ATLANTA – 50 years ago, when the North American Soccer League was born and a young South African, Kaizer Motaung, left his continent for the first time, there was no Spacecraft with a retractable roof housing a football team beating records, marking the buckets and promising to bring a trophy to this sporting city in the midst of bad luck.
Long before Atlanta United stormed into MLS and qualified for Saturday's final against the Portland Timbers in their second season only, the Atlanta Chiefs performed at what would later be called Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Crowds averaged 5,800 people, which was ahead of the NASL curve.
In 1968, American professional football was a foreign company, introduced mainly by Europeans seeking to spread the gospel and earn a few dollars. It will take another seven years before Pelé revolutionizes sport on these shores.
In this first season of the NASL, the Chiefs won a championship for Atlanta. They finished first in the Atlantic Division and, after a scoreless draw in the first leg of the final, beat the San Diego Toros 3-0 in front of an audience of less than 15,000 in September.
Motaung, 23 years old at the time, scored the last goal. He was named rookie of the year and, one season later, led the league in scoring. The leaders returned to the finals in his final year in 1971, bowing to Dallas.
Fifty years later, he speaks with immense pride of what football has become in Atlanta.
"These are wonderful memories that have never escaped me, because I enjoyed my stay in Atlanta," he said Friday on the phone from Johannesburg. "At the time, I had never traveled outside the country, with the exception of neighboring countries. I had the ambition to play abroad and this opportunity came up.
"Atlanta will always be my second home."
In 1970, when he created his own professional team at home, he named him in honor of himself and his employer NASL: Kaizer Chiefs.
"In fact, we stole the logo," he laughs. "I just wanted to continue this experience. We wanted to model ourselves on what my experiences were in Atlanta. It's always in our minds, where we come from. "
Today, Kaizer Chiefs is one of the best known clubs in Africa and participates in a great world football derby with the crosstown Orlando Pirates. Home matches are played at Stade FNB, site of the 2010 World Cup final.
By far, the chairman of the Kaizer Chiefs – and a legendary figure in South Africa – marveled at the instant success of Atlanta United. Funded by Falcons owner Arthur Blank, the 2017 expansion team welcomed an average of 53,002 regular season visitors, which exceeded last year's visitor numbers (48%). 200).
The seven most important games in MLS history in the regular season were held at the Mercedes-Benz stadium, inaugurated last year and designed for the Falcons and United. United plays most of the games in a small number of seats (around 45,000) but the team has sometimes opened the entire venue.
Most MLS teams are tied with NBA and NHL teams; The league average this year was 21,875.
The NASL lasted 17 seasons. MLS is at its 23rd.
"I watched on CNN the other day that it was a very big football town," said Motaung, who has not been to Atlanta since his NASL debut, including two seasons in Denver. "I'm just astonished, but also proud that we have laid the foundations for football in the United States and especially in Atlanta."
Another figure will fall on Saturday, when United set the MLS Cup record currently held by New England, which sold Gillette Stadium (61,316) in 2002. (Most of the MLS championship games since the first season of 1996 were played in mid-sized stages.)
Asked about the football boom in a beleaguered sports city, Blank told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "I was never part of the camp that said Atlanta was not a big sports town. I've always thought that if you put a great product on the field, you would give the fans a great experience, they would react to that. … Some people were skeptical, but I did not give them a lot of audience. "
Atlanta United is also on the verge of bringing something that has largely escaped the city for decades: a championship.
The Falcons lost twice at the Super Bowl, including their epic collapse against the Patriots two years ago. Since arriving in St. Louis in 1968, the Hawks have never reached the finals of the NBA. The Braves won the World Series in 1995.
The Atlanta Dream has lost three times in the final of the WNBA. The former Atlanta women's football team, The Beat, lost twice in the final.
The Chiefs of Atlanta became the Apollos in 1973 (owned by the Hawks) and quickly dissolved. They reformed as leaders for the seasons 1979-1981. After the 1984 campaign, the NASL was dead.
On Saturday, Atlanta United will have a big fan at 8,425 miles. Motaung said, "It was a future because we went to schools and gave a lot of coaches during our free time. I was confident in Atlanta and, in fact, football in the United States would become bigger and bigger.
"I wish good luck to the team tomorrow. I hope that they can do what we have done. "
who: Portland Timbers at Atlanta United.
Or: Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
When: Saturday at 20h East
TV: Fox, UniMas.
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