Kazmierz Deyna in America

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Rightbankwarsaw’s third guest post comes from Grant Czubinski who looks at Polish legend Kazmierz Deyna’s time playing in the United States – a period normally neglected when tales are told of the great man.  Fascinating reading.

Of the many international stars that plied their trade in the original North American Soccer League (NASL – existing from 1968 to 1984), most people can easily rattle off the names of Beckenbauer, Best, Chinaglia, Cruyff, and obviously Pele. One player, who all but the most zealous of fans will fail to mention , is Kazimierz, “Kaz,” Deyna, arguably the greatest Polish footballer of all time. Mention his name to any Pole, especially Legia Warsaw fans, and they will serenade you with a long list of his triumphs and an array of nicknames, yet they will probably have little to say about his career in the United States. What Polish fans ignore is the most under-covered and pivotal period of Deyna’s career and life, his time in the floundering NASL and ultimately his premature death in 1989 when he was just 42 years of age.

Prior to arriving to the United States in 1981, Deyna had already established himself as one of the best players in the world. Up to that point, he had won two Ekstraklasa (Polish League) championships, an Olympic gold medal, and finished third behind Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer for the 1974 Ballon d’Or.

Kazmierz Deyna’s wonderful goal against Italy in the 1974 World Cup, where Poland finished in third place

Despite his prowess and widespread interest from abroad, the Polish government had a strict policy of not allowing players to transfer to foreign clubs until their thirtieth birthday. Deyna was no exception, with the Polish government keeping him in the green and white of Legia until he was thirty-one when he finally transferred to Manchester City in 1978. It was during Deyna’s three years at Maine Road that the issues that would plague Deyna in San Diego surfaced.

The English game was the complete antithesis to the style of play that Deyna exhibited on the pitch. England was more physical and brutal than Deyna was accustomed to, not to mention the language barrier that he faced. His deft ability to play intricate passes and make runs into space eventually won the hearts of the City faithful, but during his three years in Manchester, through injury and the whims of his manager, Deyna only managed thirty-eight appearances for City. All this meant that Deyna did not enjoy his time in England.  Deyna came to the country hoping to capitalize on his talents and finally earn a decent paycheck for his services, but ultimately his stint in England did not live up to his expectations. During this time, he began drinking more and had his first case of drink-driving – something which in the long-run would prove fatal.

NASL Arrival

Ted Miodonski, a “friend” of Deyna, persuaded Kaz to sign with the San Diego Sockers of the NASL in early 1981. Miodonski’s relationship to Deyna would prove disastrous by the end of Deyna’s playing career, but, at the time, Kaz and his family considered the move fortuitous. Kaz was no stranger to playing in the U.S. as he had played in the country several times with the Polish National Team and visited with Manchester City in 1980. Though his arrival in the NASL garnered relatively significant press, the attention was a fraction of the fanfare that surrounded his signing with City. Some media even declared that, the NASL’s newest acquisitions were lacking the superstar flare of the previous international signings of Pele and Beckenbauer and “other departed stars.”

Kaz’s arrival also coincided with the ongoing decline of the NASL. The league would go out of existence by the end of 1984. Within this unfavourable climate, Deyna made his league debut for the Sockers in a 2-1 shootout win against the Vancouver Whitecaps on March 28 1981. In fact, support for the league was in such a state of decline, and the arrival of Deyna went so unnoticed, especially in San Diego, that Sockers president Fred Whitacre enticed people to witness Kaz’s arrival with a post-game rock concert.

Deyna joined the NASL at the age of thirty-three giving relative credence to the the league’s detractors who mockingly referred to it as a “retirement league.”  Deyna entered a league that idolized players that were outgoing and scored goals. Unfortunately, the only part of Deyna that was outgoing or flashy was his ability on the field and despite his knack for scoring goals, he entered a team where he was expected to provide service for Julie Veee and the Sockers other forwards. This, combined with the decline of the league and the minimal celebration associated with Deyna’s arrival, meant that the press and fans would constantly overlook Deyna as he did not fit the mold of what a soccer superstar should be.

Despite this Deyna did remarkably well. This can be seen via a comparison of Pele’s stats during his three-year stint with the Cosmos and those of Deyna’s time playing outdoors with the Sockers.  

