During the 1970s the NASL brought about an invasion of British soccer players. Most came and went; some stayed; of all that stayed none had a greater impact on American soccer than Clive Charles.
By 1989, when I first met him, Clive had hung up his boots and become a respected coach. His tactical grasp of the game was second to none – as I discovered to my cost. I was coaching the Ajax women’s team against Clive’s powerful Cozars from Washington. Ajax enjoyed a short spell on top, but it didn’t last, as Clive caused huge tactical problems for Ajax. Our friendship began that day, based on a mutual respect and on competitiveness – the hallmark of Clive Charles.
An English friendship, particularly one between two London Eastenders, is based on a round or two in the bar at the end of the day. In that environment Clive was in his element. It spawns wit, repartee, badinage – and Clive was a very funny guy. The mixture of deadly seriousness as a coach, dry, clipped humor delivered in a Cockney accent, and fierce competitiveness ensured that Clive was always up to something. It sometimes took a while to figure out what he was up to, but it always involved friendly, rapid-fire banter to and fro.
On one occasion he called me before the state ODP adult teams competed at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. “How many big-time players are you bringing from California?” he asked me casually. I knew that he had Tiffany Millbret and Shannon Mc Millan on his team, so I replied “None – the same as you.” In truth, I had Joy Fawcett and Carin Gabarra (Jennings) on the California squad, but, even so, we usually had a war on our hands. On four occasions Clive’s and my teams met in the final.
Like everyone who became a good friend of Clive, I will always remember his willingness to do anything to help others. Yet he was a man of simple tastes and modest demands. On the many occasions that he visited my camp, his idea of a feast was bangers and mash and a few pints at the Kings Head pub in Santa Monica. This became our routine. On a few occasions I reminded him he was coaching the next day. “Yes,” he would reply, “but not playing.” Whereupon he would order another pint of Bass ale.
On one visit to Portland we talked about the pitfalls of youth soccer, and the F.C. Portland Academy that he created. I remember vividly that we spoke of the organization, its creation and structure, the people involved, and that I commented that it couldn’t be duplicated in California. At that moment I had no idea that, a few years later, I would start my own club, modeled in detail on the blueprint of Clive’s academy in Portland.
Clive combined the professionalism of an accomplished coach with the passion and enthusiasm of a kid. I remember how, when England and Germany met in the 1996 European championship, we rushed home from camp at 80 mph and settled down to watch the game. When England scored, he leapt off my couch, both hands in the air, yelling like a teenage fan. But then wisdom intervened. We looked at each other; each knowing that England had scored too early, that it would be hard to keep the Germans out. As the game went into overtime and then penalty kicks, we had to rush to the airport for his flight. Tense and brooding on the outcome, we agreed that I would leave a message with the result on my home phone’s answering machine. And that, of course, was the one time when my VCR tape ran out – after two rounds of PKs and Clive Charles frantically calling my phone to find out the result on his way back to Portland. As you can imagine, I never heard the end of that story.
The word “passion” may have become a cliché, but for Clive it was no less than the truth. He was involved in every aspect of the game, as player, youth and high school coach, women’s youth national team coach, college coach, men’s national team assistant coach, Olympic coach and broadcaster.
He helped guide Team USA through qualification to the finals of the 1998 World Cup; he coached the Olympic team to fourth place in Sydney; last year he took the University of Portland women to their first national title. Prescient as ever, he had told me three years earlier that it was only a matter of time before the women won the NCAA championship.
Most of Clive’s friends were convinced that he would beat cancer. Clive would find a way. Only his family and close friends knew what he was really going through. Yet, even in a sharp decline, he retained that inimitable sense of humor to the end.
That physical decline was evident on the last occasion I saw him. I was concerned and uncertain what to say. But Clive had the words. He hugged me and lamented that he couldn’t drink beer anymore. “It’s the chemotherapy,” he said. “I can’t taste it anymore.” With a big smile. “So I’ve switched to Bacardi and coke.”
Clive Charles was monumental figure in American soccer who had a truly phenomenal effect on both the men’s and women’s game in this country. The miracle of Clive was the depth of concern that he carried for his fellow humans. As a teacher, as a coach, as a husband and father, as friend and mentor, he was deeply loved.
I will miss him dearly.