“Who was the first American to play for a major European football team?” asks Kurt Perleberg.
As the USMNT regularly qualified for the World Cup in the 1990s, US internationals – and goalies in particular – became an integral part of European football. But John Harkes, Tony Meola (remember his time at Brighton and Watford? No, neither do we), Paul Caligiuri, Kasey Keller and the others weren’t the first American footballers to cross the pond.
Niche nerds around the world are indebted to Tim Dockery for posting a list of some of the earliest Americans to appear in Europe’s major leagues:
Italy: Alfio Argentieri was born in New York but grew up in Italy. He played for Lazio in the 1936/37 season. Alfonso Neger was born in Brooklyn but grew up mostly in Italy. In addition to winning Olympic gold in 1936 with the Italian national team, he played for Fiorentina from 1934 to 1938 and for Napoli in 1938.
UK: Jim Brown was a Scotsman who became a naturalized US citizen in the mid-1930s, a few years after representing the US at the 1930 World Cup. He played for Manchester United (1932-34) and Tottenham (1936-37). Alexander Holz was another Scot who became a naturalized US citizen after moving to America when he was 14. He also represented them at the 1930 World Cup (he was eligible by virtue of his father’s citizenship), playing for Leicester City (1933–36) and Nottingham Forest (1936–37).
Germany: Andy Mate, Born in Hungary, won an international match. Not only did he play in the New York Cosmos’ very first game, but he also scored two goals during his short stint with Hamburg in the 1964/65 season.
France: Joe Gaetjens, After scoring the only goal against England in the 1950 World Cup game, he went on to four games for Racing Club de Paris (then in Ligue 1), where he scored two goals.
Spain: Kasey Keller seems too new to be the first American to play professionally in Spain, but AS say his 1999-2000 season with Rayo Vallecano was an American’s debut in La Liga.
It looks like AS are right. peter verme and Ramos tab played in Spain in the early 1990s, both for Figueres and Real Betis in the case of Ramos, but their teams were not in La Liga at the time. Ramos almost certainly would have been the first American to play in La Liga had it not been for one of the World Cup’s most infamous attacks. Betis was promoted in 1993/94 but Brazilian left-back Leonardo fractured Ramos’ skull with a vicious elbow at USA 94, meaning Ramos was unavailable when Betis returned to La Liga. In January 1995, he became the first player to sign up for the brand new Major League Soccer.
We found another notable player from France: John Donoghue, an American-born defender who played for Celtic, also played for Excelsior Roubaix from 1932–35. They may not be big clubs – they don’t exist anymore – but back then they were regulars in the top half of France’s top flight, winning the Coupe de France in Donoghue’s first season. And Celtic are definitely a big club.
Before Donoghue and the others, there was the tragic story of Eddie Hamelwho was born in New York in 1902 to Jewish immigrants from the Netherlands. When he was a teenager, his family moved back to Amsterdam.
“Eddy, a talented right winger, joined Ajax in 1922 and became the first Jewish player and the first American to represent the club,” writes Adi Zalmanowicz. “During his eight years at Ajax, he became a fan favourite, making 125 appearances and scoring eight goals.
“After the Nazis occupied the Netherlands during World War II, Hamel was arrested despite his American citizenship – because he was Jewish. He was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau at the end of 1942 and, after a few months of forced labor and torture, was murdered in the gas chambers on April 30, 1943. He was 40 years old.”
There is a chapter in Simon Kuper’s beautiful book Ajax, The Dutch, The War dedicated to Hamel that contains this memory from an older supporter:
Big boy, black hair slicked back. Not a product of the Jewish Quarter. He was what you could call an idol. Eddy Hamel, I can still see him in front of me. Fast and he had a very good cross. Something like David Beckham now. Oh, everything was different back then. Eddy Hamel’s speed is now a snail’s pace.
Hamel appears to be the first American to play for one of modern football’s great clubs, but Chris Matterface has an interesting 19th-century story: “It depends on how you define a ‘great European team’, of course, but a long way off In the 1870s, FA Cup winners probably counted by default as so little football was played outside of Britain.
