When Columbia got to the 1983 men's soccer National Championship game in Ft. Lauderdale, they had everything—talent, speed, and confidence. Everything except a chalkboard.
"I would have team meetings and look up at the chalkboard, and there would be a mark before the game," Columbia's head coach since 1979, Dieter Ficken, said, "1-0, 2-0. Throughout the season they went 18-0. And would you believe it, the day that we played the national final against Indiana, there's no chalkboard. I didn't see the 19-0. And I thought about it during the game because we kept missing opportunities."
The Lions outplayed the Hoosiers throughout most of the game, and with seven minutes left, carved out a golden opportunity to put themselves ahead, but the goal-bound shot hit a teammate in the back of the head. Indiana went on to take the title with the only goal of the game in double overtime and ended Columbia's perfect season. The Lions' successful run wasn't a one-off fluke, however. In the late '70s and '80s, Columbia was a soccer dynasty, winning eight Ivy League championships in a row and making two final four appearances.
Throughout that '83 season, the Columbia back line was dynamic, supported by goalkeeper Gary Escher, and was breached only six times and recorded 12 clean sheets. The strike at the other end of the field was led by a pair of British All-Americans, Barry Nix and Steve Charles, both recruited by Ficken's predecessor, John Rennie. Rennie had arrived in 1973 and turned an ailing Columbia program around during his five-year tenure.
"I came in when Columbia soccer was down. The program had gone from being a really good one and dropped down," said Rennie, who has been at the helm of Duke's men's soccer team since his departure from Morningside. "A couple of things helped speed up the process. One was when they made freshmen eligible; so not only did we have a freshman team becoming sophomores, but we had an incoming freshman class that could play. It was like having two recruiting classes. The other was recruiting abroad, mostly from England."
This led to an almost complete turnover of the roster, and in the next two years, they shot up the Ivy table, going from perennial last place to a conference title and the ensuing NCAA appearance in 1978. After that year, Rennie headed south, attracted by on-campus facilities and a generally "better opportunity." Ficken left a coaching job at his alma mater, LIU, and took over the stronger, new-look squad. Prior to his coaching career, he played professionally for 17 years, boasting one year at the German club Werder Bremen and was a captain of the US national team.
"I inherited a very good team," Ficken said. "It was simply a group of young men who determined their own fate. They had learned to win in the precious two seasons, and winning was the only thing."
But like all college sports, soccer is cyclical, and by the early '90s the Lions had started to slip. Steve Charles was back in England racking up 500 league appearances for Sheffield United in the top divisions. Most of the others were also long gone to graduation and took with them the guarantee of finishing first every season. By now, Ficken sees the coming few years as a chance to return to the level at which Columbia once played.
"This is the first time in the last 10 years that we've had three outright forwards," Ficken said. "For a while, all we had was attacking midfielders, and it makes a big difference. I'm determined to end my career at Columbia winning again."
But aside from Ficken and Columbia's current women's head coach Kevin McCarthy, who anchored the Lion defense from 1981 to 1984, ties to those glory days still remain on campus. Werner Dasbach, the current women's assistant coach, used to drive up from Washington D.C to serve as the Columbia ball boy and see his big brother Kurt, who earned all-Ivy honors in '85 and '86, in action. But soccer in Morningside Heights is not just confined to a pair of offices on the third floor of Dodge Fitness Center. The three weekly soccer classes offered by the P.E. department are always full, and McCarthy believes that the soccer community at Columbia has grown over the years—especially with the addition of the women's program in 1986.
"There is a great soccer community here," he said. "There are so many people who love to play on campus, who love to play in the gym classes ... If we played a midweek game [20 years ago, the crowd] was Spectator, girlfriends, family—if they could make it—and maybe a couple of soccer people. Now, on a good Ivy league weekend, we get a lot of support from alumni and students."
It's natural to find soccer in the athletic department, and not surprising to find that it's somewhat popular among students. However, one would expect to find it less easily among faculty members. But, in fact, all one has to do is walk to the ground floor of Hamilton Hall to the office of Dean Austin Quigley. Before deciding to devote himself to the world of academia, Quigley was well on his way to becoming a professional soccer player in his native England. Growing up in County Durham, in the north of the country, he was recruited to play on the junior side of one of the most prestigious clubs in the top division, Newcastle United, or the "Magpies," as they're known for their black and white stripes.
European soccer clubs recruit prospective players young (around the age of 14) and put them through an "academy" system where they develop their skills in parallel to schoolwork. The players then graduate to the junior and reserve teams, which are used to harvest talent, much like baseball's minor league teams. In the '90s, for example, the core of Manchester United's championship team was entirely made up of players who had gone through the youth ranks. After the Newcastle experience, Quigley, unlike many potential professionals, decided to attend university and went to Nottingham. There, he was selected to represent Nottinghamshire in the county league. But after earning a master's degree from Birmingham, he left England for UC Santa Cruz and effectively left the possibility of a career in soccer behind him.
As for the younger enthusiasts around campus, they aren't just interested in Columbia's varsity soccer teams, either. As more and more international students are accepted to the University, they bring their background and passion with them. One particularly fervent fan is Shreyas Chityala, SEAS '06, from Australia.
His love of the game has taken him all over Europe and as far as Japan and South Korea, where he attended seven games of the 2002 World Cup, including the final which pitted giants Brazil and Germany against each other in Yokohama. On that trip, he unwittingly ran past the president of South Korea on his way to a game and later met Pele, the best player ever to grace the pitch. Last summer, as the European Championships unfolded in Portugal, Chityala was forced to stay in the U.S. for a job. When he obtained tickets for the final between heavy underdogs Greece and host nation Portugal, however, he decided he needed to be there.
"I left work Friday at 2 p.m., got to the airport by 8, flew to Lisbon that night, and got in on Saturday morning without any sleep," Chityala said.
But, indulging this passion has its cost.
"I was so angry about the result in the Spain-Korea game [decided by a controversial line decision] that I even forgot my dad's birthday," Chityala said. "Soccer does take a lot from academics—in calculus class, I was reading about the history of F.C. Barcelona—and maybe a bit from my social life, but I have been known to go to bars and have a Guinness for breakfast at 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning to watch an F.A. Cup game."
As for the other fans at Columbia, Chityala feels that soccer is "mostly a niche spot for the international students," which is slowly attracting more American fans. If the coaches are to be believed, these new fans of the sport could have a reemerging Lion soccer program to follow.
"If the men's and women's soccer programs keep improving the way they have," McCarthy said, "we should be able to develop a wider following."