Better Call Paul: Fifty years of learning the Beautiful Game at the Feet of the Master

Last year, on the occasion of Paul Gardner’s 89th birthday, I innocently told him that he was the reason I wanted to become a soccer writer. He reacted faster than Lionel Messi  pouncing on a loose ball in the box.

“My apologies,” he said.

Paul has never been one for sentimental tributes, but ever since he turned 70, he’s had to endure a fair number of them at an annual dinner in his honor thrown by a cadre of old soccer friends. For most of the last two decades, these relatively intimate celebrations were held in one of Paul’s two favorite neighborhood haunts -- Scaletta, an Italian restaurant co-owned by the former Cosmos player Freddy Grgurev and Citroën, a French bistro managed by Patricio Curillo, a former player from Ecuador.

Paul, of course, has outlived both of those places just as he’s outlived all his childhood soccer heroes -- the great Stanley Matthews, the storied Wolves and England captain Billy Wright and Arsenal’s stylish high-scoring center forward Reg Lewis (Paul will immediately point out that “this does not mean I was an Arsenal fan”). And who knows? Currently, the ex-Bury winger Arthur Smith, 105, is the oldest living British player. Given Paul’s astonishing durability, I for one wouldn’t bet against him passing Smith with a late overlapping run. Just another 16 years to go.

The pre-COVID plan to mark Paul’s milestone birthday had been to rent out a dining space large enough to accommodate a cavalcade of American soccer luminaries -- many of whom have had their beefs with Paul over his deeply idiosyncratic and frequently contrarian commentary but none of whom has stopped reading him.

Then along came the pandemic with its global timeout -- and Paul’s 90th May 15 birthday celebration had to be postponed. So this is as good a place as any to say a few words about the man who has long graced the pages and later, the website, of Soccer America and whose writing over the last half century helped shape a nation’s understanding of soccer more than any other journalist in the United States.

From the 1979 Cosmos-Whitecaps NASL playoff ABC broadcast. Jim McKay: "This of course is our resident expert on the sport of soccer, Paul Gardner."

At his best, as in the introduction to his book SoccerTalk: Life Under the Spell of the Round Ball, Paul’s prose can soar to lyrical heights, much like the venerable Roger Angell’s writing on baseball. Both men (and Paul is a mere whippersnapper compared to the 99-year-old New Yorker legend) have been on the same transcendent mission: to find the poetry in the souls of their respective sports.

Paul, of course, discovered the majesty of soccer in the joyfully improvised samba steps of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup champions. And he has held fast to that idyllic vision of the game for the past 50 years, brooking no dissent from those who feel that Spain, Holland, France and Germany have played some decent stuff over that period.

To say that Paul is uncompromising in his worldview is akin to saying George Best enjoyed going down to the pub now and then.

Paul Gardner on set during the filming of "Pele: The Master and His Method," for which he served as script writer and soccer adviser. The 1973 film is available on Amazon Prime Video, which bills it as "the best and most comprehensive soccer instructional video ever produced on how to play soccer."

Paul has made us see the game on his terms -- which is to say, through the prism of South American creativity and artistry rather than through the Euro-centric lens of systems and tactics. And woe to the Federation/club/player/coach/referee/journalist that commits the heinous crime of disagreeing with him.

I first felt the full force of The Cantankerous One when I met him back in American soccer’s Paleolithic era. In August 1971, I was two months out of college, and had lucked into a job in the sports department of the New York Daily News as a “reporter-trainee.” (The rung above me on the masthead was the guy who changed the typewriter ribbons.)

One sleepy news day that summer, the sports editor, a well-known xenophobe who famously once called soccer “a game for Commie pansies” was so desperate to fill his pages that he said to me, “Kid, why don’t go up to Yankee Stadium and see what’s happening.”