“Born in Boston Julian Sturgis was in the winning team for Wanderers against Oxford University in the 1873 FA Cup final. In 2004, many sources claimed that Tim Howard was the first American to win the FA Cup when he helped Manchester United beat Millwall, but unfortunately they were wrong.” Which is a shame because had they mentioned Sturgis they would have have to tell some of his extraordinary life stories: Etonian, rower, lawyer, novelist, poet, librettist, lyricist – and possibly the first American he played for a major European team.
(NB: The globalization of women’s football happened much later, but we believe that the first USWNT players to play for a major European team were Ali warrior and Gina Lewandowski. You joined FFC Frankfurt in 2007 and won the UEFA Women’s Cup – now Champions League – in your first season.)
“At the halfway point in the Premier League season, the bottom seven clubs are separated by just two points. Has there ever been such a close relegation battle in the Premier League?” asks William Bailey.
As William says, there are just two points separating Leeds in 14th (although they have a game in hand) and Southampton in 20th. That’s narrower than the three-point gap between Leeds and Nottingham Forest in 13th place.
At least one team at the bottom end has often been left behind by this point. At the halfway point in the 2020/21 season, there were a whopping 17 points between bottom-placed Sheffield United and 14th-placed Wolves. That’s the biggest gap in English Premier League history, let alone the Premier League era.
In lieu of a life we’ve had every English season since switching to three points for a win in 1981/82. In 17 of their 42 seasons, the last seven were separated by at least 10 points at halftime. And it’s never been this tight down there.
The closest relegation battles prior to this season came in 1986/87, 2010/11 and 2013/14 when the last seven were separated by five points. A few notes. In 2010/11 the entire bottom half – including Liverpool, who had struggled under Roy Hodgson, and Everton – was separated by those five points. And in 1986/87, teams in the last seven included now-superpowers Chelsea, Newcastle and Manchester City. Manchester United had just climbed out of this group. City were eventually relegated along with Leicester and Aston Villa.
There were some tighter tables in the two points to a win era for obvious reasons. But while we’re reluctant to swear to it, we believe there was only one example, even between 1888 and 1981, of the bottom seven being separated by just two points or less at the halfway point in the season. That was in 1910/11 when Woolwich Arsenal were in 20th place, just two points behind Spurs in 14th place. This vague precedent gives hope to Southampton and this season’s other fighters. Woolwich Arsenal and The Wednesday, the teams in the bottom two places at half-time, finished 10th and 6th respectively.
“Did the greats and goodies of football functionality (OK, Sepp Blatter) actually ever play the game professionally?” asked Andy Burrows in 2007.
Not professionally, but football’s greatest cheese at the time played for a few years as a striker at amateur level in Switzerland. In fact, according to Fifa’s official website, Blatter’s career spanned a whopping 23 years from 1948 (this presumably includes youth football as he would have been 12 at the time) to 1971 – most, if not all, spent with his hometown team FC Visp.
“I scored a lot of goals,” Blatter boasted to CNN interviewers while they were making a 2006 documentary about him. “It’s not false modesty – it’s really true, especially in the youth field.” We’d be inclined not to believe him, or the story about splitting a pair of boots (“I took the left, he took the right”) with one Friend for his very first game, but since he’s admitted diving (“I wasn’t a perfect player, I have to say I’m a striker”) and experimenting with referees during his playing days in the same interview, we’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt to give right.
Can you help?
“Videos of transfer announcements are everywhere these days – even Romeo Beckham had one when he joined Brentford’s reserve team. But who was the first player to appear in one?” asks Colin Apps.
“Shakira’s epic slaying of her ex Gerard Piqué was a smash hit worldwide (certainly in terms of YouTube views),” writes Rashaad Jorden. “So I’m wondering… was any other footballer the subject of a diss track?”
“Has anyone ever missed two penalties in the same shootout?” wonders James Pollard.
“A goalscorer who happily takes off his jersey has been banned since 2004, when Fifa and Ifab punished such a demonstration with a mandatory yellow card,” notes Seb Clare. “But who was the player who created this form of celebration?”
“Scott Sinclair scored his first goal for Bristol Rovers last year, just 6,523 days after his debut on Boxing Day 2004. Is this the record for the longest gap between a player’s debut and their first goal?” asks Tim Woods.
Email us your questions or tweet us @TheKnowledge_GU.