Utah played soccer before Brazil
Researcher explores sport’s deep roots in Beehive State.
By TOM WHARTON
| The Salt Lake Tribune
First Published Jul 04 2014 10:33 am
Last Updated Jul 04 2014 11:21 pm
In the midst of World Cup fever, youth teams desperately trying to find a field where they can play and Real Salt Lake regularly selling out its stadium, soccer hardly seems an exotic foreign game these days.
Perhaps it never was.
Utah historian and longtime University of Utah Marriott Library Special Collections researcher Roy Webb found that while historians have long ignored the sport in Utah, the game has been played here since late in the 19th century.
"I found a curious thing as I started to research this history," wrote Webb, whose "The Forwards Darted Like Flashes: The History of Soccer in Utah" can be read in its entirety at the Utah Soccer Association’s website at www.utahsoccer.org. "If you look at any [Utah] history, even a history of sports, soccer seemingly does not exist."
Webb said that noted Utah sports historian Larry Gerlach of the University of Utah claims little knowledge of the sport in the state. Histories of a place such as Eureka, where soccer flourished at one time, never mention the sport, focusing instead on baseball. Soccer isn’t mentioned in the Utah History Encyclopedia. Webb found it almost impossible to find anything about Utah in national books on the sport in America or at the National Hall of Fame and Museum in New York.
Yet the first Utah soccer team appeared in 1882, roughly six years before the sport was introduced in Brazil, now host of the World Cup and a world power in the sport.
Rediscovering the early days » Webb seemed like a strange person to pour through old digitalized newspapers and obscure accounts to put together a 67-page compilation of the sport in the state. He is known more as Utah’s top river historian and said he’s never been much of a sports fan. But his daughter played competitive soccer and his wife came from soccer hotbed Germany.
He said researching the paper "reintroduced me to the joys of research."
What Webb found was that soccer was often as popular as better-known American sports such as baseball and football. In its earliest Utah days, the sport took advantage of a combination of ethnic "gentile" miners and Mormon converts coming into the state from Europe, and games managed to draw large crowds and were regularly covered by Utah newspapers.
"From the 1890s to World War II, soccer was as big a sport in urban Utah as any other, and was played by people as diverse as roughneck miners in hardscrabble camps and school kids in small communities such as Monroe, Richfield, Vernal and even Panguitch," wrote Webb.
After World War I, immigrant teams such as the Caledonians from Great Britain, the Vikings from Norway (which included famous Utah skiers such as Alf, Karre and Sverre Engen), AC Germania from Germany and Hollandia from the Netherlands proved dominant.
In competition Webb calls "the Mormons versus the Miners," the largely Mormon immigrant teams often competed against ethnic "gentile" miners from Carbon County, Park City, Bingham Canyon and Eureka for trophies such as the Daynes and Schubach Cups that symbolized Utah supremacy in the sport.
Webb found more than 50 teams playing in Utah before World War II, with games often drawing thousands of spectators to venues such as the University of Utah football stadium, the old baseball park called Derks Field, Lorin Farr Park in Ogden and Fairmont Park in Salt Lake City. When American football was banned at Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Utah during the Depression, workers began to play soccer.
Even inmates at the old Utah State Prison in Sugar House formed a team, though the local joke was that the club could only play home games.
For the love of the game » Conditions in the early days of the game could be difficult as well. Grass fields were rare and equipment primitive. Jim Haner, the author of the book "Soccerhead: An Accidental Journey Into the Heart of the American Game," described some of the early soccer balls used in the sport this way:
"The ball back then was made of cowhide and on the frozen tundra of a cinder oval in November, it took on the force of a nine-pound cannonball. Even minor miscalculations could to lead to a major injury."
Webb wrote that Peter Hughes, who played in Salt Lake City for the Caledonians in the 1950s, remembered that the leather ball would get so heavy when it was wet it took great force to pass it and that if you headed the ball the wrong way, you were left with the marks made by the stitches for several days.
Webb also documents the stories of some interesting characters whose efforts allowed soccer to continue in the state.
There was Harold Turville, an English immigrant who not only organized soccer teams but eloquently wrote about the sport for the Salt Lake Telegram. Hermann Neumann, founder of AC Germania who came to Utah from his native Germany in 1929, promoted the sport by forming high school leagues in Salt Lake City, staging exhibition games and parades and calling in soccer scores to Utah newspapers every Saturday. Arthur Zander sold hard-to-find soccer equipment he imported from Europe out of the basement of his home across the street from Fairmont Park. Bill Bosgraaf, the president of the Utah Soccer Association, came from The Netherlands in 1960 and promptly became a force in the sport.
The sport explodes in the ’70s » Webb credits three things for the explosion of soccer interest in Utah that began in the 1970s and continues to this day. He said the adoption of Title IX requiring equal access to sports for women, the influx of Latino immigrants into Utah, and the rise of the youth soccer movement helped the sport. In Salt Lake City alone, there are three Hispanic soccer leagues, each with 30 to 40 teams.
"Soccerhead" author Haner also wrote that Baby Boomer parents wanted their kids to be involved in sports but didn’t want them to get hurt or rejected by trying out for the traditional American sports such as football, baseball and basketball.
When the Utah High School Activities Association gave official sanction to boys’ and girls’ soccer teams in 1982, that also proved to be a boon to the sport.
While Real Salt Lake came on the scene in 2004 and has become a popular mainstay on the Utah sports scene, Webb wrote about other attempts to bring professional soccer into the state. The first came in 1976 when a team called the Golden Spikers — which included Dee Benson, now a federal judge — was given a franchise in the American Soccer League.
They would be followed by the Utah Sting, who played at Derks Field, the Utah Blitzz of the United Soccer League, World Indoor Soccer League team Utah Freezz, and Women’s Premier Soccer League team the Utah Spiders.
RSL, though, has proved to be the most successful, especially since Rio Tinto Stadium opened in 2008.
The sport in Utah, indeed, has come a long way since the early mining camp days, moving from an activity considered somewhat foreign to the mainstream.