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Timely thanks to those who have given me an appreciation for the beautiful game

Thursday 24th November 2016
Happy Thanksgiving, whether you are stateside or elsewhere.

The first history lesson I was taught in school, even though I was raised in Canada, was the Thanksgiving tale. The theme in which two separate cultures come together peacefully, the resident group helping the newcomers is a powerful message, one perfectly suited to teach eight or nine-year-olds in the hope they'll grow to be good people.

Giving is more emotionally empowering than taking. Which is why the next chapter in Native American history, in which the newcomers decide a foothold is insufficient and take it all through genocide on a continental scale, is left for more mature audiences. When you reach adulthood, cynicism is always lurking. How can it not, with the politics of fear raising its ugly head again in Europe and America? That's why, even when you make it a point to find the good in everything, then be grateful for it when you do, it's nice to have a day set aside every year to remind you the world isn't entirely a bad place, and to share the goodness. This year, I thought I'd share with you the gratitude I feel to have football in my life.

The person who kindled my love for the game wasn't a fan. In fact, to this day he is completely indifferent to sport of any kind. My uncle Bruz is more into politics, architecture, and unusual cultural phenomena. While my aunt watches New York Giants NFL football on Sundays, he is likely to take a random bus ride to see how this neighbourhood or that in New York City has changed since he last rode through. So, when my parents took me to visit in 1978, he took us to Giants Stadium to watch the New York Cosmos.

The stadium was, for its time, an innovative design. The eighty-thousand-seat facility gave even the fans in the nosebleed seats the best view possible. There were no columns, therefore, no obstructed views. The Cosmos, its summer tenant, were all the rage. Regularly attracting seventy thousand plus, the star-laden flagship franchise in the fledgling North American Soccer League was outdrawing the NFL Giants - who were still several years from returning to their winning tradition. Away from the pitch, Cosmos players were regular patrons at Studio 54, the cocaine-driven nightclub that was the disco culture's White House. The A-list celebrities who frequented the place were their groupies.
As a naive fourteen-year-old wallflower with two left feet, the Cosmos' impact on American pop culture was lost on me. Rather, I was hypnotised by the way they moved up the pitch like a flower opening in time-lapse photography. I was a year too late to see Pelé, but the 1978 side featured Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, and the recently passed Carlos Alberto. Their supporting cast included former Man City star Dennis Tueart, on a two-year hiatus from what was then a far less financially rewarding First Division; England then making do without Russian oligarchs, Qatari sheikhs, or American billionaires with money to burn. My favourite player, though, was Vladislav Bogićević, a Serbian playmaker who had made his name with Red Star Belgrade.

Odd that, because my mother had always said her father, Max, was German. You would have thought I'd have been more interested in Beckenbauer or, given my surname, Chinaglia. Apparently, I have some small amount of prescience, however. Only after Max passed did my uncle discover his dad was in fact, Serbian, having come to America on a forged passport. Yes, Mr Trump, I am the descendant of an illegal immigrant. Deport me.

Bogićević complemented Beckenbauer perfectly. When der Kaiser swept the ball out from the back, he would always find Bogey. Together, they would orchestrate elegant movements inevitably ending with the ball on Chinaglia, Lazio's' former bull, or Tueart's foot in the box. There were goals aplenty, and not just because the defenders on many teams tended to be naive Americans not up to marking European stars.

The NASL's point system dictated six points for a victory, another for each of the first three goals scored, but only one point if said victory was decided on penalties. The system provided a healthy incentive for a club with title aspirations to play openly. Consequently, the star-studded Cosmos would win twenty-four of thirty matches that season, score eighty-eight goals, forty-nine more than conceded, and register two hundred and twelve points. The worst team in the league, the horribly named Colorado Caribous, managed eighty-one points - in some years enough to win the Premier League. So much for American conservatism.

Unfortunately, more conservatism and less free spending were what the league needed to survive. Still, when you look at today's MLS with its emphasis on caution before ambition, you may think Kurgan of Highlander fame knew what he was talking about.
In any event, I can never stop thanking Bruz for introducing me to football. My passion for the game opened my imagination to new possibilities. In high school, I had a Greek friend, Alex, who invited me to the matches his dad played with a local club, Hellenas. We'd kick balls around with players during warmups, and I actually developed some skills. I remember Alex's mom letting me watch the 1982 World Cup in their basement while cooking us incredible meals. So, thanks to both of them.

