Cagliari Calcio are an altogether unremarkable football club. For much of their existence they have been a yo-yo team, alternating between promotion and relegation and oftentimes languishing in the rustic depths of the Serie C, the third tier of Italian football.
In their 93 years of existence they have conquered just one piece of silverware, a lone Scudetto won in 1970. In those brief glory years they were led by the inspirational Gigi Riva, the all-time leading goalscorer of the Italian National team. Since their latest promotion to the top flight in 2004 they have managed to stave off relegation but have been in a perpetual state of purgatory; too far off the top to the table to harbor realistic European ambitions, yet too far from the bottom to risk a return to Serie B. Their record is, for the most part, unexceptional. Yet in a curious episode long forgotten in the annals of football history, for a brief period of time they were known as the Chicago Mustangs. For one fleeting summer, Cagliari Calcio, the team from the picturesque Mediterranean island of Sardinia, used Comiskey Park on the South Side of Chicago as their home ground. This is their story.
In the mid-1960s professional soccer in the United States was in disarray. The International Soccer League, based on a model of inviting guest teams from Europe and Latin America, was founded in 1960 but folded five years later due to pressure from the United States Soccer Football Association (or USSFA, and yes, it was really called that), who viewed the upstart league and its owner, Bill Cox, with suspicion. It seems counter-intuitive that the governing body of the sport stifled the development of a burgeoning league rather than encouraging it, but such was the pitiful state of soccer administration at the time. The only other professional league in existence was the American Soccer League (founded 1933), which operated primarily in the Northeast. Despite its official professional status, the league was poorly managed and in constant financial trouble. Walter Chyzowych, top scorer and league MVP for the 1965-66 season summarized all that was wrong with it:
“The ASL was supposed to be a professional league, but I considered it amateur. It was a higher standard of play, sure, but nobody was making any money. It was a joke… Every two or three years, players would leave because of management problems, coaching problems. You coached yourself, really. Somebody just made out the lineup.”
The national team was not faring much better. Following the heroic victory over England at the 1950 World Cup, the USMNT failed to qualify for the competition for the next four decades. The lone qualifying spot allocated to CONCACAF in the years 1958-78 almost inevitably went to Mexico; the Americans were seldom even in the hunt.
And yet, in spite of this dismal state of affairs, the following year saw the creation of not just one, but two more professional leagues in the country. Clearly past failures were not enough to discourage sporting entrepreneurs, such as the aforementioned Bill Cox, from attempting to rekindle interest in a sport that, with the exception of immigrant communities in urban centers, had never really caught on in the country. In May of 1966 Cox and a consortium of baseball and American football franchise owners announced plans for an 11 team league to be known as the North American Professional Soccer League. Shortly afterwards two other groups also disclosed their intentions to create professional leagues: the National Soccer League, led by Richard Millen, and the United Soccer Association, led by Jack Cooke.
The USSFA, under pressure from FIFA to get the new league up and running quickly, pressed the delegations to merge their respective leagues. But the powers-that-be refused to compromise and went forward with their own projects. In addition, USSFA’s announcement that in return for their official sanction they would demand a hefty $25,000 licensing fee from each club and a significant portion of gate receipts and television money did little to promote cooperation between the various parties. That summer, as the controversy over which league would receive the USSFA’s seal of approval continued unabated; NBC broadcast the World Cup Final. The financial windfall from the tournament whet the appetites of the bigwigs and only exacerbated their obstinacy.
Bill Cox and Richard Millen eventually merged their proposals to create the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) and so in 1967 two leagues, the United Soccer Association (USA) and the NPSL, began operations. The former league had the approval of FIFA while the latter did not, and thus players who signed with NPSL clubs faced sanctions from the world governing body. The NPSL was promoted as an ‘American’ league, though in reality only eight American citizens in total were included in the rosters of the 10 sides, and of these just three were born in the United States. Players and coaches were haphazardly recruited from European countries; with the NPSL executives in such a rush to get things started, there was little time to invest in proper club infrastructure. The NPSL also landed a CBS television contract for a nationally televised match of the week that, despite not being particularly profitable, lent credibility to the endeavor. On April 16, 1967, the NPSL kicked off in Baltimore, where the hometown Bays defeated the visiting Atlanta Chiefs 1-0 in front of 8,434 fans.
