A Letter to Toby Charles

Editor’s note: The following is a heartfelt letter from soccer fan Barnett Turk to football commentator Toby Charles and his fans out there. Hope you enjoy it and I hope Toby Charles comes across it. In the meantime, feel free to listen to the exclusive EPL Talk interview we did with Toby Charles here. It’s one of the best ones we did.

I just heard the November 20 interview with Toby Charles. What a pleasure.

It’s obvious that he realizes he had a bit of notoriety here in the states, but I sense he has no idea how deeply his influence truly was among developing American players in those years.

I began playing soccer in Alabama in the mid-70s. At that time, none of us had ever seen more than a few quick clips on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Our sense was that it was a niche sport along the lines of cliff diving or Australian Rules Football. One of the guys had a relative ship us a ball from Germany, a heavy, brown, long-paneled ball, the kind that preceded the 1976 Telstar with stitched hexagons and pentagons that has become the symbol of the sport.

No ball was available because virtually no one was playing the sport in our state, and it was inconceivable that a soccer ball could be found in any sporting goods store in any city, no matter how large.

We began playing the sport by simply whacking the ball back and forth, with no concept of form or strategy. Then one afternoon, a friend said they’d begun showing a program called Soccer Made in Germany on the local PBS station, 6 p.m. Sunday nights. We all gathered at one house to watch for the first time, and I will never forget our reaction. Total silence and a feeling of utter incompetence. We’d been shown the beautiful game and how well it could be played. From then, we never missed a broadcast, and we used what we saw as a textbook for learning the game. We learned basic give-and-go plays, through passes, using wingers and crossing to the middle.

Today, though we’re all approaching 50, many of us are still playing in over-30 and over-40 leagues, where the level of play has become surprisingly good.

As I went off to college and began making my way across the country afterward, there was one common element to nearly every pick-up game I joined, every club team match I participated in, and every practice I attended. From Alabama to St. Louis to Seattle where I eventually settled, I don’t believe I played a single time for more than a decade when I didn’t hear at least one player mimic Toby Charles during play. The obvious “high, wide and not very handsome,” was the most frequent, of course. A shot returned to play by a keeper deflection or a post to the same player for a second shot generally came with “another bite of the cherry.” And a spectacular play-of-the-day type of shot or move was greeted with “Ooooo, they’ll be talking about that one in the pubs tonight.” At halftime or a water break in a pickup game, you’d hear “Halftime, ka-chick ka-chick (he sound effect of a camera shutter fired twice) Newsbreak.” All of it was carefully accented by American players who were getting their weekly dose of international soccer on PBS.

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