The Portadown linen salesman who sold America on soccer

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In January, Jurgen Klinsmann brought a squad of 26 American players to Brazil for a 12-day training camp so he and his staff could acclimatize to the facility that will be their base in this month’s World Cup. What was significant about the trip was that the majority of those who travelled back then aren’t in the squad that takes on Portugal, Germany and Ghana. They were, if you like, just guinea pigs, going along to test the place out ahead of the main event. As an illustration of how much money the United States Soccer Federation has invested in its team, it was telling.

This wasn’t always the case. Time was when the federation was engaged in a constant financial struggle just to survive. In 1934, Jimmy Armstrong, executive secretary of what was then known as the United States Soccer Football Association, decided he’d had enough of the impossible job of trying to balance the books and to keep the game alive. He called up an Irishman called Joe Barriskill, told him it was a full-time job without pay, and asked him if he was interested. For the next four decades, though his title sometimes changed, Barriskill bestrode the game in America.

When he stepped down as executive secretary in 1971 at the age of 82, the federation issued the following statement. “The United States Soccer Football Federation announced this retirement with regret and pride. Pride that our game, in general, and our association, in particular, have been associated with such a man – a man who has given more than a normal lifetime to a sport he loves. Regret that at last it is time for Joe to relinquish the office which has been his for four decades, to take a rest which has never been better earned.”

He gave more than a normal lifetime to the sport he loved. Although he lived on until the age of 93, that was the epitaph Barriskill deserved. Nobody in the history of the sport in America did more for soccer. When it was neither fashionable nor profitable, he put his shoulder to the wheel and pushed.

“I conducted business with an iron hand,” said Barriskill in Tony Cirino’s excellent book US Soccer vs. The World. “People who did not like it could leave it because I was working for nothing. The government never gave us a penny. Nobody helped us. We had to fight like hell and we went around begging. The officials did a lot of fundraising, we sent out notes to our friends who were interested in soccer football (sic). Between you and me, I paid plenty.

“We always had enough to come from behind and say, well, go ahead, I’ll help you. And they did. They loaned us some money and they didn’t expect to get it back. And they did not get it back. I myself put money into it and never expected to get it back and I never did.”

According to the legend, Barriskill used to depart a tiny, Dickensian office in midtown Manhattan each evening, climb on his bicycle and make his way to his second job at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Some accounts have him shilling peanuts in the stands at the baseball, others reckon he was a ticket-taker at the gate. The archives of the New York Times describe him as press box custodian, so beloved that when he was heading off to manage the United States soccer team at the 1948 Olympic Games, the baseball writers clubbed together to buy him a travelling bag.

Born to a family of farmers in Portadown, County Armagh in May, 1893, he grew up with a passion for cycling rather than football. At 18, he was working in Turtle Brothers’ Linen factory when he emigrated to New York where he got a job as a stock clerk for the same company. He took night classes at Brooklyn Central and ended up becoming one of the best salesmen in the organisation. At one stage, he was drawing down $10,000 a year and had such standing he convinced his employers to allow him use a spare room in their building as the offices of the USSFA. From that tiny space, he somehow cobbled together the money to send American soccer teams to Olympics and World Cups, often employing his unpaid wife as stenographer.

At a time when so many European powerhouse clubs now view America as a lucrative location for pre-season tours, Barriskill was a pioneer in that regard too, albeit under slightly different circumstances. When Bill McConnell, chairman of Liverpool, came to New York in 1945 as part of a British trade delegation, he met with Barriskill and they concocted the idea of the club touring the States the following summer. While Barriskill saw it as a great promotional event for the sport, McConnell saw an opportunity to get his underfed squad out of ration-stricken England.

“If I could bring my team to play a few games while sampling American malted milks and ice cream, American meats and vegetables,” said McConnell, “they’d go back to Liverpool and win the first division championship.”

Liverpool played ten games in America, went home and were crowned champions the following spring. It wasn’t all sweetness and light though. Barriskill’s autocratic leadership style brooked no dissent and he was somebody you crossed at your peril. When Landon Donovan was left out of the US squad last month, the old Irishman’s name came up in media dispatches because back in 1949, he’d controversially ended the international career of the great Jack Hynes, one of the most gifted American players of that generation.

Hynes had questioned the quality of the national squad that went to represent the country in a qualifying tournament in Mexico.  Once he heard about the criticism, Barriskill called up Hynes, tore strips off him and assured him he’d never wear the shirt again. When the USA secured its most famous victory over England in the 1950 World Cup the following year, Hynes wasn’t even in the squad. You crossed Joe Barriskill at your peril.

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One thought on “The Portadown linen salesman who sold America on soccer

  1. Jack Connor, Lisburn N Ireland

    Dear Sirs
    I refer to your article on Joe Barriskill. Joe was the elder brother of my grandfather, David Barriskill, my mother`s father. My mother and Joe exchanged many letters over the years, some of which I have in my posession. The letters refer to the difficulties Joe had in” selling soccer” in America and include details of the time he kept the Federation going not only by taking no salary. but by using his own money!
    Joe`s nephew, Jim, has just celebrated his 90th birthday and still lives on the same site as Joe and the rest of the family. If anyone is interested in the letters I will be happy to share them.
    jack Connor (at connorflooringconsultants@gmail.com

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