There comes a reminder -- a sad reminder, alas -- from the 1970s. The death of Keith Aqui brings flooding back memories of college soccer, and the exploits of Howard University.
Aqui was on the Howard team that, in 1971, won the Division I title. A tremendous upset, the first time an all-black college had ever won a major NCAA title.
Upset indeed -- obviously there were people within college soccer who were greatly upset, who didn’t like what had happened. The NCAA was “notified” -- by whom? -- that Howard was using ineligible players. An official NCAA inquiry followed, Howard was found guilty, and stripped of the title.
Aqui was a prime target of the investigators. He was 25, suspiciously old of course, and the NCAA nailed him and four other players. So Aqui had played his last game for Howard, the bittersweet, win-it-lose-it, final of 1971.
I was at that final. I remember Aqui quite well. I never spoke to him but, oh yes, he spoke to me. He and the whole Howard team spoke to me with their vibrant soccer.
That experience rekindled my interest in the college game, which had been fading rapidly. I had seen far too many games that featured nothing but athleticism. The word I got sick of hearing was “hustle” -- that, it seemed, was the be-all and end-all of college soccer.
Suddenly here was Howard, sparkling with a different type of soccer, one that seemed to me to be a much truer and livelier version, one that allowed the sport itself to star.
Howard had athleticism, of course -- you cannot play this sport without plenty of that. But it was athleticism at the service of soccer. It did not dominate the proceedings. The skill of the Howard players did that.
And the player who -- eventually -- caught my eye was Aqui. Their goalscoring forward. Eventually, because Aqui started that 1971 final on the bench, with a fever. The fever miraculously vanished when opponents St. Louis went up 2-1. Enter Aqui -- and enter an ominous threat for St. Louis. He did not score himself but two of his teammates did.
Aqui had a special soccer quality that all good forwards need. Difficult to define. I recall a comment from Diego Maradona, before a game against Germany. “Ganaremos nosotros,” he confidently asserted, “Tenemos mas picardia.” We’ll win, we have more ... well, more what? More picardia.
And I still can’t quite get the right meaning for picardia. Trickiness? Cheekiness? Sneakiness? Probably craftiness comes closest. Whatever, it is a knack that Aqui had. The feints, the quick movement, the subtle timing of the moves, the ability to suddenly not be there when the defender moves in, but to be very much there when the ball arrives. A menace, a player who unsettles defenders, who makes them nervous.
There’s a lot to picardia and much of it has a distinct personal quality. No doubt that makes it so difficult to define. I don’t think it can be coached. It wasn’t seen too often in college soccer. It is part of the artistry that soccer needs, but which is too often suppressed in the interests of hustle.
Aqui had that artistry. Later I decided that “artful” was the right word for him. His movement could be dangerously direct, or stealthily subtle, whichever he sensed was needed. But it always had the balance and the rhythm of the born soccer player.
These were true soccer values. When they were absent, which they generally were in college soccer, the sport was diminished. Howard coach Lincoln Phillips knew their value, and he let Aqui use them. When, so effortlessly, he brought them into action, soccer began to look like the Beautiful Game.
That was all I saw of Aqui -- in the huge and echoingly empty Orange Bowl, he played in the 1-0 semifinal win over Harvard, then his substitute role in the final. I would have loved to see more.
His college days were over. But Howard’s Day, along with coach Lincoln Phillips’ Day, arrived in 1974 when they again won the Division I trophy, this time for keeps. And surely Keith Aqui had played a big part in the events leading to that belated celebration.