Before the advent of Major League Soccer, the founding of Italy’s Serie A or the UEFA Champions League, even before the first FIFA World Cup, there was Sporting Club Gjøa. Last Saturday afternoon, well over 100 young footballers and their parents gathered at the old Gjøa clubhouse on 62nd Street in Brooklyn to watch the United States play England in their historic World Cup meeting at Rustenburg’s Royal Bafokeng Stadium. The eyes of bygone champions from the glory days of Brooklyn club soccer stared down at the children from their portraits on the walls.
Established in 1911 by members of the Norwegian Seamen’s Association of Bay Ridge Brooklyn, SC Gjøa takes its name from the intrepid sloop with which Roald Amundsen first navigated the Northwest Passage in 1903-1906. In 1911, world football was still in its infancy-FIFA came together in 1904-and the Norwegians’ sport of choice was tug of war. Gjøa, led by its strongmen Ole K. Hansen and Nils Nilson, took the championship in 1914, 1916, 1917, 1918, and 1920. The next year, Gjøa fielded its first football team, and over the next decade the trophy cases that line the walls of the old clubhouse in Bay Ridge began to fill with the unmistakable memoranda of a sporting dynasty. So great was the distinction of Gjøa’s footballing in those days-let the 1929 New York State Championship trophy serve as evidence-that a tour of Norway was arranged for the summer of 1931. The booters from Brooklyn played 29 games in 60 days against the mother country’s most formidable teams; the record was 16 wins, 7 ties and 6 losses.
As a veteran New York soccer dad, I have seen clubs rise and fall. The Manhattan Kickers, the Brooklyn Patriots, Downtown United, Asphalt Green-each of these relative newcomers has had its moments of triumph, yet none can match the history of the old ethnic clubs. Gjøa, after a period of decline, has rebuilt its youth program, and under the leadership of youth athletic director Jimmy Svendsen and head coach Harry Triana, the club has more than one team contending for the state cup this year. If the turnout on Saturday is any indicator, the venerable Norwegian-American sporting association will celebrate its centennial in 2011 with the most robust soccer program in the borough of Brooklyn. Uniquely among the New York soccer clubs I have experienced, SC Gjøa also comes equipped with an excellent bar.
When I arrived at the clubhouse at noon, I was prepared for the sort of stuffy and overlong awards ceremony that dulls the spirits of parents everywhere. I was also afraid we’d miss the opening of the U.S.-England match. Happily, my natural pessimism was misplaced. Pleasant smells of charred cowflesh met me as I made my way through a chaos of bouncing balls and darting children; the barbecue was in full swing, and a soccer game was stirring up tremendous clouds of dust from the courtyard. I quickly made my way into the cool and musty shadows of the main hall, with its impressive display of 99 years’ worth of trophies and plaques. My eye drifted along the endless glass cases, and though I could discern no obvious scheme of organization, it appeared that the 1930s, 1950s and 1960s had been especially prolific. At the other end of the hall, I was startled by the immensely smug televised countenance of ESPN’s Alexi Lalas, projected on a screen, when through a doorway I glimpsed the object of my quest.
Upon passing through the swinging doors, I was greeted by a charming older gentleman behind the bar who kindly supplied me with a strong bloody mary. As the afternoon progressed and the awards ceremony slipped painlessly by-every child received a trophy, and there were special distinctions for good attitude, skills development and exceptional performance-I began to grasp the secret of Gjøa’s longevity. The clamor from the hall-howls of disappointment at the 4-minute mark, when Steven Gerrard made his effortless goal, and triumphant chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” when Clint Dempsey scored off Robert Green’s tragic fumble-faded to an agreeable background roar in the civilized calm of our liquid sanctuary, with its four wide-screen flat-panel displays.
Two members behind the bar ministered to our simple needs, and no one displayed concern about a few tendrils of cigarette smoke. I heard tales of ancient rivalries with Blau Weiss Gottschee of Queens (founded 1951) and the Brooklyn Italians (founded 1949) from lifelong members who had played for Gjøa from the age of 6 or 10. The old fields at Leif Ericson Park had been dustbowls, filled with gravel and other debris; on one occasion, players arrived to find a dump truck occupying the midfield. When artificial turf was installed at Dyker Beach Park, legend has it that disgruntled miscreants burned a car on the field, giving new meaning to the term “pitch.” Some rival clubs used to gamble on the matches, I was told, and predatory teams used to poach players and stack their squads by paying bonuses for every victory. Over the years, I have seen enough mayhem on the sidelines of soccer fields in all five boroughs-red cards given to parents, screaming and abusive coaches, sobbing children, brawls and near-brawls between rival gangs of suddenly thuggish fans-to believe that anything can happen in youth sports. Despite all the parental nonsense, children love to play the game. Never once have I seen misbehavior from a Gjøa parent or coach, and in large part that measured serenity is what attracted my family to the club. On Saturday, basking in what amounted to a famous Yankee victory in South Africa, well into my third beer, I understood one possible explanation for the long good health of a storied south Brooklyn institution. Let the children play; let the grown-ups sit at the bar. Everybody wins.
Roger D. Hodge is the former editor of Harper’s Magazine. His book, The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism, will be published in October.