Paul Gardner and Cesar Menotti, who directed Argentina to the 1978 World Cup championship. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
By Michael Lewis
For a young soccer writer living and making his living in Rochester, N.Y in the mid-1970’s — in the land before time as we know it — BTI (before the internet) — it was difficult to find a soccer book, any good soccer book that would explain the game to me beyond the usual X’s and O’s.
Then I heard of this book that was supposed to be the holy grail of soccer.
I could not find the book in a Rochester bookstore during a time that finding any volume on the beautiful game in any bookstore or section would have been considered an accomplishment.
But I wanted to read and learn much more about this beautiful, simple game.
As luck would have had it, I finally found the book at Penn Books in Penn Station in Manhattan in 1976. I couldn’t put The Simplest Game down.
What a revelation and an eye-opener to soccer. It was a refreshing oasis in the desert. If I wasn’t hooked on the sport before I read Paul Gardner’s marvelous book, I certainly was afterwards.
No, this piece is not a book review of a book that was published way back in 1976, a book that still stands the test of time today, some 44 years later. This piece is about Mr. Gardner.
I finally got an opportunity to meet this author. But in the maelstrom of New York/New Jersey sportswriters covering the team at the time and with yourself truly ensconced in upstate New York, I rarely had an opportunity to talk to Mr. Gardner.
Michael Lewis (left) and Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner (right) during a World Cup symposium in Brazil in 1987.
Then, as luck would have had it, we sat at adjoining tables at the 1978 Soccer Bowl banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. Paul would say a sarcastic remark about something and then I would about something else.
Surprisingly, and even frightenly so, I agreed with Paul’s remarks and observations.
To many in the U.S. Soccer community and internationally, Paul is known as a curmudgeon and a great writer (most of it for Soccer America and World Soccer), asking questions that no one wants to bring up or doesn’t know how to ask — in the most blunt and unapologetic ways.
For more, Paul Gardner has been more than that. He has been a friend and even a mentor, even though he might not have realized the latter.
Regardless where we have been around the world stumbling into each other — it has taken us to diverse places such as the Metropolitan Oval in Queens, the Dallas Cup in Dallas, Maracana Stadium on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Trinidad & Tobago, Roma, Yokohama, Zurich, Toronto and France, among other places and cities.
The topic of conversations usually would be about our favorite sport, but we have touched on other aspects of life, including baseball, our dogs (my Shannon and Jennie) and cats (his beloved Winnie) among other vital subjects of the universe.
Today, Paul celebrates his 90th birthday. I can’t tell you how much he has meant to me over the years. Beyond his books, I have learned so much from him, how to ask a question, how to put together an argument in an opinion piece and just to be a good journalist.
Happy birthday, Paul, American soccer’s most famous nonagenarian curmudgeon.
Looking forward to celebrating when you become American soccer’s most famous centenarian curmudgeon.