CUMBERLAND – Soccer is suddenly sensational, the bandwagon full of fans.

Veterans, of course, have to put up with these newbies, spouting trendy futbol phrases like nil-nil, set pieces and bulging the onion bag. The cynic in me says they’re only in it for the World Cup party — a midseason tune-up between February Super Bowls of chips, dip and couch cushions.

OK, fine. You folks are aboard — but the price of admission is a tale from a back-in-the-day fan, who came to the game the old-fashioned way.

My entree to soccer was through my older brother, Buzz, who preceded me as a high-school player in the hayseed town of Granby, Conn. Back in the ’60s, American soccer featured bulky shoes, beefy players and too many kicks delivered with the toe.

Balls out of bounds were restarted with a sidelines kick, not a throw-in — usually producing these twisting, 40-yard knuckleballs. Think of Lou Groza, the NFL placekicker, playing soccer. The old American style of play was not pretty.

Buzz went on to play soccer at Trinity College, in Hartford, Conn. Trinity is a small Division III college, but in the 1960s it managed to attract a contingent of talented foreign players. My sports-mad parents spirited me off to my brother’s games, and it was there I discovered soccer in all its deft, not-made-in-USA glory.

I still remember the Trinity players: long-haired Welshman Marty Williams, whose every pass was a hooking, outside-of-the-foot masterpiece. Manuel Martins of Portugal, a tall, elegant fullback; Chico Roumaine of Costa Rica, with his lightning-quick sole-back turns.

And my favorite, Abbie Haji, rumored to have played with an African national team. “The Haj,” according to my brother, only needed to play at half-throttle — occasionally unleashing a 40-yard cannon that gave a glimpse of his real talent.

At age 13, I loved to hustle behind the goal before games, returning practice shots that went wide. (I can’t imagine modern youngsters, so busy with their travel teams, actually deigning to be an apprentice or go-fer.)

From this era, in 1968, came the most memorable game I ever saw — an NCAA tournament match as tiny Division III Trinity played Long Island University. LIU was a “U.N. team” with exactly one U.S.-born player (yup, the keeper).

Trinity lost, at Hartford, on a rain-soaked morass more suited for an ATV romp. But the images of those glorious, mud-covered players dancing so artfully amid the slop are indelible. I was in heaven.

I followed my brother to Trinity, but the foreign-player pipeline had closed and the program was awful.

It wasn’t until after college that I got to savor the multicultural world of soccer via “Sunday soccer” leagues in Connecticut, California, Massachusetts and Virginia.

These club teams usually represented national origins, so you had Hartford Inca (Peru), Bridgeport’s powerhouse Vasco de Gama (Portugal), Jamaican, Mexican, Italian teams.

You ate kielbasa at the Hartford Ukrainian club, pizza at Mt. Carmel in Springfield, Mass., shared beer and bread at the Portugese club in Ludlow, Mass.

Games were sparsely attended — unless big money had been bet and paid “ringers” brought in. (I remember one such player, a rugged midfielder named Fernando who led us in a warm-up. “Take deep inhale” he commanded. “Hold it now ha-lex.”

Usually spectators consisted of bored wives, distracted girlfriends and older, highly excitable soccer fans in polyester slacks and striped shirts. Now these were soccer fans, contorted in anguish — “No, ray-fa-REE, no!” — by penalty kicks.

They would compete for errant caroms on the sidelines: Pop the ball up with a foot, add two juggles off the thigh — hup! hup! — then rock a volley back onto the field. Usually the kicker’s shoe would also fly off, a tasseled loafer arcing onto the field amid catcalls as the owner did a one-legged hop to retrieve it.

But it wasn’t always pretty. Soccer is a passion. There was a golf-club wielding imbroglio at the Springfield Armory; a referee chased and surrounded in his car in Pittsfield, Mass.

In Torrington, Conn., I remember legit tough-guy Tommy H. running up past me at midfield — he was muttering, “OK, OK, OK” — before he pole-axed an overly rough opponent with a elbow to the back of the neck. Crazy stuff, like being in a movie.

Now, with soccer on the brink of mainstream popularity, it’s likely to lose that under-the-radar karma. Here are the bandwagon fans, busting in like they own the place.

It’s all good, you say, but I see it coming — Perez Hilton and Ke$ha in Ronaldinho jerseys.

Gads. Is it too late to take up rugby?

 

– Special to The Press Herald