Pele – NY Cosmos

Year

Games

Goals

Assists

Points

1975

9

5

4

14

1976

22

13

18

44

1977

25

13

3

29

Kazimierz Deyna – San Diego Sockers

Year

Games

Goals

Assists

Points

1981

30

11

11

33

1982

21

10

6

23

1983

18

15

16

46

During his first campaign in the NASL, Deyna started slowly, giving his teammates, media, and fans reason to believe that he was past his prime, with a group of fans calling for his replacement in the starting eleven towards the end of the season. This could not have been farther from the truth, as everyone knows it takes time for a player to acclimate himself not only to a league, but also to his new life in a foreign country.

Deyna proved his worth as the season wore on and his hat trick in an amazing six minute spell against the California Surf on August 20 1981 clinched the Western Division Championship for the Sockers and all but secured his place in the starting eleven. Deyna, reserved, but confident, as usual, declared after the season “I wasn’t scared of Cuellar (Deyna’s competition) coming in; he wasn’t going to take my place. He is a good, talented player, but he wouldn’t get my position.” During this postseason interview, Deyna also stated his intent to one-day return to Poland, that the quality of the league was “so-so,” and the fact that the Sockers only had three good players, including himself. Kaz, though always meek, certainly did not lack candor, as he and the Sockers barely caused a blip on the San Diego sports scene as the team crashed out of the playoffs.

Deyna’s arrival in the NASL coincided with the growth of indoor soccer in America and the NASL’s commitment to a winter indoor league in addition to the traditional outdoor game. Deyna’s first experience with the indoor game came during the Sockers’ second season competing indoors. Overnight, Kaz and the Sockers became household names in San Diego. The indoor version of soccer proved exponentially more popular than outdoor Sockers games. The entire atmosphere was alien to the European players on San Diego’s roster. Players entered the “field” through huge plumes of smoke and flashing lights, something more akin to professional wrestling than the beautiful game played worldwide. Regardless indoor soccer would soon supplant the NASL as the only professional soccer league in America. Deyna struggled with the game initially, but by the end of the season he was bagging goals indoors with the same ability he had throughout his career – culminating in the Sockers’ first indoor championship. 

Deyna 2

The Sockers resumed their outdoor commitments within the NASL just weeks after they acquired their first indoor championship. During the 1982 season, Deyna continued to perform well and seemed all but acclimated to the peculiar structure of the crumbling NASL. At this point in Kaz’s Sockers career, Ron Newman, San Diego’s manager, still held Deyna in high esteem and valued what the Pole brought to the club, though that would change during subsequent campaigns.

Throughout the season, more or less due to the club’s success indoors and Poland’s appearance in the 1982 World Cup, Deyna garnered more media attention. In one interview during the World Cup, Deyna opened up and revealed his love for his homeland and how football had been his vocation from an early age. He also explained the differences in his life in the United States, and most tellingly, the amount of money he had potentially lost throughout his career as a result of Communist Poland’s transfer policy. Kaz’s lack of financial security was something that plagued him for the rest of his life and ultimately caused problems later in his career with the Sockers.

The Sockers’ 1982 outdoor and indoor seasons finished nearly identically to the previous season. The club, once again, had a decent outdoor campaign, but once more crashed out of the playoffs . Indoors, the team competed in the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) since the NASL refused to stage an indoor competition. The name of the league made no difference as the Sockers captured their second consecutive indoor championship in May 1983.

Deyna in action for the Sockers in the MISL in 1983

Deyna remained an integral part of the team during both campaigns though he sustained a knee injury during the MISL championship series. Deyna later admitted he should not have played on during the fifth and championship deciding game, but he knew the significance of the game to the team and the city of San Diego so continued anyway. His decision to do so proved detrimental to his standing within the team and affected how manager Ron Newman would view and use Deyna during the 1983 NASL season.

Due to the NASL’s refusal to stage an indoor season, the 1982-83 MISL and 1983 NASL seasons overlapped. Just days after the Sockers won their second consecutive indoor championship the club competed outdoors in the NASL. Kaz’s knee injury proved more problematic than he could have imagined and the injury forced him to sit out the first ten games of the NASL – effectively a third of the season. The lack of a significant offseason affected the rest of the veteran squad as well and the Sockers finished the season second from bottom

Deyna’s injury, combined with the collective fatigue of the team’s older players, forced Newman to field a younger starting eleven, a move that fundamentally altered Deyna’s place within the side. . Despite this Deyna was still captain of the team and showed fits of magic throughout the season. He even set the NASL record for points in a game with thirteen, with a four-goal/five-assist performance against the Tampa Bay Rowdies late in the season. (Note: The NASL counted goals as two points and assists as one, explaining Deyna’s thirteen points in one game.) Deyna also finished the season as the NASL’s fifth leading scorer netting fifteen goals and dishing out sixteen assists in just eighteen games. However despite this good form Deyna’s injury along with his high salary proved problematic to his future at the club.

The Sockers competed in the last rendition of the NASL’s indoor soccer league in 1983-84. Prior to the season, the club participated in an international indoor tournament. The Sockers, seeking a third consecutive championship, excelled at the indoor game and looked forward to splitting the $25,000 prize awarded after they won the preseason tournament. This was however before they discovered that owner, Bob Bell, was not going to reward his players for their efforts. This revelation prompted Julie Vee, forward and face of the club, and Deyna to lament the players lack of coin. Deyna opined, “people come and pay for tickets and the players get nothing,” again highlighting his concern with the amount of money he felt he deserved. Unbeknownst to him at the time his friend and manager Ted Miodonski had been raiding his bank account for years.

The 1983-84 NASL indoor, and 1983 outdoor seasons proved to be the apex of Deyna’s career in the States. For all the monetary issues, media speculation about his waning ability, and all of the nagging injuries, Deyna carried his outstanding form indoors and at age thirty-six finished second on the team and within the league’s top ten in terms of scoring. En route to a third consecutive indoor championship, Deyna racked up an All-Star nod and the players voted him to the All-NASL team at the end of the year alongside teammate Gert Wieczorkowski, and the “Lord of All Indoors” Steve Zungul. Kaz’s ability, though never able to capture the attention of the average American sports fan, was unquestionable to any fellow player or NASL fan from the time he arrived in 1981. The All-Star and All-NASL awards were just reward for this. Though Deyna was never one to boast about his achievements, he constantly felt he was undervalued in America, a feeling he would voice publicly by the end of 1984.

Deyna 3

For all of his achievements over the course of the 1983 outdoor and 1983-84 seasons, the NASL’s 1984 season, the league’s last, proved anything but spectacular for Deyna. The league, in an attempt to stay afloat, instituted an $825,000 salary cap. The move, though unsuccessful at saving the league, threatened players of Deyna’s stature as an aging star with a high salary. Kaz finished the year with only eight goals and eight assists and officially retired from the outdoor game at the end of season.

After the NASL folded , the Sockers joined the MISL permanently and competed strictly indoors. Kaz, now thirty-seven and on the last year of his $85,000 a year contract, eagerly sought a three year contract extension worth $270,000. In the first public outburst of many to come, Deyna voiced his frustration through the media and openly questioned whether Bob Bell, the Sockers owner, liked him anymore. Bell understandably was wary of giving a three-year contract to a player of Deyna’s advanced years, especially with the arrival of Zungul and Branko Segota, two players, in addition to Jean Willrich, who would finish the season with more points than Deyna.

Deyna continued to lobby for a new contract through the media. He was at a point in his career where he was more concerned with his financial security than anything else. Kaz increasingly turned to alcohol to cope, which resulted in his first drink-driving arrest in August 1984. His erratic behavior also extended to his play on the pitch. Bell and Manager Newman felt that Deyna was not devoting the same amount of energy to practice and games as in years past and only stepped up his play when contract negotiations were ongoing.

Kaz’s vocal protestations reached boiling point late in the season when he, Bell, and Newman had a closed-door meeting to discuss a new contract. The meeting ultimately resulted in nothing more than traded barbs through the media, with Deyna threatening to return to Poland if he did not get a deal soon. Despite the uncertainty off the pitch, the Sockers would go on to win their fourth indoor championship on it with Deyna as club captain. The season proved to be the last that Deyna would have a significant impact with the club. His increasingly erratic behavior and public demands, combined with his effort on the field, eventually led to a spat with Newman.

After months of negotiations and public warring, Deyna signed a two-year contract with the Sockers in August of 1985 initially believed to be worth $85,000 a year, which actually ended up being worth only $45,000 and an extra $500 bonus for each game he played. Deyna began the 1985-86 season as the club’s captain and helped unfurl the team’s fourth championship banner prior to the first home game of the season on November 1 1985.

However by the end of December, Deyna found himself on the outside looking in. After completely skipping a game against the Los Angeles Lazers, Newman fined Deyna, left him off the team’s travelling roster, and noted that Deyna’s performances were sub-par and did not merit playing time in front of other players. Kaz soon found himself consigned to the bench which had a considerable impact on his earnings.

By February, Kaz’s lack of playing time, an alleged slight at the hands of Newman, and the shortcomings of his contract, bubbled over as Kaz vented through the media insinuating that owner Bob Bell and Newman were not playing him to avoid paying him his bonuses. Of course, Bell and Newman completely denied Deyna’s claim and attributed his lack of playing time to his deteriorating skills and age. Indeed Newman went as far as stating, “if anything I’ve given Kazie more playing time because I know he needs the money.” Deyna remained loyal to the Sockers never demanded a trade throughout the season, claiming he only wanted to win with his team-mates on the pitch, all the while lamenting the fact he was losing money.

By the end of the 1985-6 season, Deyna was not even making the bench for the Sockers. He further alienated himself from the coaching staff after several more arguments about his playing time.  Deyna continued to fail to make the bench for most of the Sockers’ playoff games and claimed that Newman would not even talk to him anymore. Deyna watched in street clothes as the Sockers clinched their fifth indoor title. Deyna’s time at the Sockers had come to an impasse – in 1986 the club attempted to buy out the remaining year left on Deyna’s contract but Deyna refused.

Bell even tried trading Kaz prior to the 1986-7 season, but no team wanted to absorb Deyna’s $45,000 contract and Deyna did not want to leave. In his final season Kaz ended up playing in only thirteen games, half as many as he had during the tumultuous 1985-86 season. For the first time in five years, the Sockers did not win the championship and Deyna found himself out of contract without any prospects of playing again.

Come September 1987, Deyna was without a club and without a clue as to what he was going to do next. “I never thought about how long I was going to play. Even now, I’m not thinking [about it]. But now, it’s different,” stated Deyna in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. The previous two years had been full of frustration for Deyna and he let everyone know exactly how he felt toward the Sockers’ hierarchy and his former manager Newman. Deyna accused Newman of nepotism concerning the hiring of his son to run the Sockers’ reserves while still insinuating that Newman refused to play him in order to avoid paying bonuses.

Again, this was all uncharacteristic of Deyna, but at this time he was seriously worried about the state of his finances. He had no coping mechanism and so, as he had in the past, he turned to alcohol. Police arrested Deyna for drink driving twice in 1987 signaling a growing problem. In addition to his deepening dependence on alcohol, his supposed friend Miodonski continued to rob Deyna of his career earnings. All of this meant Deyna and his family were in dire financial straits.

Over the last two years of his life, Deyna conducted soccer camps and featured in several international exhibitions while his personal problems grew. Kaz continued to drink heavily and looked back sentimentally at the career he had once had.

In the end Deyna’s habit of drink-driving caught up with him. On September 1 1989, Deyna crashed his 1974 Dodge Colt into the back of a truck on the side of Interstate 15. Deyna’s blood alcohol level of .20, was double the legal limit in California. Deyna would not survive the crash.

Just two weeks previously, Deyna had appeared in an all-star exhibition with the Polish national team. Speaking after the crash Deyna’s longtime teammate and friend Juli Veee stated his belief that the trip had ultimately depressed Deyna. “He went back and he was Kaz Deyna the star again.” Veee also explained how difficult it was for Deyna to come back to America where nobody really cared about him..

Deyna was laid to rest on September 9 1989 in an open service conducted in Polish and English.  Soon after his death the Sockers set up a memorial fund for their former player.  In an emotional ceremony in June 2012, Deyna’s ashes were interred in Warsaw’s Powązki Military Cemetery. To this day, both fans and ex-teammates alike sing Deyna’s praises, remembering his abilities on the field and explaining how he left an indelible imprint on their lives.

*****

These two pictures sum up Kaz’s career with the Sockers; central upon arrival in 1981 and bordering on anonymity during his last professional season.

Deyna 4

Deyna 5

In writing this article, I relied on numerous sources.  My primary resource was the Los Angeles Times . I also consulted several websites including; www.nasljerseys.com, Legia’s interview with Mariola Deyna, the American Soccer History Archives, and Rob Allen’s great piece on Deyna.

Many thanks to Grant for writing this piece – you can read his great blog which mostly covers football history in the States here and you can follow him on Twitter here

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