The USA originally planned to launch in 1968 but, wary that the NPSL had seized the momentum, decided to begin play in the same year. Instead of dealing with the hassle of building teams from scratch, USA directors came up with a novel idea: import European and South American teams to play in the league during their offseason. The imported teams were marketed to fans as twelve of the best teams in the world, but this was pure hyperbole. Glentoran of Northern Ireland, rebranded as the Detroit Cougars, were the only side to have finished as champions in the previous edition of their domestic championship. Other ‘powerhouses’ include Shamrock Rovers of the Republic of Ireland (Boston Rovers), 7th in the League of Ireland; Club Atlético Cerro (New York Skyliners), 3rd in the Uruguayan Primera División; and Wolverhampton Wanderers (Los Angeles Wolves), 2nd in the English Second Division. The world’s elite, these were not.
Cagliari Calcio, sixth in the previous edition of Serie A, were renamed the Chicago Mustangs. Supposedly teams were allocated to cities based on their ethnic makeup, and given Chicago’s substantial Italian community in this case the decision appears logical. The same cannot be said, however, of placing an Uruguayan team in New York or a Brazilian team in Houston.
A month before the league kicked off Chicago’s Comiskey Park hosted a friendly between Athletic Club of Bilbao and Red Star Belgrade as a sort of promotion match, though neither of these teams would feature in the league itself. David Condon, the legendary Chicago Tribune sportswriter, reported on the match. Though his column is full of enthusiasm, it treats soccer as a curiosity, as if he were observing a demonstration of a tribal ritual at the world’s fair in Victorian Britain rather than the world’s most popular pastime:
“Through the first half, the foreign fellows skidded over the turf and sparred around. The Yugoslavs seemed to have the better of it in the scoreless session, and so a few bets were changed during the intermission.”
To further demonstrate the almost-satirical tone of the article, Condon also calls Athletic “the Bilbaos,” and Cagliari “the Cagliaris,” apparently oblivious to non-American team naming customs. An Athletic Club player is referred to as the “secretario of the Spanish eleven,” and it is suggested that the fireworks display at halftime left Red Star Belgrade scrambling for cover, apparently convinced that the Russians were attacking.
On May 27, the eve of the Mustangs’ season opener at Comiskey Park, Condon once again devoted his ‘In the Wake of the News’ column to soccer. This time he interviewed Ray Huber, a former player and an official with the Mustangs, who explained the intricacies of the United Soccer Association:
“[The Chicago Mustangs] are the Unione Sportiva Cagliari of Sardinia, Italy, but they will arrive by plane on Friday or Saturday to wear the Chicago Mustangs colors during the United Soccer Association’s first season… It’s this way: no sponsor in the United Soccer Association felt that he could build a team in the short space of the year. So we’ve all imported foreign teams to play as American clubs this year.”
Later in the interview, after listing off the roster of Cagliari, Huber stressed that “not all the players I named are coming to play in Chicago, we don’t know which players they’ll bring.” As it turned out, Cagliari’s star striker Gigi Riva was not one of them. An inauspicious beginning, to say the least.
And so on May 28, Cagliari Calcio played their first ever match as the Chicago Mustangs against Dundee United (Dallas Tornado) in front of 9,872 people at Comiskey Park on the city’s South Side. The only goal of the match was scored by Dundee’s Danish striker Finn Dossing in the 64th minute, giving Dallas the 1-0 victory.
The opening match set the tone for the rest of the season. The Mustangs drew their next two matches and only got their first victory in their fourth fixture, a 3-2 victory over the New York Skyscrapers (Uruguay’s Club Atlético Cerro). They had blown a 2-0 halftime lead in five second half minutes, but were rescued in the 72nd minute by Roberto Boninsegna’s individual effort. Boninsegna was without a doubt the Mustangs’ star performer of the campaign. He was the leading goalscorer of the USA with 10 goals and 1 assist, giving him 21 points in total as goals were worth double. Two years after his stint with the Mustangs he would transfer to Internazionale and go on to feature in the 1970 World Cup, where he scored Italy’s only goal in the famous 4-1 final defeat to Brazil at the Azteca and twice finished as top scorer in Serie A.