To this day, I believe he was hoping the Yankees manager, Ralph Houk, a former US Army Ranger known as “The Major” would take one look at my mop of curly hair and string me up from the netting behind home plate. But there was no baseball that day in the Bronx, just a NASL match between the Cosmos and the Toronto Metros, which, judging from the 56,000 fans masquerading as empty seats in the 58,700 capacity ball park, wasn’t exactly a hot ticket. Only a few years later you’d have to offer up your first-born child to get a seat in the Cosmos press box, but pre-Pele, the team’s media entourage numbered in the high single digits. I figured they weren’t about to turn away a representative from what was then the largest circulation newspaper in the country.

“Why don’t I put you next to Paul?” the Cosmos PR guy said with a sly grin. Just then, a robust British-sounding voice boomed from the front row. Like so many times over the years when I entered a soccer press box, I heard Paul before I saw him. On this day, he was having a lively argument with The Man from the New York Times, a genial reporter named Alex Yannis about why Paul believed goalkeepers should not be considered real soccer players. He stopped bellowing when I sat down in the seat next to him and gave me a quick once-over—fresh-faced, long-haired, and mustachioed. “Are you lost?” he asked drolly.

“Lost, no,” I said “Nervous, yes.” When I told him that it was my first official assignment for the News, he smiled avuncularly. “Not to worry, “ he said. “I’ll gladly explain the action, if you can call it that.”

I assured him that wouldn’t be necessary because I had played soccer, albeit poorly, in college. “Don’t kid yourself,” he said, “what you played wasn’t real soccer. In real soccer, the ball is on the ground and players are skillfully moving it down the field. They’re not lumping it up in the air toward some big lummox in the opponent’s penalty area, hoping he gets a head on it or the ball deflects off a defender’s shin into the goal.”

“I think you’re confusing college soccer with English soccer,” I replied.

“Well, they’re both a fucking bore,” Paul parried and we both laughed long and loud. From that moment on, you could say we were joined at the quip.

David Hirshey and Paul Gardner.

Over the next decade of covering the Cosmos, I made it my business to get to the stadium, home or away, at least an hour before kickoff to make sure I was perched next to Paul, even if it occasionally meant moving another reporter’s name card that had been taped to the desk.

I remember Yannis once remonstrating with a Cosmos press aide and shouting, “Since when does the New York Times sit in the third row?”

Paul and I had tremendous fun watching those Cosmos games together and chortling about the frequent slapstick play we were seeing on the field. But then we were always chortling about one shared interest or another.

Normally, I would have used “passion” instead of “interest” but the last time I dropped the P-word into conversation with Paul he looked like he wanted to Nigel De Jong me.

“I’m sick and tired hearing you both talk about your passion for Arsenal,” he harangued me and another of his acolytes, the former Times reporter Lawrie Mifflin, over a recent lunch. “Passion is what happens between two people with their clothes off, not some infantile fandom about your favorite team.”

But I digress.

Paul is a repository of so much eclectic knowledge beyond soccer that talking with him often feels like hanging out with a Google search engine, albeit a bitingly witty one. Never mind the eternal debate of Pele vs. Messi, Paul can hold forth on the G.O.A.T. of Italian opera composers. (Paul declared it a tie between Verdi and Puccini, though I happen to think that both are eclipsed by Adam Sandler’s Opera Man.)

A card-carrying Fellow of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (“can’t you just say ‘trained pharmacist’” he’d invariably grouse), Paul emigrated to the U.S. in 1959. When not de-constructing a Rigoletto aria, the man can expound on whether intracellular parasites or mycobacteria pose more of a danger to the human immune system. Try getting odds on that match at a Las Vegas sports book.

Paul Gardner (right) before leaving the pharmacy for the soccer press box.

These days, whenever another body part of mine cries out in anguish, my first thought is “Better Call Paul.” If the condition of my back/knee/shoulder demands medication, Paul can readily sicken me by ticking off all the potential, horrifying side effects of whatever miracle cure the doctor has prescribed.

