Joe Enochs Fairwell Game
March 31, 2009
Story by Tom Simpson
On March 28th, 2009, History was made!!! Joe Enochs was the first American soccer player to be honored in Europe for his life long contribution to the game. Osnabruck VFL staged for Joe Enochs, the Abschiedsspiel, the fabled Farewell Game, an honor reserved for the very few, for Joe’s contribution to his team. When the soccer world thinks of American tenure in European soccer, names like Brad Friedel and Casey Keller surface immediately. Who among the readers have ever heard of Joe Enochs let alone associated him with the highest honors of European soccer (“football” on that continent). I venture to say, it will be the rare student of sport who knows the answer to any riddle with that question in mind. But it will be the name of Joe Enochs that surfaces when the history of the sport is written in years to come.
Joe Enochs had a humble start, indeed. In 1987 he came to a Seals youth team training session. We were then called the San Francisco United Soccer club. He was a young kid from Petaluma and Kimtai, my son, said that he really liked Joe. Could we give him a shot? He wanted Joe to play for our youth team and join us on our European tour for the Summer of 1987. In those days, Joe was all about enthusiasm and work rate. And Joe had, from the first day, what only one-in-a-hundred, maybe a thousand, has. Joe turned every 50:50 ball into a “no contest.” I mean, he never lost the challenge. And you know, even today, when I’m listening to the pros talk about one of their peers, they still say the same thing: “I hate playing against Joe Enochs.” And those pros who play with him say, “I hate playing without Joe Enochs. We’re all going to have to work that much harder.”
That Summer of 1987 was a whirlwind tour that took us to Helsinki, Finland, Gothenberg, Sweden, Horring, Denmark and Oslo, Norway. We won 16 matches and lost only four. Each of the four losses was a knock out match in the playoffs of the four competitions. But that was news enough! An unknown American team from a land of baseball and basketball was winning games regularly in European competition. We were the upstart American kids, the nobodies from a land where nobody ever came: San Francisco. Yes, San Francisco was then and pretty much continues to be the city that rarely produces a soccer player whose name is much more than a local high school star. Attending Joe’s Farewell game in Germany were two friends who played with Joe in that very special summer of soccer: Rob Bonta, a SF City Attorney who was an All England player at Yale Univeristy and a professional for the San Francisco Seals, and Mike McGinty, a college standout goalkeeper at Wake Forest, who went on to play for DC United of the MLS. When the reminiscing began, we all went to that Summer of 1987 and, in particular, a game against Barcelona. Mike said he wished he knew who played for Barcelona that day. How many of those guys went on to become major stars in La Liga? We’ll never know. But we remember the game well. It was played in Gothenberg on a Heden field, an all dirt ground, open in the middle of a giant complex of fields. But for one brief period of time, it was turned into one of the highlight matches of the tournament. The unknown and undefeated team from San Francisco squared off against the professional powerhouse of Spain. David meets Goliath!!! It’s everyone’s favorite story. And the newspapers loved it. They filled the sports page the next day with highlight shots of the match and the 3000 plus fans who crowded round to witness a match that would be legendary before it started. The sports reporters filled the papers with comments about Americans who played like demons, some said like American footballers to be pejorative (because American success in soccer on European soil was anathema), but most were in admiration of a team Barcelona couldn’t score against. What surprised them more were the moments when Barcelona almost gave up a goal, in a game which would have knocked them out of the tournament, sending them home packing and explaining how some team from San Francisco beat them on European soil. What ignominy!!! Why should they ever get another penny to play the game? And if there was one player,who stood on that field, and represented what that match meant to all of us on that day, it would be the player whom Europe who ultimately was bestowed with a team’s highest honor: the Abschiedsspiel of Germany,the Farewell Match.