A few years later, football having piqued my interest for the wider world, I began travelling, eventually making South Florida my base while I went through a bad marriage, then decided to make a living crewing on private yachts. Suddenly, I had a host of mates from all parts of the world who shared an interest in football. One, a scouser named Steve used to rave about this seventeen-year-old manchild who played for his Toffees and England, and how this kid would single-handedly destroy my adopted Man United side. I should never have told him if this Wayne Rooney fella was that good, United would just buy him. I didn't really mean it, but lost a friend when it actually happened. Thanks anyway Steve, and sorry about that.

While crewing, I further supplemented my income by helping other yachties craft resumes and cover letters and penning the occasional freelance article for trade magazines. At the time, it never occurred to me to write about football. Then, in 2005, some workmen came onto our boat to replace the carpeting in the crew quarters. In the morning, they removed the old carpet and backing, then laid the new backing. Except they went to lunch without warning us they hadn't tacked the stuff down. Needing to go to the head, I started down the stairs. When the backing slid out from under me, I lost my footing. In trying to not break my neck, I tore the Achilles tendon in my right ankle, putting me out of work for nearly a year. Looking for something to do, but only able to surf the internet, I came across a website called World Football Columns.

Like It's Round and It's White, WFC was looking for aspiring writers to contribute to the site. I submitted a piece on Mike Ashley's unpopularity with Toon fans. It turned out the person who owned the website was a Geordie. Coincidentally, his name was also Steve. After I'd penned several more articles, Geordie Steve asked me if I'd mind editing the site, as he was too preoccupied with his proper job. With a great deal more time on my hands than Steve-o, I revised the layout, actively recruited writers from around the globe, and built the daily hit count from the tens into the thousands. Then, one writer approached me to edit an early draft for the autobiography he'd co-written with his local non-league side's manager. Sadly, after a year and a half, I not only had to focus on making a living again, like Steve, but had partnered up with a friend to experiment with some sporting fiction projects. WFC sadly went the way of the pig-footed bandicoot. Nonetheless, thanks, Steve. It's good to see your Magpies looking like they'll be back in the Premier League next season, even if Ashley is still around.
As well as working, I needed to regain my fitness after healing. A Welsh friend named Craig, not that one, who played in a regular pickup match in Fort Lauderdale's Holiday Park, invited me to come out. At first, I had no stamina so they put me in goal. I was happy not to have to run about until, one night, I came out to claim a cross. Craig, playing for the other side, attempted to bicycle kick it past me. Instead, he gave me my first broken nose. Thanks for making me ruggedly handsome, Craig.

Motivated to run about from that moment forward, I managed to escape further harm for several months, trimming down to 180 lbs, perhaps the best condition of my life. Then, one day, a fat Haitian fella began playing with us. He weighed 300 lbs if he weighed an ounce, and I should know. Relying on his absolute lack of pace, I tried to run onto a pass. Somehow, he arrived in my path just as I looked down to control the ball. As you might suspect, when 180 lbs collided with 300, the latter wins. From my dazed position on the turf, I looked up and asked, "WTF?" long before the phrase became a prolific acronym. So thanks, big man, even though I never got your name. Keeping my head up was a lesson I should have learned.

If you're quick, you may sense a pattern developing here. It would appear, as well as having a permanent case of wanderlust, I am accident prone. Last summer, what I sincerely hope was the grand climax in my litany of unexpected knocks occurred. Apparently, I didn't keep my head up when crossing the road one evening on the way home from the grocers. I was struck by a hit-and-run driver who shattered my leg. I don't recall the accident. Nor do the police seem particularly interested in finding my assailant. But I'm not going to dwell on it either. As I said in the beginning, life is better when you make it a point to seek out the best in any situation. In this instance, it's led me to another career change, in which I am focusing solely on writing and editing. I'm not rolling in dosh, but I'm enjoying myself immensely. So, wherever you are, lead foot, thank you, too. Just try not to make running down pedestrians into a habit.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.

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