Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League by Ian Plenderleith (2014)

Pele, George Best, John Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Eusebio. Some of the greatest player of all time and just a few of the superstar players to appear in the North American Soccer League.

The NASL was a professional soccer league in the USA and Canada which ran from 1968 to 1984. In true American fashion, it aimed not just to survive but to become the biggest league in the world. While it ultimately crashed and burned, the story of its rise and fall is a fascinating piece of football history.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is a comprehensive, entertaining and brilliantly written account of the NASL.  Plenderleith avoids sensationalism and offers a fairly objective look at what went right and what went wrong as the league evolved. 

Some goals from the New York Cosmos

The structure of the book works really well. It’s real quality is Plenderleith’s ability to zoom in and out of the on-pitch action while keeping the reader engaged. This is not an easy task and he wisely avoids a chronological narrative. No one really cares who won championship, its about the surreal journey along the way.

By spreading the gospel of soccer and promoting it extensively in schools, the NASL arguably laid the foundations for the sport’s tremendous popularity in America today at grassroots levels. It’s fairly clear that the NASL expanded too quickly and was too optimistic about future success. Few of the teams could make money and most played in stadiums that were far too large.

One of the most interesting stories from the NASL was the variety of rule changes. Some things became widely accepted – especially the use of more substitutes, and moving to more points for a win.  Some of the interesting rule changes weren’t a failure but didn’t survive FIFA’s scorn – especially the penalty shootout and the 35 yard offside line.

George Best’s famous LA Aztecs wondergoal

You can’t discuss the NASL without mentioning the New York Cosmos, the undoubted superstar club of the NASL era.  Owned by Warner Communications, they invested mega bucks to bring Pele, Beckenbaur and other superstars to the club. They were the best team, with the biggest crowds but its not clear whether they were beneficial to the sustainability of the league.

Plenderleith is fairly dismissive of the documentary ‘Once in a Lifetime’ which paints a very glamorous picture of life at Cosmos.  He suggests its sensationalised and likely reflecting the agenda of the main participants rather than a more objective overview. I must admit I still think its a really enjoyable documentary!

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is a really enjoyable read. Packed full of interesting anecdotes and first hand accounts this history is as entertaining as the subject it covers. Highly recommended.

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