Osnabruck football team is over 100 years old. During that one hundred years, the vast majority of the time was spent in the Bundesliga. It’s a small city, roughly 100000 strong, but it’s a proud city and they adore their footballers. Joe Enochs is among the most revered of all time. After his young career with the Seals that lasted from 1987 to 1993, Joe did what so many think about, but few achieve: playing professional soccer in the Big Show of the world, European professional football. There was no MLS at that time. All previous attempts at professional soccer in the States had been miserable failures. All the deep pockets who had supported the game were empty. There were only hopes for the future, but they hinged on a successful World Cup. But who could count on that? And why wait? Joe headed for Europe and found himself a spot on a lower division team in the St. Pauli organization that paid him enough to carbo-load on German pastry and pay for a broom-closet sized bedroom. That was all he needed. Within three years, the player who led the San Francisco youth team on exploits that led to wins over Nacional, the U18 Brazilian National Champions in 1989, the USA Cup Championship in 1990, the State, Regional and National Championship matches in 1990, was ready for prime-time in Europe. Hamburg’s St. Pauli offered him a contract on their Bundesliga 1 team and Osnabruck, who recently dropped from the Bundesliga to the Regionaliga, offered him less money, but more opportunity to play. Joe wisely took the opportunity to play instead of sitting on the bench as a well-paid apprentice for Hamburg.
Today, Joe Enochs has played more games for Osnabruck than any other player in the history of the club. He recently knocked Uva Brunn off the record books. Uva is the most highly honored and famed Osnabruck goalkeeper and last of the three players to ever receive the abschiedsspiel honors.
Ah, you wonder, so what’s the big deal, what’s the hoopla!! Why should we get excited! Why mention this, write about it, try to give it attention? I think that to the American reader, even the fan of soccer, these honors and notices just don’t seem to warrant press time. Isn’t there something else to write about? Isn’t there something else worth spending one’s time on?
Well, certainly there are! We’re in the middle of an economic crisis. Although stateside, the pundits are poopooing the idea of a depression, there are Europeans who think it’s still on the table. There are troubles in the mid-East that put this story on the super-trivia list. What do the successes and honors of a Joe Enochs mean in the grand scheme of things. Look at the chilling poverty of Africa and so many nations!! Look at the looming and ominous HIV statistics that have killed or will kill more than 40 million people on the African continent. We have big problems. And we need to devote our time and energy to tackle these issues.
But every now and then, we want a break, too! I do! Although I’m a soccer guy, I spend more of my life worrying, thinking and grappling with the “real” issues of the world. I even have a “real” profession when I’m not hobnobbing with soccer dignitaries in Northwestern Germany.
Ultimately, though, I don’t see this as just a soccer story or relevant simply because it has historical value. I never have seen soccer as just a sport. As the abschiedsspiel game was winding to a close, the fans across the stadium began to cry, one side answering the call of the other. Joe AY-nochs (we say “ee” as in “see” while they prefer the “a” in “hay) shouted the thousands on one side. Joe-Enochs cried the thousands on the other. It went on and on, back and forth, as if they wanted their echoing banter to have a life of its own. They never stopped, even when the game was over. And then the whistle blew, you couldn't even hear it, and all the players on the field began to step up to Joe, one by one, guys from Macedonia, Africa, the United States, Brazil, and, of course, the local German guys who were the majority. They all gave Joe the good-bye hug and a thank you. And the tears flowed...the fans cried, coaches, staff, players, family and friends…..and Joe cried, too. He had finished what he set out to do. He made a place for himself in the world in the most unusual of places for an American. An American soccer player was honored as the best among his peers in a sport that he had no business being part of. Yes, this is what it’s about! It’s about the story within each of us. We all want something that says “I belong here,” “I’ve set a goal for myself and I want to achieve it,” “I want to make something of myself to show myself, to show my family, to show others that I, too, can make a mark in this world.” Some are fortunate enough to get that recognition from the outside world, some like Joe Enochs. And it’s important for us to do this. Why? Because it’s important for each of us to recognize the purpose for which we live. Yes, so there’s a message, do say thank you to that person in your life who made a difference. Provide honor to that person for setting a standard so high that almost no one will ever reach it. Joe probably set higher standards. Perhaps he would have wanted a contract with Bayern Munich and more games with the US National Team. But that issue misses the point. We do the best with what we’ve got. My heart is filled with grief for those children in Darfur who may never see a 2nd, 3rd or 4th birthday, let alone the chance to make a name on one of the great stages in life. This is not about the ego gratification of saying “I did it.” It’s about having the freedom, the support, love and opportunity to try. We celebrate those who achieve not because we want to satisfy their need to feel fulfilled but to honor what they have achieved, because in doing that we celebrate our own right, purpose, and good fortune to reach for the same.