This match stands out as an odd, colorful footnote, not just in Real Madrid's illustrious history, but in the overall historical trajectory of American soccer. The contest, notably the first match ever held indoors and on artificial turf, was staged as a part of series of exhibitions designed to generate a buzz for an ultimately ill-fated domestic league known as the United Soccer Association (see what they did there?) which kicked off later that summer. The Astrodome, lovingly referred to as the "Eighth Wonder of the World," was the feverish vision of a larger than life Texan named Judge Roy Hofheinz. Hofheinz was the type of purely American character novelists struggled to capture and conjure from the depths of their achingly ambitious minds.
Born in 1912, he was the youngest county judge in the history of the United States at 24 and an intimate of future President Lyndon B. Johnson before serving two, rabble rousing terms as the mayor of Houston in the 1950s. After leaving politics, Hofheinz began dabbling in sports and dreaming of a domed, air-conditioned palace to house his Major League Baseball team the Houston Colt. 45s. Lest you think I'm exaggerating the magnitude and hype aroused by the construction of this stadium, it completely took on a life of its own, subsuming the identity of its primary tenants who were quickly rechristened: the Houston Astros upon its completion in 1965.
Know derisively in some Houstonian circles as "Giltfinger," due to his lavishly loud tastes-the Judge certainly didn't disappoint, furnishing the Astrodome's offices and executive suits with gold trimmed desks, china, teacups, ashtrays and, yes, even toilet seat covers. The $37 million ode to modernity and a peculiarly American form of opulence featured a scoreboard that projected images of cowboys, blazing bullets and snorting bulls whenever the Astros scored. Despite financing the stadium largely through his own fortune, the Judge entered into an agreement that stipulated he pay Harris County rent to the tune of a whopping $750,000 annually. The need to find ways to offset that fee and use the venue as much as possible outside of baseball is partially what led Hofheinz to get involved with the fledgeling United Soccer Association, wherein he was ultimately granted a franchise he dubbed the Houston Stars.
As they have so often been throughout their history (I just couldn't resist), Real were still officially the reigning European Champions when they touched down in Texas that spring, even though they had just been eliminated by Inter in the quarterfinals of that year's competition. Madrid earned their 6th crown the previous May, beating a game Partizan side 2-1 in Heysel. West Ham were a stylish enigma, studded with international stars like Geoff Hurst and Sir Bobby Moore yet saddled with strangely unimpressive mid-table finishes, including a 12th place finish that same year. Alberto Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas had made way, but the legendary Francisco Gento remained in place for Real.
A young West Ham winger named Harry Redknapp recalled what it was like to play against Gento in such a unique setting:
"He’d run with the ball for 100 yards, stop, backheel it, then run 100 yards with it in another direction. He was lightning quick and he must have been about 40 then. He was on the left and I was on the right wing so our full-back, John Charles, asked me to keep up with him and cover him. Some chance.
What a great occasion that was. It was unique because of the roof and the astroturf. Real wore their all-white strip which had that magic about it and we had all been in awe of them since we had seen them beat Eintracht Frankfurt in the European Cup final at Hampden Park in 1960. They were holders at the time of that friendly too."
An eye-popping 33, 351 fans ultimately turned up on April 19th, 1967 to watch Real win a thrilling 3-2 decision over Redknapp's free-flowing Hammers. According to the Dallas Morning News, "Real Madrid pressed its slower opponent all the way," building a 2-1 advantage at the break. Just as Redknapp would years later, the Morning News gushed over the regal Gento, writing somewhat colorfully that "He could probably thread a needle with his toes. The ball pants and twirls and laps at his feet as though it were a kitten trained in method acting." Strangely, none of the accounts of this match I've uncovered through my research list Real's goalscorers. We know through Redknapp's reminiscences that Geoff Hurst and John Sissons tallied for the East Londoners.
Instead of relaying important details such as that--the American press, as was their habit in the late 60s, focused on making sure their readers knew that Real were "a soccer team not a wine" and that the players enjoyed mineral water, wine and salads, but not bananas which were "too fattening." Honest. Even broadly sympathetic newspapers such as the Dallas Morning News couldn't resist amplifying the game's supposed exoticism in such a jarring, bizarre fashion. But ultimately the match and Real's electric performance led the paper to proclaim that soccer "has the fluid beauty of basketball and the stormy scoring compact of football."
I hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane. If so, let me know in the comments because I can make this a semi-regular series through the dog days of transfer season. HALA Madrid!