonna lose 2–1 or 3–2 instead of 5–1 or 4–0. What are we going to prove? That Pelé and George Best and Rodney Marsh know how to play soccer? We already know that.
“This was unbelievable short-sightedness. Here we could have gained international recognition by exposing our American team to these others. Even if we lose 10–0, so what? We are an arriving nation in this sport and we can only get better. The experience would have been invaluable.”
Speaking to the same newspaper, Team America player Rodney Marsh claimed that he was withdrawing from the tournament in a bid to give the American players a chance, a decision echoed by fellow NASL star George Best. Was this altruism on Marsh’s part or an act of face saving? A counter story is that Marsh and Best had demanded to start in all three matches and that when head coach Furphy refused, the duo pulled out.
Unperturbed by the loss of Marsh and Best, Team America lined up against the Italians with a team spearheaded by Bobby Moore, Pelé and former Lazio star Giorgio Chinaglia. As 33,000 football fans packed themselves into Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Washington, the footballing community sat down to see whether or not Team America had what it took to compete with some of the world’s best.
Fourteen minutes into the game they got their answer, and from an American perspective, it wasn’t good.
From the moment the game kicked off, it was clear that Team America was out of its depth. Gross miscommunication between the defence and midfield saw the Italians presented with an abundance of space in the middle of the pitch – a gift they readily accepted.
In the 14th minute, Juventus wide man Franco Causio broke down the wing and floated a menacing ball into the Team America box. Amidst the chaos, Fabio Capello was the first to meet the ball, coolly guiding it into the back of the net. Italy one, Team America nil. Failing to regroup from the early goal, Team America gave away a penalty just seven minutes later, allowing the Italians to go two up before the break.
The second half was more of the same with the Italians scoring two again to run out 4-0 winners. It was a paltry performance from Team America. They had shown a complete inability to settle during the game, making sloppy mistakes and rash decisions. After the game, Team America defender Bobby Moore lamented the inexperience of the side and even worse, the lack of preparation prior to the game. The morning after the game, the New York Times conceded:
“The Americans proved that a group of international superstars has trouble playing together as a team with so little preparation. The picture presented by America was not a pretty one.”
Just five days after their poor showing against the Italians, Team America faced Brazil at the King Dome in Seattle. The Brazilians had dispatched Don Revie’s England side 1-0 in their opening game and were generally regarded as the strongest team in the tournament. To compound matters, Pelé, unlike his fellow Team America teammate Giorgio Chinaglia, refused to line up against his nation.
Thankfully for Team America, the Brazilian squad showed either an immense amount of empathy for their hosts or downright lethargy depending on your disposition. In control from the off, Brazil contented themselves with possession football and entertainment. When Gil put Brazil ahead in the 29th minute, the game was effectively finished.
In the second half, Gil scored once more, setting himself up nicely to become the tournament’s top goal scorer. For Team America, it was scant consolation that critics opined that they had looked slightly better than the previous game.
Going into the final game of the tournament against England on 31 May, Team America had lost two, conceded six and scored none, ensuring that Team America would be playing for pride. Not that many would notice. In a stadium with the capacity to hold 102,000 people, 16,000 fans showed up. Thankfully for those that bothered, the game was markedly better than Team America’s first two efforts.
Although the first half would see Kevin Keegan score twice for Revie’s England, Team America, bolstered by the return of Pelé, proved a more dangerous outfit in attack than in previous games. Sporadically testing England on the counter, they managed to get their first and only goal of the game when neat work from Pelé and then Chinaglia set up Scotsman Stewart Scullion to net the side’s first and only goal of the tournament. Despite the fact that England would win the game 3-1, the final performance from Team America went some way to answering their critics.
For Italy and Brazil, the tournament was very much a serious affair as every match was treated as a fully credited international. Each player was awarded a cap for every game. Indeed, Brazil’s victory in the tournament was a testament to how seriously they took the matter.
On the other side of the equation, Revie’s England, who despite showing an ambition to win the tournament, treated the affair very much as a series of friendlies. England players that participated in the tournament were not awarded caps as the FA deemed the tournament as an unofficial one, an opinion shared by FIFA who, in 2001, retroactively declassified the tournament, thereby nullifying the Italian and Brazilian caps. The tournament was unofficial in the eyes of everyone but Brazil and Italy.
Regarding Team America, it’s hard to know what benefit came from the venture. Following the tournament, organisers waxed lyrical that Team America had displayed the strength of the North American Soccer League. That may have been true, but it had failed to showcase the actual strength of North American players.
In less than a decade, NASL collapsed leaving the US national team in the wilderness for over a decade. That Team America was a novel concept, no one can deny. That it did any favours for the American game, no one can claim.
By Conor Heffernan. Follow @PhysCstudy