my least favorite chapter in the book; but every book has one, hasn't it. chapter contains what i like to call -- or just call -- 'vital, setup material.' So, muscle through it like these boys in the rugby match.
Novak brought in tea and some little chorizo and Idiazábel cheese sandwiches, prepared by his reserve housekeeper. Ben Hampton was readying his tape recorder and notebook. Novak’s first-choice help, Galena, spent Decembers back in Valencia. The local reservist worked from one of Galena’s tapas recipes.
“Well, as I alluded to earlier, I was just dead lucky to have grown up in a part of the country that had a decent, in fact more than decent, tradition of football – or soccer, as they say back over there. Football was throwing and tackling with helmets. Oakland Raiders, How-ard Co-sell and all that.”
Novak sank into one of his favorite leather club chairs, a Derby, imported from his old Cambridge rooms.
“Working class area, tons of immigrants from not only Central and Eastern Europe but also, significantly in our town, culturally, Mexico. We had a whole Mexican part of town in a district called Lincoln Place. Again, completely blue collar. Ninety-percent working class. Really good people. I spoke to my mother recently, and she told me she was in Lincoln Place with an old friend and went to this little café and had a very nice quiche.
“I said, ‘You had quiche … in Lincoln Place.’”
Novak recalled Lincoln Place as railroad tracks and being overrun by stray dogs and where one might go as an underage drinker for pitchers of Busch beer.
“I can’t see quiche. That’d be like guacamole in Hartlepool. You know what I mean?”
“Right,” Ben said. “Peter Mandelson and the whole mushy peas thing.”
“Exactly. But back then, for us, Lincoln Place … very nice sporting club down there with soccer and a lot of boxing too. They just rejoiced in soccer like no one else, other than a few Teutonic pockets of town. My best friend growing up, for a while, was a Mexican boy. Top skills himself, handsome, chick magnet, flash player. I just loved him. His uncle ran one of the sporting goods stores in town, specializing in ‘the beautiful game,’ I should point out. Uncle Hector coached many youth teams, including one of my teams when I was … just before my teen years.”
A local icon, handsome Hector Mendez had played professionally in Mexico and was among the stars of one of America’s greatest-ever amateur sides in the 1950s – based out of St. Louis.
“Great people, the Mexicans. Lots of fun, great sense of humor. I looked up to the ones I met. Pretty girls.”
After the charming Hispanic soliloquy, Novak went further off piste by suggesting a change of scenery. “We could pop down the Volunteer for a pint of local ale in the beer garden. And the fish cakes are nice.”
Ben steered Novak back to what the author felt he needed for his narrative.
“You must have been raised in some sort of football culture. What exactly went on?”
“Yes and no,” Novak said. “My two coaches, when I was a young boy, were trained as professionals in their native countries. Just a freak thing to have happen to me. We didn’t have, you know, academies or anything like that. These were just weekend leagues for children with practice once a week.
“One of the men played third-tier regionalliga and was hooked into the Rot Weiss Essen system, I discovered later. Hermann Roth was his name, wonderful guy. The other fellow, a little more mercurial and exotic, you might say, was Bela Magurany from Hungary. Looked a bit like Lech Walesa with the big, bushy moustache. He was a pro there during the great Hungarian heyday when they were the best international side in the world. Actually a frightening side, should have won the World Cup in ’54, you know. Puskas and all that. Both of them survived the war as adolescents. And both of them, as it turned out, luckily for me, happened to have sons my age.”
Born in the middle of Midwest America in the early 60s, Novak bottle fed on the game – the rest of the world’s game -- from a pair of ƒüßball-meisters.
“Incredible for me at the time. They knew football. They passed it on, and I listened and soaked it up and tried hard to replicate on the pitch what they were teaching us. I must have been hilarious. I took it all so seriously, the drills and the repetition and the tactics … the mindset. Closing down the man with the ball. I believed everything they said about the game.
“But, you know, when they would shout out to us, ‘Talk. You must talk to each other,’ I started breathing out of my nose so I’d have plenty of air left for communicating with my teammates and helping direct traffic out there.
“Because Hermann and Bela said, ‘You must talk. You must let each other know what you’re doing and where you’re going and what you want the other boys to do when you go there.’
“We would have many drills where Bela would call out a boy’s name and that boy would be the only player who could talk. No one else could say a word. You’ve seen that before, right? Well, the first time for all of us was, of course, embarrassing and a disaster. You couldn’t think of anything to say when it was just you. Or if you did, you said something stupid and then you were afraid to say anything else. And, you know, some of the boys weren’t too bright to begin with. But they drilled us and drilled us and then we could do it. It was very hard for little boys.”
“Sort of like they were sent to the states to teach you the game,” Ben kept him going.
“They were just dads being with their kids. There were very few around back then, I would bet, who knew more about football than these two, Hermann and Bela. At least not who were available to me in my little solar system. Sheer luck.”
“So there you were.”
“So there I was on this strange little team – Sokol Club -- with these foreign, very serious men, stern, matter-of-fact. We had bright red shirts with this Third Reich-looking eagle crest over the heart and all these kids with foreign sounding names. Baumgartner; Eberhardt; Vangelov; Fenstermacher; Spiroff; Juhasz; Metzger; Kobylasz. Mine too, I suppose, Novak, so I fit right into the exotic blend, you might call it. I always thought my name sounded pretty American next to some of these others. This wasn’t my first team; it was my second. I put myself on it. But I’ll get to that.”