Interest in the Mustangs steadily declined; just 3,214 were on hand to see Boninsegna’s heroics, less than a third of the attendance figures at the home openers and a drop in the ocean considering the stadium’s capacity of 46,550. Yet while the Sardinians did little to capture the hearts of Chicagoans, they continued to make headlines, albeit for the wrong reasons. Brian Glanville, the legendary English soccer journalist and author of the World Cup Handbook, was in New York during the summer of 1967 and happened to be in attendance when the Mustangs came to visit the New York Skyscrapers. Though the match was in New York, it is likely that the heavily Italian contingent that showed up was there to support Cagliari and not the ‘local’ Uruguayan boys. In an article for The Times Glanville describes an incident during that match:
“Fortunately, Cagliari’s fans that sultry evening did not quite get to Leo Goldstein, the little referee who survived, just as he had survived a concentration camp. After a bad foul by a Cerro player, there was a hiatus. Then, a little, fat Italian fan climbed over the railings and, untroubled by watching police, took a kick at a linesman and then returned to his place, where policemen chatted with him. Suddenly a pack of Italian fans was chasing Goldstein across the field. He tripped over the infield, kicked out, got up and got away.”
The crowd trouble in New York was a sign of things to come in Toronto just several days later. A season-high 15,178 people showed up to the University of Toronto Stadium to witness Hibernian of Scotland, playing as Toronto City, take on the Mustangs. Once again there were plenty of boisterous Italians in attendance. Toronto took the lead within 40 seconds but Boninsegna equalized in the second half. The game was becoming an increasingly violent affair. Toronto’s Peter Cormack, in the book Summer Of ’67: Flower Power, Race Riots, Vietnam and the Greatest Soccer Final Played on American Soil, recalls:
“They were tackling you around the waist. It was brutal. You were getting assaulted. I got hit a couple of times and then I made up my mind that the next one that does that, I’m just going to wallop them.”
Cormack followed through on his threat and duly got sent off. Nine minutes from time the referee totally lost control of the match. Toronto’s Colin Grant put his side up 3-1 with a free kick, but the Mustangs protested that they were still in the process of setting up the wall. The referee refused to order a retake, and the Chicago players walked off the field in protest. A pitch invasion ensued, and the referee and his assistants were both brutally attacked by the fans. According to Grant the Mustang players tried to get into the Toronto changing room. The tiny police presence was powerless to stop the riot. The game was abandoned, the final scored declared to be 2-1.
Little else of note happened on the football pitch. The Mustangs finished with a final record of 3 wins, 7 draws, and 2 defeats, good enough for 3rd in the Western division but not enough to get into the final, in which the Los Angeles Wolves (Wolverhampton) defeated the Washington Whips (Aberdeen) 6-5 in extra time. The quality of play was simply not drawing fans into the stadium; the Mustangs finished with a final average attendance figure of just 4,207. The USA’s rival, the NPSL, was not faring much better, and both leagues were losing massive amounts of money. Abe Korsower of the Chicago Tribune sums up the problems:
“Professional soccer invaded the United States in 1967 at maximum cost with minimum effect. The main reason for the confusion and resulting flood of red ink was that not one but two pro soccer leagues started and finished seasons throughout the country, often in direct competition with each other.”
Common sense finally won out, and the two leagues were merged in December, creating the North American Soccer League. But by that point, the Chicago Mustangs had announced that the roster for the 1968 campaign would be entirely American. Importing teams proved to be a failed experiment. The Sardinian Summer was over.
The Mustangs survived for one more campaign. In 1968, the debut season of the NASL, they finished second in their division but failed to qualify for the playoffs. That season they once again boasted the league leading goalscorer, the Polish-born Janusz “John” Kowalik, who scored 30 goals and registered 9 assists in just 28 matches. The following year the NASL was reduced to just 5 teams, and the Chicago Mustangs instead joined the semi-professional National Soccer League. Not until 1975 and the founding of the Chicago Sting would the Windy City once again experience professional soccer.
The United Soccer Association and the importation of foreign teams represents a failed yet curious chapter of American soccer history. How unlikely is it that Roberto Boninsegna, World Cup runner up and three time Serie A winner, at one point in his career plied his trade right off the Dan Ryan Expressway on the South Side of Chicago, where the White Sox used to play? Cagliari Calcio may not have left much of a legacy in Chicago, and this episode of their history may be largely forgotten, but the sporting histories of these cities are now inextricably tied together.
By Vadim Furmanov
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona