By Paul Gardner
You never can be sure how history will interpret life, but let us hope that it acknowledges Phil Woosnam, who died on Friday at age 80, as one of the key pioneers of American soccer.
Woosnam was one of the three madmen -- the other two were Lamar Hunt and Clive Toye -- who were too blinded by their faith in soccer to realize that the pro sport had died the death in 1968 when the North American Soccer League withered, overnight, from 17 teams down to a mere five.
That trio of deluded optimists kept the NASL alive and saw it regain strength, climb to 24 clubs ... the league of the world-famous Cosmos.
Of that group, for me, Woosnam was the most difficult to fathom. My relationship with him, over some 17 years it seems, was certainly a rocky one -- it returns to me now as a series of disagreements, sometimes heated, followed by warm reconciliations.
To some extent, I think I was intimidated by Woosnam -- it was difficult not to be, difficult for me as a rather indolent worker, when confronted by Woosnam’s often manic energy.
I had my own ideas about the source of all his ideas and the intensity with which he poured them out. That, I decided, was his Welshness coming through. I saw it as an almost religious Welsh fervor, and marveled at it.
He had been a top player in England, and a unique one. He had a university degree. Math, I believe. Another area that intimidated me.
He was quick to see the opportunities that America offered -- he came to the USA to join a new league, even though he knew that the league (the National Professional Soccer League) was a pirate league, not recognized by FIFA. He risked ostracism from the world game, maybe even a lifetime ban.
There was no ban for Woosnam -- not as a player, or a coach, nor as soccer executive. That should not surprise -- a short time spent with Woosnam would surely have made it clear that this man was too quick, too sharp, too devoted to soccer and too knowledgeable about it, to be kept out.
He moved smoothly into the position of NASL commissioner. I can think of very few other British ex-players of that, or any other, era who could have done that. As NASL commissioner Woosnam continued to be unique. To this day, he is the only pro soccer league commissioner of the modern era with an outstanding background in the game.
In the early 1970s, Woosnam asked me if I would work with him in the writing of a coaching book. Indeed, I would. It turned out to be a nerve-wracking experience (for both of us, I guess) as Woosnam -- frantically busy building the league -- squeezed our sessions into his jammed schedule.
Mostly they went well -- they were a superb learning experience for me as Woosnam explained intricate details and nuances of the game. Occasionally, I could tell as soon as I entered his office that this was to be a black session. I guess he’d had a bad business meeting earlier that day, something like that -- but suddenly everything, but everything, I’d written was wrong.
After one such meeting, I vowed never to return and stormed out. Early the following morning came Woosnam’s phone call setting up a meeting for that day, no mention of yesterday, only friendship and light banter to be heard.
But it was genuine. There was no need for an apology -- from either of us. This seemed again like Welshness at work again, the magic of Merlin the Wizard. Something like this must have been what he used when cajoling and coaxing new millionaire owners to join the NASL. That and the quick-fire Welsh articulacy that could be so beguiling.
Woosnam was immensely generous to me. There was a phone call from Woosnam in late 1972: was I interested in working with Pele on a series of coaching films in Brazil? Was I ever! In 1979 it was Woosnam who set up a meeting that led to my becoming the analyst on ABC’s telecasts of MLS games.
None of that could have been easy for Woosnam, because there had been splendid rows over my journalism. I had broken the news of Henry Kissinger joining the league before Woosnam was ready to announce it. I had published a pretty devastating criticism of the NASL’s 35-yard offside line -- a Woosnam invention.
But there were no recriminations. Immediate anger and gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair, yes. But the friendly smile -- a genuine smile -- was soon back.
Then it all went wrong. As the NASL hurtled toward its second -- and this time fatal -- demise, the owners turned on Woosnam. He got the blame for expanding the league too quickly -- a process that could not have happened without the agreement of those same owners. And so in 1983 he was thrown out. Woosnam, a genuine soccer man who had worked harder than anyone to grow the NASL, was replaced as Commissioner by Howard Samuel, a wealthy New York businessman, a soccer know-nothing, with a work ethic quite different from that of the workaholic Woosnam.
Not surprisingly, in 1984 the NASL collapsed. And the saddest part was to hear Woosnam blamed for it all. But it was not his fault. Of course he wanted a bigger league ... but if that was the wrong course, then it was the responsibility of the owners, all those successful businessmen, to let Woosnam know, and to rein him in. They never did that. The failure was theirs.
It was certainly not Phil Woosnam’s. I remember him only as the Welsh soccer madman who turned into one of the great pioneers of the sport in the USA.