Even by standards 50 years ago it was a modest match day program. Yet it matched the surroundings and, some might say, the fare that was on display that afternoon.
Still, it was a start. Turning the page, maybe spectators took pause from watching the stocky, commanding figure standing astride of the benches, to let the significance of the day soak in.
In a simple font, probably prepared on someone’s personal typewriter, flow the words: “We are sure that this game will be a milestone in the history of soccer in our state.” It goes on: “It is with pleasure and a feeling of satisfaction we are able to act as hosts to the first all-professional soccer game held in our state.”
It’s actually easy to picture the setting today. West Seattle Stadium sits virtually untouched, not only in the 50 years since but the 80 since being erected. The main stand, wooden and covered, could serve as a stunt double for a mid-20th Century British ground. The weather on that February 11, 1968 was practically spring-like: Bright sunshine and mild temperatures after a cold, soggy start to the new year. The grass is a bit long and ungroomed while the ground itself is soft from repeated rains.
Surprisingly, it was the grass that attracted this, the first match in the Pacific Northwest featuring a North American Soccer League club, south of the Canadian border. The Vancouver Royals were introducing themselves to the region through a three-game preseason series, and they offered a tantalizing hook: An opportunity to encounter up-close one of the most storied celebrities in the game.
A Living Legend
At that time, the somewhat plump figure of Ferenc Puskás would’ve occupied a place among world football’s Mount Rushmore, without question. Here was the man who had become Real Madrid royalty earlier in the decade, leading Los Blancos to five domestics titles, plus a European crown, while scoring at a pace comparable to Cristiano Ronaldo. And that was his second act.
Puskás had arrived in Madrid at age 31, having fled his native Hungary two years after the revolution. The former army officer was a national treasure, nicknamed the Galloping Major after having won Olympic gold, a World Cup silver and the begrudged admiration of Britain after tearing apart England at Wembley – all in a three-year span. Although Puskás was no longer playing, having retired two years before, he nonetheless was a mythical figure to Seattle’s soccer community, only seen on newspaper clipping and newsreels (FIFA annually bestows the Puskás Award to the most beautifully crafted goal).
It was an awkward series of events that led Puskás from Europe to British Columbia. Originally he was signed to manage the San Francisco Gales for a then-princely sum of $30,000. But the league contracted, and the San Francisco owner took over the Vancouver franchise, which already had a coach, Bobby Robson, who would also play. The owner’s loyalties lay with Puskás, so Robson returned to England, where things worked out quite well over the ensuing 35 years.
Puskás, at 41, never did come out of retirement. However, he was known to take penalties at training. While players watched, he would tell the keeper where he was shooting, then score anyway.
Four eyewitnesses recall that occasion, though only one of them paid the $2.50 admission. The late George Craggs served as referee; Geoff Wall and Willi Lindner were members of the vaunted Seattle Hungarians, runaway state champions and first bill of the doubleheader. Walter Schmetzer commuted from Lake City.
After routing the Seattle All-Stars, 7-1, Wall and Lindner joined some 2,500 in the stands. It was a respectable turnout, given that Vancouver and Brazilian foe Bonsucesso lacked for star power, and the game had been announced just six days in advance (Note: The newly-minted Vancouver Canucks also played an exhibition in Seattle that weekend, pulling 3,900.)
In those days, notes Wall, the novelty alone of a touring team would “get a ton of people out.”
“If you were around when an aging Babe Ruth was coming to town to take a few swings of the bat, wouldn’t you come out?” asks Lindner.
Walter Schmetzer, a machinist and star in the state league six years after arriving from West Germany, remembered Puskás from his Gold Ball performance in the ’54 World Cup. “Puskás certainly was the attraction,” he remembers. “I know it was for me.”
While changing out of his Hungarians goalkeeping gear from the first game, Lindner observed the Brazilians’ unorthodox pregame routine.
“What impressed me was they didn’t really warm-up,” he recalls. “They would be pounding on the walls, dancing samba, singing at the top of their lungs. Then they went out and did a short warm-up before the game began.”
Some Impressed, Some Not
According to news accounts, most were entertained. The Post-Intelligencer’s Ron Tullis termed it a “sparkling exhibition.” The Brazilians “enthralled fans with some tremendous ball control. That in itself was miraculous on the sometimes terrible field conditions.” The West Seattle pitch is tightly encircled by a track. Further squeezing the confines is the long jump runway and sand pit.
In The Times, future Seattle Sounders beat writer Vince O’Keefe reported, “It was tight, well played and thoroughly enjoyable. Something like watching a couple of master boxers,” adding, however, “The speed and passing play of both teams was hampered somewhat by the slow field.”
Neither reporter spoke for Wall. For him, it was an unremarkable display.
“The game was actually very disappointing,” judged Wall. “The Brazilians were dribbling the ball around, and Vancouver Royals were kicking the f*** out of them. It was a terrible game and most of the Hungarians didn’t think much of it either.”
Vancouver, represented by nine nationalities including U.S. Olympic team keeper Gary DeLong, got the sole goal out of a goalmouth scramble midway through the second half.
While the Royals’ business manager had positioned the match as a means to introduce “top-flight” soccer to the greater region (in fact, the game was moved to Seattle primarily because Empire Stadium’s pitch was unplayable), few locals likely drove north to watch any more NASL games later in the season.
A Word With Puskas
O’Keefe predicted Vancouver would prove to be a championship contender. Instead, the Royals finished at the bottom of their division (12-15-5). Their average attendance of 6,197 ranked third in the NASL. Still, they folded shortly after the season, and Puskás returned to Spain.
At full time, Wall, an Englishman, joined his Hungarian teammates as they converged on Puskás, who remained near the team bench area. The conversation all in Hungarian; Wall didn’t understand a word. “The Hungarian weren’t excited by the game, either,” he says. “They were more interested going out for a round of beers.”
A few of the players served as translators for the attending press. “We were glad to win our first game, and it was a very well-played game,” claimed Puskás. “But, oh, what a field!”
It was the first professional officiating assignment for Craggs, so naturally he was curious what the Galloping Major thought of the diminutive man with the whistle. “What did you think of the referee?” Puskás was asked in Hungarian. The reply pretty much summed up the day.
“He didn’t say I was (necessarily) any good,” cracked Craggs, “but he said, ‘We’ve had worse.’”
While a historic milestone, the Royals’ exhibition failed to result in a groundswell to bring an NASL club to Seattle, three days later King County voters approved the issue of $40 million in bonds to fund construction of a domed stadium. Once ground was broken on the Kingdome, community leaders began drives to attract MLB and NFL clubs, and the owners of the original Sounders were virtually the same as those of the Seahawks.
The anniversary of that inaugural 1968 NASL season will be marked Oct. 19-21 at the National Soccer Hall of Fame, opening that weekend in Frisco, Texas.
Puskás resurfaced in Seattle sports pages 10 years later. In 1978, he contacted a local Hungarian, saying he was looking for coaching work in the NASL. Puskás had guided Greek side Panathinaikos to the European Cup final in 1971, then made $200,000 a year coaching in Saudi Arabia. But he wanted a new challenge and lamented the quality of Saudi living conditions. He, too, said the attorney, was no longer interested so much in money but “finding a cold beer.”