Soccer’s long, slow road to acceptance and popularity in the U.S. began on a summer day in 1966 when ABC’s Wide World of Sports televised the World Cup final. The match featured England against West Germany, with England winning in overtime, It had a bit of everything, including a controversial decisive goal, allowed by the Russian referee.
All 11 England players became legends that day and their status only increased as England repeatedly failed to win another World Cup or a first European championship. The biggest legends are captain Bobby Moore, Gordon Banks, Bobby Charlton, and the day’s goal-scoring hero Geoff Hurst.
However, the player who stood out the most for me was the team’s youngest member, 21 year-old midfielder Alan Ball. His tireless running, with his socks at his ankles, is (other than the controversial goal) my most vivid memory of the contest. As I recall, Ball’s industry set up several of the England goals.
Shortly after the World Cup triumph, Everton purchased Ball (ah, the good old days when we could buy the best young player in England). He would team up with two other midfield greats, Howard Kendall and Colin Harvey, to lead us to the league championship in 1970 (unfortunately, I wasn’t an Everton fan yet). His England career also prospered; Ball played 72 times for his country over a ten year span.
As late as 1979, Ball led an unheralded Southampton team into the league cup final against Nottingham Forest, perhaps the best team in Europe. As I recall, Ball was Southampton’s best player that day, but his team lost by a goal. I can still see him accepting a warm handshake and a runner-up medal in the royal box (from Princess Margaret, I think) with a smile and the kind of shrug a sportsman can give when he knows he’s given his all but come up short to more talented opposition.
That summer, Ball came to this continent and led Vancouver to the North American Soccer League title. If more of the aging stars who played in the league had matched Ball’s commitment, soccer’s rise in this country might have been less long and less slow.
Ball died of a heart attack at the end of April and was buried this week. He was only 61, which makes him more or less my contemporary. I never thought of him that way, though. Sports legends never quite seem like our contemporaries.
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