It was just a “concatenation of events.” Those were Novak’s words, channeling Lytton Strachey’s Cambridge-speak. What he meant by such pedantry, in this case, was a blend of fortunate circumstances the effect of which was a solid grounding in football. Or you could say it was all kind of a varied, purposeful introduction to something that otherwise was not going to come his way naturally like it did for kids in Europe and most places around the world. At least not back then. Novak had a bit of a boost up because of where he was born. St. Louis was one of the country’s legitimate incubators of soccer going back a hundred years.
The only other parts of the country where a boy might experience such devotion to the beautiful game would be other urban areas with lots of immigrants from footballing countries like Britain, Germany, Italy or the eastern bloc states.
The problem with America back then, even as late as the 60s, was the overwhelming societal pressure for new arrivals to blend in. Integration and its concomitant acceptance required participation in the nation’s athletic pastimes. That meant track and field in the spring; baseball in the summer; American-style football with shoulder pads in the autumn and basketball in the winter. Deviation was treated with scorn. Many Latino children in California, Texas and Florida accepted the idea of baseball. Soccer was always going to be ‘on the sidelines.’
“What was the most important thing you learned from the German and the Hungarian – those coaches?” Ben asked.
“Easily, it was organization in defense. Secondly, moving without the ball in attack. I could go on, but let’s just say organization. And within that controlled scheme, I discovered a talent, or at least an inclination, for getting the ball from the other side’s best players and then giving it to our best players. That ended up being my ticket.”
“Working-class grafter, eh?”
“I’d like to think so.”
Novak looked at his watch and stood.
“And now I really think we should go for a pint and a Ploughman’s Plate.”
They drove the well-kept Defender to The Volunteer Inn, a 17th-century, ‘Campaign for Real Ale’ pub in nearby Chipping Campden, and parked themselves in front of the cozy log fire. The large-screen TV was showing a Rugby match on Setanta. Each sipped a Stanney Bitter.
“The other factor, for us,” Novak continued, “was the Catholic thing. The Catholics, at least in my experience in the St. Louis area, were very organized as far as education and athletics. And beer. The school down the street from my house, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, my church, had eight teams for boy’s soccer, just a constant assembly line of players. All the parishes had the same thing. We were in Southern Illinois, you know, steel mills, oil refineries, lots of smoke, unpleasant industrial odors, right across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. In fact, if you take a ride up the Arch — you know the Arch?”
“From up there, you can see the smokestacks about ten miles off. That’s my town. Not inviting-looking, but there it is.”
“Next time I’m there, definitely.”
“You really had to hand it to the Catholics, though, didn’t you, when it came to school and sport. They were dedicated to the whole muscular Christianity ethic, you know, Dr. Arnold and the Rugby School and everything. Presciently, they recognized soccer as an inexpensive mass recreation, so they plugged it in to every parish.”
St. Louis amateur teams, largely due to the Catholic leagues, became adept and famous for developing homegrown talent rather than importing players from other parts of the country. And later, the city’s pro team, the Stars, likewise gained a reputation for not having to rely on players from away, particularly the George Bests and Rodney Marshes of the world. They did quite well, the Stars. They developed a fanatic and very proud support base, including our Novak after about age ten, in large part because of this policy.
More than a hundred years ago, America had a national soccer federation. It incorporated all of these semi-professional associations around the country. Very similar, if not identical, to FAs in Europe. The big clubs were based usually around manufacturing companies or men’s organizations. Sound familiar? And they started a U.S. Open competition like the F.A. Cup. St. Louis amateur teams had been doing quite well in national challenge cups since the twenties.
“Painfully, for England, the majority of players – you might already know this if you’ve wallowed at all in your nation’s most shocking defeat – were St. Louis-based part-timers, a few Macedonians and some Italians, I think.”
The great 1950 World Cup 1-0 defeat to the USA in Belo Horizonte.
“Sort of like losing to Luxembourg,” Ben said.
“Which, frankly, I wouldn’t put past England these days.”
The point, if over-fussy, is that Novak didn’t exactly emerge from the great black hole that is sometimes characterized about American soccer. What they were doing over there came to them from over here. Sort of like New Zealanders slaughtering us at rugby or Sri Lankans handing us our hats in cricket.
“The learning other languages, though,” said Novak, concerned that too much sport was being discussed for Ben Hampton’s sport book, “is what opened my eyes and got me excited and resulted in my doing great in school and just started everything for me. That’s what brought me to Europe in the first place. It was never the football.”
“Really. You didn’t move to Europe at age seventeen to be a footballer, yet within three years you were playing in the first division of the Bundesliga.”
“It was language. No one who was from our town who didn’t have immigrant ancestors ever bothered with foreign languages, beyond rudimentary Spanish required to earn a high school diploma. It didn’t do a Granite Cityan any good at all to learn a foreign language, especially when you figure that, back then, half the town was destined for the steel mill. And probably nine out of ten would live their entire lives within a fifty-mile radius of where they were born. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just a fact. I’ve come to see it as actually quite noble, if you want to know. I didn’t stay around, but it wasn’t in my head to do so. Sometimes I envy the ones who take their grandchildren to the same playgrounds their grandparents took them. Continuity. The comfort of security. Knowing who’s who. There’s something to be said for that.”
Novak was feeling more comfortable. The time spent with Ben Hampton felt less like an interview. He had actually never done many interviews having to do with football. Never had the time. His clubs always allowed him to race off to university appointments and such after the match and to not be bothered at training or after. Did a few in Spain where he’d mix rudimentary Spanish and intermediate Italian and whatever else and sound like a donkey.
“I spoke, I suppose, my own custom, lingua franca, or what I called ‘not ready for prime time Spanish.’ I love the Spanish language, but at that time I wasn’t quite yet able to … ‘Basque’ in it,” you know?”