If you ever have doubts about how much American soccer has grown and matured in recent decades, perhaps what is needed is a demonstration of this growth, which isn’t always clearly visible. This is easily arranged. All you need to know about is the Dettmar Cramer incident.
Events that spark firestorms of on-line criticism of American soccer officials today sometimes seem laughably mild compared to the comedy of errors that happened to the U.S. Soccer Federation 36 years ago. In January 1975, the USSF was forced to watch the U.S. national team coach walk away to another coaching job, and was unable to do anything about it, because it had neglected to ever have him sign a contract! Can you imagine the meltdown that would take place on the Internet after an event like that today? The fact that such an event is unthinkable today is an indication of how much things have changed in 47 years.
Somewhat surprisingly from the perspective of 2011, there wasn’t a huge ring of shock waves affecting American soccer in the wake of this event. It was nothing like it would be today. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that no one wanted to point fingers someone who had recently died, Jimmy McGuire, the USSF president who had hired Cramer.
This episode started on July 27, 1974 when McGuire announced that Dettmar Cramer had been hired as coach of the U.S. national team. This was a eye-opening coup for American soccer. Earlier that summer, Cramer had served as an assistant coach of the West German national team as it won the World Cup. He had also been an assistant coach when West Germany won the World Cup in 1954. Cramer, who was 54, had never been the head coach of a top-level European club, but even so, when American fans have clamored over the years for the USSF to hire a European experienced in the international game to coach the U.S. national team, the sort of man they have been talking about is somebody like Dettmar Cramer. In addition to his years of assistant coaching with West Germany, Cramer also had successful experience at leading the national team of a developing soccer country, Japan.
Cramer, who was to be paid $100,000 a year, only coached the U.S. national team in two full internationals, both friendlies against Mexico in September 1974. In December of that year, he took an American team for a series of games in Israel, but shortly before that trip, he had received an offer to become coach of Bayern Munich in the West German Bundesliga. By the time the Israeli trip ended, Bayern’s bid had become public knowledge and Cramer had decided to accept it, which he did on Jan. 19, 1975. The USSF threatened to sue him for $10 million for breach of contract. It was at this point that it was revealed that there was no contract and never had been.
Cramer was only at Bayern for two seasons, but they were good ones. He led the Munich team to victories in the European Champions Cup in both 1975 and 1976. His brief tenure at the USSF, and its sudden end, did have some good effects there. He highlighted the need for tightened administrative procedures and he laid the groundwork for an improved system of player development, to the eventual benefit of U.S. national teams.
About five months after Cramer departed from the United States, Pele arrived to play for the New York Cosmos, starting a new era in American soccer. You can bet your bottom dollar that the Cosmos made sure that they got Pele’s signature on a contract.
A version of this article first appeared at Roger’s Big Soccer blog on August 6, 2011. It owes a debt to several sources, particularly the 1983 book U.S. Soccer vs. the World, by Tony Cirino, who was the sports editor of Il Progresso, an Italian-language newspaper in New York.