Video evidence of the 1974 World Cup was not made available to me until July 1977. That was the summer I first attended overnight soccer camp, a veritable rite of passage for me and so many fellow members of Generation Zero, those American boys and girls born in the 1960s, then raised in the 1970s as this country’s very first soccer natives. The Puma All-Star Soccer Camp, where I matriculated three straight summers, was owned and operated by Hubert Vogelsinger, who passed away this week at the age of 85.
When I first met him, Hubie was already a legend: a 39-year-old Austrian émigré and author who’d coached the Boston Minutemen that fateful June night in 1975, when I watched Pelé get mauled by an adoring Nickerson Field crowd. Vogelsinger also managed NASL’s Team Hawaii (1977) before guiding the San Diego Sockers through their maiden campaign, in 1978. By this time, Vogelsinger had already been running his annual soccer camps for more than a decade. Eventually, he took the endeavor nationwide and, over the next 40 years, serviced some 3,000 young players annually. Do the math. Few did more to promote the U.S. game as widely and effectively, especially during the early, nearly primordial times.
Among Puma All-Star campers, legend had it that Vogelsinger had arrived in the U.S. only after the Austrian Bundesliga banned him for head-butting a referee. The story seemed plausible to us: Blond and buff, the man bristled with manic energy and intensity. Vogelsinger was indeed an Austrian national. But the actual facts of his stateside arrival proved quite different — and far more romantic. While at university during the early 1960s, in Vienna, he met, courted and ultimately married an American exchange student, the former Lois Ryan. Hubie followed her back to Boston, where he played in the semiprofessional American Soccer League (the second of four distinct ASL incarnations). Thereafter he took up a succession of coaching positions — first at the Middlesex School in suburban Concord, Mass., then at nearby Brandeis University, and finally at Yale — before making the leap to the professional ranks with the NASL expansion Minutemen in 1974.
For a fellow whose only playing credentials were six years with the provincial club Allentsteig, an outfit he left at 18, his rise proved downright meteoric. The young Austrian clearly knew how to market himself. Yet he also sensed a passion for soccer bubbling up in the U.S. sporting zeitgeist and cannily carved for himself a prominent place in it. In 1970, he participated in the first coaching-license course ever offered by the U.S. Soccer Federation, which, until 1974, was still called the U.S. Soccer Football Association. At Yale, he broadened his North American reputation with a succession of books — How to Star in Soccer, 1968; Winning Soccer Skills and Techniques, 1970; The Challenge of Soccer: A Handbook of Skills, Techniques, and Strategy, 1973.
The man was not selling snake oil, after all. Inexperienced American coaches at all levels gobbled up those instructional books. Soccer camps proliferated throughout the 1970s because while youth participation boomed, competent coaching remained at a premium. In fact, camps proved a vital sanctuary for Generation Zero — an immersive, cosmopolitan place where the emphasis was skill development. It also proved a safe space where the game never required defending, where American national team failures were not dwelled upon, where the coaching staff included not a single clueless Soccer Dad. For me and tens of thousands, Hubie and his staff proved the first proper coaches we’d ever had — the first with the wherewithal to actually address and improve our on-field technique.
A typical day at Puma All-Star Soccer Camp began at dawn, as we gathered outside the southernmost dormitory with our balls, but not our shoes. The Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut featured athletic fields arrayed all around the campus; a series of “upper” fields were stair-stepped into a long, sloping hillside to the north. We’d start each camp day with a 2-mile barefoot run, balls always at our feet. Though this was the height of summer, the morning dew numbed those feet after about 300 yards. In a group that eventually morphed into a giant conga line, we’d snake our way through campus before scaling the hill to an upper-most field where Hubie stood waiting, grinning maniacally, as ever. There Vogelsinger himself would lead us in calisthenics and a series of madcap drills & races, such as carrying a partner on your back the full length of the field, then switching with him for the return leg. Much hooting and hollering ensued, as Hubie tried to instill in us what he called “Good spirit!” Finally, he would call us in, dispense some further words of wisdom on fitness and backbone, then release us to breakfast where we’d inhale as much food as possible, knowing the daylight hours to come would require every possible ounce of caloric intake/replacement.
I remember we engaged in some one-on-one drills that first camp. On those upper fields, Hubie (as we all called him, though never to his face) pulled two kids from the crowd to perform for the entire group. One managed to beat the other with an elaborate bait-switch-and-nutmeg maneuver, executed quite deftly, to thunderous applause. Hubie wasn’t impressed. He invited the boy to try that move on him, whereupon this middle-aged Austrian proceeded to clatter the unfortunate pre-teen with a bone-crunching tackle. “Too fancy,” Hubie said, addressing directly the crowd of slightly horrified 13 and 14 year olds. “At a high level, that sort of technique will get your leg broken.” Clearly.
Such frank lessons in footballing realities only endeared us to Hubie and his staff of foreign-born counselors. They put us through these paces each day, all day, for a week. In the evenings we’d gobble down more cafeteria provisions before retiring to various lounges to watch films. It was there, sitting on a lightly stuffed, mass-produced dorm couch that I first beheld an authentic international football match — a full-length reel-to-reel of the ’74 World Cup final between West Germany and Holland, the famous encounter where the Dutch kicked off and strung together 16 passes before Cruyff was taken down in the penalty area. Johan Neeskens converted and the Dutch led 1-0 — before their vaunted opponents even got a touch! Naturally, the Germans fought back and won the match, 2-1, as German teams are wont to do. Following on the European Championship they’d claimed in 1972, Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Mueller, Sepp Maier, Paul Breitner & Co. removed all doubt as to who ruled world futbol during the mid-1970s.
Slowly, and for the first time, American soccer culture was beginning to absorb these influences and take shape. Back in my hometown of Wellesley, Mass., someone had been paying attention: In 1977, the town formalized its club soccer system. Accordingly, all the travel teams representing Wellesley United Soccer Club, regardless of age group or gender, wore the same uniforms — exact replicas of those worn by the high-riding West Germans: white, long-sleeved jerseys with black piping, black shorts and white socks. In the tie-dyed, wide-collared, flower-power Seventies, we stood out — even if our Teutonic soccer cred wafted over 90 percent of the heads on either sideline.
While we looked the part, our new jerseys were made of a ghastly, non-absorbent acrylic fabric meant to mimic the piqué cotton Lacoste deployed on its signature “alligator” tennis shirts, then very much the rage. When it came to couture, these remained primitive footballing times in America: Puma and its rival German outfitter, Adidas, hadn’t identified the U.S. youth soccer market as worth their time or effort. Not yet. Neither had Umbro nor Admiral, two more brands then in vogue abroad but hardly at all in our soccer back water. Nike? It remained content to concentrate on niche track & field footwear throughout much of the 1970s. The company formally entered the soccer footwear market only in 1978, when it outfitted the NASL Portland Timbers.
Hubie would eventually grow his soccer camp business under the more generic Vogelsinger Soccer Academy brand. For me, however, Hubie and Puma are forever linked. By the same token, futbol brand loyalty and awareness among those in Generation Zero were dominated not by jerseys and shorts manufactured by unknown brands, but rather by name-brand cleats. In 1976, the shoe most everyone coveted was Adidas’ World Cup model. “I was definitely an Adidas guy,” USMNT stalwart Marcelo Balboa told me. “That was the shoe when I was coming up. Even when I was just a young pup on the national team, I was thrilled that Adidas was giving us free shoes. You walk into camp, and every damn trip you got a new pair of shoes!”
I was never an Adidas guy. Instead, I aspired to Puma’s King Pelé shoe. “Puma Kings,” we called them, though during some of his feted NASL tenure, Pelé did wear and shilled for another prominent athletic-shoe brand, Pony.
I never did swing that pair of Puma Kings. They were top of the line and, so far as my parents were concerned, too expensive for a kid who needed a new pair of boots every year. When I was 12, I did get myself into the next step down, the Puma Apollo, a model whose white swoosh and red back-of-the-heal dot motif distinguished itself from the Kings’ yellow swoosh and dot. From there I deployed a succession of Pumas straight through my high school and college careers. My last pair was procured in Paris, at the close of a backpacking expedition through Europe in mid-August 1984. I don’t remember the exact model name; in Europe, Puma’s branding from shoe to shoe were all unfamiliar to me. They were replaceables — the studs, that is — and though they were mighty expensive, I had to have them. So I emptied the vault. Two days later, this impulsive purchase occasioned the first in a series of dire mornings at Heathrow, waiting for a flight home, hung over and dehydrated, with no money for food and nothing to divert me but a pack of Dunhill Reds.
I remain a Puma guy. They run wide; they’ve always been a much better fit for my Flintstone-esque feet. But this long-term fashion choice has also proved a long-term nod to Hubie Vogelsinger. Even today, as I write this, I am sporting a kick-ass pair of suede, grey-and-white Puma Clydes. Be it futbol couture, sports fandom, or even religious indoctrination, the Old Testament got it right: “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)