And of course we have always bonded over writing and writers. Two weeks after we initially met in the Yankee Stadium press box, I received in the mail a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 novel Scoop, still widely acknowledged as the unrivaled masterpiece of Fleet Street satire. Attached was a note from Paul: “Here’s to a successful career in New York journalism” and underlined in yellow magic marker was this passage from the book:

“He had once seen a barely intelligible film about newspaper life in New York where neurotic men in shirt-sleeves and eye-shades had rushed from telephone to tape-machines, insulting and betraying one another in circumstances of unredeemed squalor."

Could a still wet-behind-the-mustache reporter ask for anything more than to be taken under the wing of this éminence grise (or, as Paul would put it, “greasy eminence”) of American soccer writers?

Soon, I was showing all my articles to Paul before I handed them into the Daily News, which meant several blown deadlines (OK, several more). The pages I sent to him would come back covered in his tiny, fastidious scrawl but the takeaway from his edits usually amounted to the same knuckle rap: clarity and incisiveness uber alles. Yes, you could make jokes or use clever word play but not at the expense of his two most cherished qualities.

Paul Gardner flanked by renowned English soccer writer Brian Glanville and 1978 Argentine World Cup-winning coach César Luis Menotti.

And yet the bromance threatened to unravel in 1979 when we were assigned to co-write a series for Sport magazine called “The Thinking Man’s Guide To Soccer.” Left to his own devices, Paul would have been happy to turn it into “The Thinking Man’s Guide to Brazilian Soccer.” I kept reminding him of our audience: Americans largely immune to soccer’s beauty even after the sport’s supreme evangelist Pele had spent three years displaying and preaching its charms. Before we got too nuanced about the subtleties of the game, I argued, we had to give the reader a rudimentary understanding of its basic contours. You know, insightful stuff like only the goalkeeper can use his hands.

We spent two weeks sequestered in Paul’s Upper West Side apartment working on those pieces for Sport, and I could see him getting increasingly cranky with me for resisting his more sophisticated ideas. (I believe his exact phrase was, “Dumbing them down.”) It took Paul’s two beloved cats, Freddy and Charlie, to defuse this fraught process. Midway through one of our writing sessions, a loud thud emanated from the bathroom at the end of Paul’s narrow hallway. He got up from his desk to investigate the disturbance: the cats had apparently tipped over the litter box while otherwise engaged with the toilet-paper roll.

I fully expected Paul to rail at Freddy and Charlie with the same blood-vessel-popping outrage he often expressed toward the blinkered U.S. coaches who’ve historically treated skillful Hispanic players with scandalous indifference. Instead, Paul chided his toms so gently it sounded more like pillow talk. I watched in bemused shock as he got down on all fours to clean up the mess, still cooing, and then it was time for a coffee-shop lunch. Once we were outside I lost all control and couldn’t stop guffawing.

“What’s so fucking funny?” he asked.

“Um,” I said with no clarity or incisiveness, “your shoe …” And then I was overcome once more.

Paul shot me a withering look, then glanced down at his suede loafers -- one of which had an entire roll of unraveling toilet paper stuck to the sole, flapping in the wind. “Those bloody cats,” he sputtered in laughter.

But oh, how Paul loved those furry roommates.

“Cats purring,” he once said reverently, “is the most beautiful sound you can ever hear.”

But after decades of friendship with Paul, I have to disagree. Because thanks to him, I (and several generations of soccer fans) will forever treasure an equally beautiful sound -- the ball purring between the velvet-soft caresses of Brazilian players gliding down the field.

(David Hirshey is Writer-at-Large for 8x8 magazine. He was previously a soccer columnist for the New York Daily News, Deadspin, and as well an editor at Esquire, the New Yorker, and Harper Collins Publishers. He can be found on Twitter @HirsheyMustache.)

17 comments about "Better Call Paul: Fifty years of learning the Beautiful Game at the Feet of the Master".
  1. Thom Meredith, May 15, 2020 at 9:27 a.m.

    Dave et al: l too cherish the fact l have known Paul for 45 years, time that mirrors my own entry in the sport and l too consider him a friend. I think the greatest compliment you can pay him concerning his long career as an intelligent observer of our sport is the same statement Lamar Hunt once said to me in reference to Howard Cosell. “Yes, said Lamar , “Howard is both loved and hated, that’s what makes him (and to me, Paul Gardner) great.” People have read him for 50 years and he causes the reader to have an opinion that’s what makes him great. I love being around him. Happy Birthday Paul and here’s to a life well lived and l'm sure many more years to come!

