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'Finn McCool’s Football Club:' The History of Soccer Culture in New Orleans
Soccer. Football. Futbol. Calcio. Jalkapallo. Labdarúgás. Piłka Nożna.
There are many words in many cultures for the “Beautiful Game.” Soccer is the most popular sport in the world because of its simple concept. Eleven players work together to put a ball into their opponents’ goal while keeping it out of their own. Players can use any body part that isn’t an arm or hand (goalkeepers excluded). Aside from a few rules about being in certain places at certain times, restarting play when the ball goes out of bounds, or concerns about player safety, the game really is that simple. And, it’s this worldwide consistency and simplicity that make soccer a tidy backdrop for comparing ideas across time and cultures.
Pausing only for World War II, the Men’s World Cup tournament has taken place every four years since 1930. Since 1989, the Women’s World Cup has happened the year following each men’s tournament. Fans across the globe use these opportunities to learn about the cultures of participating nations. Here in the United States, fans tend to root for the U.S. National Team, while also celebrating their cultures of origin. As a lifelong New Orleanian and soccer fanatic, I’ve used this World Cup cycle as a lens to examine the city I love.
I already had general ideas of the histories of New Orleans and of soccer in the United States. To find where they intersect, I focused on the two most important parts of my job at the Library: the people I serve and the information resources we provide.
Finn McCool’s Football Club: The Birth, Death and Resurrection of a Pub Soccer Team in the City of the Dead
As a public-facing staff member of the Library, I work in a community hub and patrons and I frequently recognize each other out of context. While at a game for the New Orleans Jesters –– a Division 4 team competing in the National Premier Soccer League –– I met a frequent Library patron who’d come to New Orleans from Sheffield, England.
I asked if he’d read Finn McCool’s Football Club: The Birth, Death and Resurrection of a Pub Soccer Team in the City of the Dead. I’d seen it on a local history shelf, and it called out to me with renewed purpose.
In Finn McCool’s Football Club, author Stephen Rea, also a New Orleans Public Library stalwart, gives us a whimsical telling of his experience moving from Northern Ireland to New Orleans in 2004, leaving no stone unturned in search of community –– and exercise. His steadfast search for the right fit exposed Rea to a scope of diversity from college students and young professionals playing on the riverfront, to indoor games played in Harahan.
Rea’s book recounts a wide array of player involvement, including being aggressively recruited for games in City Park among the Hispanic community, before forming a pub team with other expats from the British Isles.
Soccer in New Orleans in the 1960s & 70s
The Library’s City Archives & Special Collections is a fantastic resource in gaining a better understanding of how and when soccer culture first started in New Orleans.
During the 1960s and 70s, soccer enthusiasm had been freshly reignited by live sports on color television, and soccer had its first international superstars. Brazil’s Pele, Northern Ireland’s George Best, and the Netherlands’ Johan Cruyff all played in the North American Soccer League for unprecedented salaries.
Riding this fresh wave of popularity was a recently chartered New Orleans Soccer Association, who brought the above drawings to the New Orleans City Council as part of a 1969 proposal. In the proposal, the members of the N.O.S.A. foreshadow Rea’s 2005 experience by noting, “it has become apparent to the fans of soccer who are not native-born Americans, that the native-born American population of the New Orleans Community are becoming interested and intrigued with this fast-moving sport.”
In the decades preceding color-TV, pressure to assimilate into American culture drove families in their second and third generations post immigration toward gridiron (American football) as their social sport of choice. Despite the United States’ incredible third-place finish at the inaugural 1930 World Cup, soccer waned as football rose to prominence.
The Origins of New Orleans’ Soccer Culture
Newsbank is another wonderful research tool, especially for historic newspapers, which is where I turned to learn more about how soccer came to New Orleans
After reading through the 1969 stadium proposal, I wanted to learn about New Orleans’ relationship with soccer in the lead-up to the 3rd place finish in 1930. I took to Newsbank through the Louisiana Library Connection searching for mentions of “soccer” in New Orleans newspapers prior to 1930.
Based on my findings, there were three distinct soccer groups in New Orleans at the turn of the century.
The first group were Irish, German, and English immigrants.
The first team to form was a group of Irishmen in today’s Carrollton area called the Jefferson City Football Club. Other Irish teams bore family names like the O’Hare-Carrigans.
German teams sprouted from church associations such as the St. Peter and St. Paul Usher Society.
Meanwhile Englishmen in trade labor unions formed teams like The Cotton Exchange Soccer Football Team.
A second group were private athletic clubs for protestant or Jewish families who’d lived in New Orleans for at least a generation. Articles about the Young Mens’ Gymnastics Club and the Young Men’s Hebrew Association boasted of its members’ multi-sport versatility.
The last group were colleges. Tulane University and Holy Cross College played against these other groups within the city and organized games against other schools in the region.
In 1907, the Times-Democrat newspaper sponsored a charity league pitting these groups against each other. The pre-Christmas tournament benefitted the newspaper’s Doll and Toy Fund, and articles boasted players’ proud amateur status or professional pedigree, depending on which selling point might raise more funds.
Soccer in New Orleans Today
Today, there are dozens of soccer clubs and leagues in New Orleans for players of all ages and abilities. There are also more places than ever for fans of the sport to get together to watch games, talk soccer, and create community, for spectators and players alike. Plus, with New Orleans set to get a professional team by 2025, New Orleans’ soccer scene is sure to expand even more.
And, the 2022 Men’s World Cup Tournament is just around the corner. With the games kicking off on November 21, it’s the perfect time to get involved.
If you’re interested in dipping your toes in the water, but don’t know quite where to start, an upcoming Library event is a great way to meet people interested in soccer, including Stephen Rea, the author of Finn McCool’s Football Club: The Birth, Death and Resurrection of a Pub Soccer Team in the City of the Dead.
Stop by Nora Navra Library on Saturday, November 12 at 2pm to hear about Stephen’s work, ask questions about his experience building and rebuilding his team and community, or share your own experiences and historical findings.
The Library is celebrating Hispanic & Latinx Heritage Month through Oct. 15. You can celebrate, too, with these recommendations.
The New Orleans Public Library’s Reading Buddies program pairs children and teen volunteers to inspire growth in literacy.