The trailblazing trophy that started a soccer trend in the U.S.
Polonia Bytom is a small club in the Silesian region of Poland. Hindered by hooligan fans, some with overt Nazi sympathies, it finished last in the third tier of Polish soccer this spring, dropping into the obscurity of the country’s regional divisions.
And in a museum vault in Bytom, at least for now, it holds the American Challenge Cup, one of the most impressive trophies ever awarded in North American soccer.
The trophy itself, donated by brewery magnate Rudolph J. Schaefer, is stunning, and the competition to win it was worthy. Participants in the International Soccer League over its six-year history from 1960 to 1965 included Bayern Munich, Everton, Monaco, West Ham United, Sampdoria, Red Star Belgrade, Sporting Lisbon, and Brazilian side Bangu .
It’s difficult now to imagine how exotic the International Soccer League was. Although the institution in 1955 of the European Cup and Inter-Cities Fairs Cup had pioneered the idea of regular competition between clubs from different countries, these were days far removed from the current boom of commercialized summer friendlies – even before the global player market.
The top European leagues were decades away from buying up the planet’s premium players; of the 352 squad members at the 1962 World Cup, only six played outside their country’s domestic league. Czechoslovakia reached the final under the leadership of captain Ladislav Novak and six more from Dukla Prague – which just happens to be the most successful team in ISL history.
“When you look back, (the league) had some pretty good teams here,” said Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner, at the time a recent immigrant from England with an interest in soccer journalism and photography. “There was some pretty good soccer. I enjoyed the games. It was my first experience seeing a live Brazilian team.”
The unlikely impresario behind the ISL and the American Challenge Cup was William D. Cox, an art and lumber dealer who had owned a couple of gridiron football teams and had the ignoble distinction of being the last man banned from baseball for life before Pete Rose. Gardner remembers him as a cold man with a reputation for penny-pinching who nevertheless organized a rather successful tournament in a country that was very much an afterthought in the soccer world.
“He had some fast track to finding good, young soccer teams,” Gardner said.
Cox was a savvy businessman who realized the United States had an appetite for soccer that was hardly satiated by the American Soccer League, a low-profile professional league whose 1959-60 champion, Colombo (Staten Island), withdrew after one year of existence.
Not that touring foreign clubs were unheard of at the time. Matt Busby’s Manchester United toured the States in 1960, with some local league opponents and All Stars interspersed with 1860 Munich and Scotland’s Hearts. But Cox raised the stakes with a more formal competition. He recruited 11 European teams -- including Bayern Munich, Burnley, Sampdoria, Red Star Belgrade and Sporting Lisbon -- and, for a little local flavor, one ad hoc “New York Americans” team with a few locals and a few hired guns. The games were played in and around New York in six-team round-robin pools.
The two pool winners, Bangu and Scottish club Kilmarnock, found themselves facing off for the inaugural ISL title on August 6, 1960. At the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan, a crowd of 25,440 – twice the average attendance Kilmarnock recorded at home that season – watched Bangu triumph with a 2-0 win.
The 1960 MVP was a Bangu player named Ademir da Guia, a tall playmaker who went on to a long career with Palmeiras and a World Cup appearance much later in his career, a loss to Poland in the 1974 third-place game.
Flushed with success, a delighted Cox pushed on with an even bigger tournament for 1961: newly-invited teams included Monaco, Beskitas, Espanyol and Everton. The Mersey giants topped a group including Bangu, Kilmarnock and the surprisingly competitive New York Americans, but in the two-leg final were outclassed (7-2, 2-0) by the club that would dominate the competition for the rest of its existence, Dukla Prague.
The ISL’s second year was the last hurrah for soccer at the Polo Grounds, a venerable New York baseball stadium that hosted many international soccer games over the years before being torn down in 1964. The stadium’s “bathtub” shape was rather odd for baseball, with short distances down each foul line and a distant wall in center field, but worked well for soccer.
“On the whole, crowds were amiable and well-behaved,” Gardner said, but there were exceptions. “One year, they had a semi-riot with a Brazilian team and a Portuguese team. I was down on the field and I couldn’t make up my mind whether to run for my life or take pictures.”
The league gradually spread its games over a wider area. Montreal Concordia’s participation in 1961 was a good reason to take some fixtures over the border; in later years, Chicago, Guadalajara, Cleveland and Los Angeles hosted games.
A new format
From 1962, the format changed. Dukla Prague didn’t enter the league but, as holders, were invited back to face the new ISL champions for the American Challenge Cup. The idea was that each year’s Cup winners would return the next year to face the ISL champions; as it turned out, that returning side would always be Dukla Prague.
“Dukla were soon to dominate Czech soccer, and their touring team included Josef Masopust, 1962’s European Footballer of the Year,” wrote David Wangerin in Soccer in a Football World.
Another star was a young Czech player named Rudolf Kucera, whose career was cut short by an elbow to the head in late 1963. He had a hat trick in the 7-2 win over Everton in 1961. “You went there, and you expected to see goals from Rudi Kucera,” Gardner said.
Dukla duly defeated Brazilian club America in 1962; West Ham United in 1963; then Zaglebie Sosnowiec, a Polish club that had routed Werder Bremen, in 1964. Though the Cup competition didn’t start until 1962, the previous ISL winners’ names (Bangu 1960, Dukla 1961) were also inscribed on the trophy.
In 1965, home crowds were delighted to see the New York Americans win their section ahead of Portuguesa (Brazil), Varese (Italy), 1860 Munich and West Ham United. But they were no match for Polonia in the league championship.
Then came the upset. Polonia beat Dukla 2-0 in the first leg of the Challenge Cup, and a 1-1 draw in the second leg meant the trophy would go back across the Atlantic to a different part of Eastern Europe.
And that was it. The league did not resume in 1966.
“Cox had begun to incur the wrath of the USSFA (now USSF), whose own leagues had been underwriting foreign tours for decades,” Wangerin wrote. “Almost inevitably, the two parties wriggled their way toward a lawsuit.”
The feud between entrepreneur and federation continued, with Cox leading the unsanctioned NPSL through a season of play in 1967 (ironically, a second league with USSFA backing imported and rebranded teams -- England’s Stoke City became the “Cleveland Stokers” of the United Soccer Association) before conceding and merging his league with its rival to form the North American Soccer League, eventual home of the New York Cosmos and the biggest boom in U.S. soccer in several decades.
The ISL was gone. The Cup was forgotten.
The whereabouts of the Cup were uncovered by Derek Liecty, the ISL’s executive secretary for two years and later the general manager of the NASL’s Oakland Clippers. He was able to make contact with Polonia’s management to see and photograph the trophy in 2015.
Polonia’s president told Liecty the club would consider negotiations to bring the Cup back to the United States. The next year, Liecty spoke with representatives of the National Soccer Hall of Fame and the San Jose Earthquakes about the potential for organizing a tour for Polonia and displaying the trophy in the new Hall. But Polonia’s management changed, and the club hasn’t responded to Liecty or to the cultural attache of the Polish consulate in Los Angeles.
Now Polonia is showing signs of life, investing in a training center upgrade and facilities for supporters in wheelchairs. It’s also starting to upgrade its stadium and other facilities at the multisports club.
Even if retrieving the trophy proves elusive, the ISL and American Challenge Cup set a high standard for international club games. The competition is fondly remembered: Dukla’s success is celebrated in a book called Dukla mezi mrakodrapy -- Dukla Between Skyscrapers.
“(Cox) decided to give them something to play for and make them close to league games,” Gardner said. “And I think he was pretty damn successful at that.”