  2. Francisco Marcos replied, May 15, 2020 at 10:05 a.m.

    I'm surprised Dave had no reference to any discussion and/or disagreements with Paul over the Laws of the Game... there must have been some....
    oh, my bad... I meant to say the Rules of the Game

  3. Dan Woog, May 15, 2020 at 9:41 a.m.

    What a wonderfully warm, well-deserved and insightful tribute to American soccer's most well-loved, often-hated, but always thoroughly read soccer writer/expert/maven. Paul will probably say "ma-ven? What exactly is a ma-ven? Is it some kind of fucking bird?" (And, to make sure I used the word correctly, I just looked it up. More than 40 years after meeting Paul, I do not want to incur his wrath.)

    One of the highlights of my soccer life was spending 2 weeks in Brazil with Paul, and 4 youth teams, in the 1980s. It included a side trip to Belo Horizonte, where in 1950 the US beat England 1-0 in the World Cup. His encyclopedic knowledge -- there, and throughout the entire journey -- was matched only by his willingness to share his opinions about everything, from soccer and opera to politics and food. I'm still dining out on some of those stories, and Paul was a huge part of them.

    One other moment stands out: An NSCAA convention several years ago. One of my high school players was an All-American. We were all in the lobby, and I introduced him to Paul. "You're a goalkeeper?!" he said. "So you are not actually a soccer player, right?" Fortunately, my player had the presence of mind (and courage of youth) to come right back and engage Paul. They traded barbs for several minutes. There's nothing Paul loves more than that kind of exchange.

    Thanks, Dave, for writing this great tribute. Here's to many more years of Paul Gardner. To which he might say, "Many? How many? Can you be more precise?"

  4. frank schoon, May 15, 2020 at 10:17 a.m.

    Paul Gardner, is someone who was and is still needed in the "American" soccer experience. To me, he enlighted the 'Americans' to the facts of what soccer is really about. He gave the Americans a better perspective on what is garbage and what isn't.  I've have no idea no why there are those who don't like his insights on the game. He is the only American soccer journalist I respected in the past 50 years for he expounded and wasn't afraid to criticize when it was criticism was needed....

    The greatest column, to me, he ever wrote was extremely funny in the way he wrote it was back in the late 80's. He gave his diatribe on the USSF Soccer Coaching School that just flunked Nene Cubillas, a world class soccer star, for his 'B' coaching license. It was the funniest column ever printed. I wish SA would show it again...

    Happy Birthday Paul....from one of your admirers.....

  5. Milton J Espinoza, May 15, 2020 at 11:46 a.m.

    Happy Birthday Paul. We can trace the evolution of soccer in the US via your writings. Their impact on coaches, officials, administrators, and parents have been substantial and important--no one else comes close. You are an "American Original" and as you would say, "whatever that means". Thank you for emmigrating to the US--you have contributed and made this Country better for everyone. All the best, Milton

  6. John Soares, May 15, 2020 at 1:52 p.m.

    Never had the pleasure of meeting the gentleman, but have enjoyed his insight for MANY years.
    Please keep it up.
    Thank you..... Happy Birthday 

  7. Kent James, May 15, 2020 at 2:56 p.m.

    An old curmudgeon whose earned his place in the pantheon.  While I always appreciate Paul's promotion of skillful soccer, one day I'm hoping he'll learn that good defense requires skill as well....I don't always agree with PG, but I ALWAYS enjoy reading him.  The most provocative sports writer I know.  I look forward to at least 16 more years of his columns...

  8. Arnold Ramirez, May 15, 2020 at 3:37 p.m.

    What an incredible article Dave. He was a mentor to many soccer writers including you, Lawrie Mifflin and Mike Woitalla. For me Paul Gardner was the person who introduced me to the Academia Tahuichi Aguilera. Back in November 1983 Tahuichi was playing an all star team from the East that included Tony Meola, Tab Ramos, Bruce Murray and John Diffley at Hofstra University . I fell in love with the way Tahuichi played. From that team I recruited Ricardo Aguilera, Maicol Antelo and Roger Chavez. All three are in the LIU Hall of Fame. Happy birthday Paul and thank you Dave for such a wonderful tribute to the best soccer journalist in the United States.

  9. George Vecsey, May 15, 2020 at 4:10 p.m.

    Wow, what a list of readers/admirers. Paul adopted me in early 80s in the bleachers at Columbia, where he was watching a match with Sunil Gulati. I learned a lot from both, at different decibels and intensity, to be sure. He has been a constant ever since --and not just about soccer At the 1990 World Cup, he made recommendations of statues all over Rome. At some point he tempered his suggestions that I was just winging it about soccer....but I think deep down....His celebration of 90 may have to wait a while, but plenty of time. Paul, happy birthday and thanks for teaching me. (Also thank more than a few commentators above.)  George Vecsey

  10. feliks fuksman, May 15, 2020 at 5:04 p.m.

    Happy Birthday Neighbor

  11. feliks fuksman, May 15, 2020 at 5:04 p.m.

    Happy Birthday Neighbor

  12. Ken Fadner, May 16, 2020 at 7:35 a.m.

    This is beautiful David. Thanks.

    Happy Birthday Paul. Thanks!

  13. George Vecsey, May 16, 2020 at 9:02 a.m.

    Duh, I totally forgot to say, what a lovely piece by Dave Hirshey.  That was my point. As numerous editors have said, "You buried the main point."  Best, Dave,   GV

  14. Luis Sagastume, May 16, 2020 at 3:39 p.m.


    Happy Birthday! I have been reading your articles for years and have enjoyed them very much. I always commented to myself "this guy is really sharp, he knows what he's talking about. I love Brazilian soccer just as much as you do and Barcelona style too. Looking forward to many more articles. Cheers mate!!!

  15. Octavio Zambrano, May 19, 2020 at 4:25 p.m.

    Paul, it was indeed an honour that you showed up to my LA Salsa U-19 game during Dallas Cup some 30 years ago, and to the Bielsa / Zambrano soccer conference in New York 10 years later. I hope you know how proud I felt when you approached and congratulated me on my dissertation and encouraged me to send it to the USSF.  It is a given that the establishment would not agree with you and that is perhaps the greatest form of flattery, but that is another issue. The fact is that no writer in the US has been a defender and promoter of the beautiful game as you have for decades. Maybe that idea was born watching the Brazilian team during the 1970's World Cup.  I know that was the moment for me, which was then followed by the Dutch team of 1974 and Mennoti's Argentina of 1978.  In my opinion, it is from these three teams and managers that all great soccer ideas emanate. But of course, I know that you would have a witty response to that, and I accept it wholeheartedly.
    Happy birthday Paul and keep telling it like it is.

  16. Robin Buss, May 19, 2020 at 6:18 p.m.

    Paul - I hope I'm not too late to wish you a very Happy 90th Birthday!!You are of course the 1960s English wrestler Mick McManus** of soccer writers in the States (**aka The Man You Love to Hate). I have to tell you that since meeting you in the late 70's on the West Side, where we used to live, I've read nearly every article you've written. And of course you're still giving the rule makers lots to think about in your VAR articles in World Soccer. I'll be reading your two articles spanning 60 years of College soccer later. Hope you're still wearing the striped shirts.....

  17. Ken Samelson, May 20, 2020 at 2:05 p.m.

    Wonderful tribute, David. I had the good fortune to work with Paul on a couple of publishing projects, including SoccerTalk. Growing up during the heyday of the Cosmos and the NASL, I was excited to meet him for the first time when he came up to my office. Expecting to hear stories about his experiences in the sport, I was instead treated to stories about his cats. A cat lover myself, we bonded instantly. He is the best.

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