In 1964, the popularity of two groups of Liverpudlian lads was on the rise as they toured the United States. In September, the Beatles performed at a soldout Boston Garden. Four months earlier, Liverpool FC attracted a similar crowd for an exhibition soccer match at Everett Stadium.
And just as Beatlemania overwhelmed the Garden audience, Liverpool FC swept away a team called the Boston Metros on May 8, 1964.
The score was Liverpool 8, Metros 1. But the result might not have been so lopsided if a Boston player had not provoked the visitors by dribbling through the legs of a Liverpool veteran, according to Frank Mirisola, a Metros midfielder.
“It was a humiliation of one of Liverpool’s best players,” Mirisola recalled. “And after that, the game changed and they really started playing. It was 0-0 in the first 15 minutes and we probably could have held them to three or four goals, instead of 8-1. But they had national team players, six of them, like Juventus today. They were professionals and the coach was Bill Shankly.”
The year marked the resurgence of Liverpool FC, which won the First Division, an early milestone on the way to becoming one of Europe’s most successful clubs. The next year, Liverpool won its first FA Cup. Two years later, Liverpool made its first extended run in the Champions Cup, eliminated by Inter Milan in the semifinals.
The contrast in the status of Liverpool and the Metros was stark. Three members of the Liverpool traveling party (Shankly and assistant Bob Paisley, plus Ian Callaghan) would be knighted. Gerry Byrne and Callaghan were members of England’s 1966 World Cup championship team. Other key Liverpool figures such as Alan A’Court, Ronnie Moran, Ian St. John, and Ron Yeats, would continue to receive heroes’ welcomes when they returned to watch matches at Anfield Stadium.
The Metros, a blend of full-time professionals such as Brazilian forward Carlos Metidieri, plus semi-pro players such as Mirisola, would fold after the season. Some Metros – Mirisola and his brother, Filippo, Salvatore Golino, Sal Lo Grasso, and Mario Russo — would remain in the area. Metro defender Hubert Vogelsinger, an Austrian, would go on to coach the Boston Minutemen and other teams in the North American Soccer League in the 1970s.
But the Metros did not have a permanent home stadium to bear testament to their accomplishments. Their story lived on by word of mouth in cafes in Medford and the North End.
The Metros were competing in the American Soccer League, a NASL precursor. A few days after the Liverpool match, the Metros jumped in their cars for a drive to Philadelphia to play the first-place Ukrainian Nationals.
“I was very young,” said Lo Grasso, now 65. “I remember — my coach said we’re saving you for next Sunday, because we had a big game in Philadelphia.
“So, I was on the bench. But I remember these [Liverpool] guys, they were unbelievable. They were all professional. I was a fan of Inter and we followed [European soccer] and we knew Liverpool in those days was good — real good.
“I was not afraid of them, no. Why? I was a good player then. I would have liked to get in there but I was young and they were all experienced guys. It was an unbelievable night, the place was packed — 18,000, or better, that’s what Everett Stadium holds. It was jam-packed.”
The attendance for the game is a point of contention. On a Liverpool fan website, the crowd is listed at 10,000.
“It was 15,000 — that was the number of tickets,” said Mirisola, who is referee supervisor for the Boston Public Schools league. “It wasn’t quite full. Everett Stadium was a horseshoe, all bleacher seats. There might have been some people who got free tickets. But I saw the ticket receipts and it was 15,000.”
The perception of soccer in the US was mixed in the ’60s. Significant crowds did appear at major soccer events around the country, often outdrawing other sports. In 1964, the Red Sox averaged about 11,000 spectators per game and on May 27 that year, a Red Sox-Washington Senators game drew 3,315 at Fenway Park. The same day, the Metros met German Bundesliga club Hamburg (a 7-1 defeat) before 6,000 fans at Chelsea Stadium.
Soccer suffered from administrative problems and lack of media exposure. Talent development programs were inconsistent. Several Boston players — Metidieri, Nestor Caceres, Francisco Catroppa, and Jorge Piotti — had started their professional careers in South America, then being recruited by Toronto Italia in Canada.
Lo Grasso and the Mirisola brothers were in their teens when they emigrated from Riesi in Sicily. There were few professional soccer opportunities, so they went to work doing manual labor and found places on local teams, the best of which were ethnically-affiliated — Greek, Italian, Polish, Portuguese. School was not a practical option, either, because of the language barrier, but they found acceptance on the soccer field.
The Boston Italia club had an office on Hanover Street and the team played games at North End Park. Umberto Atria owned Sal’s Pizza on Cambridge Street and also coached the team, entering it in the ASL as the Metros, and a later version as the Tigers.
The Metros compiled a 9-1-3 record and finished second to the Ukrainian Nationals in the 1964 ASL standings.
The local team was popular in some ethnic communities but struggled to find acceptance in the mainstream media.
“In those days soccer was big,” Lo Grasso said. “We used to hang out at Caffe’ Dello Sport, Caffe’ Paradiso, and they used to have a board on the wall to tell you the leading scorer of American League [ASL] and the teams [standings].
“We had a good team. Most of the guys used to play pro, they were older, they had experience.”
British teams regularly dominated the competition on North American tours, their motivation increasing after the United States’s 1-0 win over England in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. In May of 1964, the national team included three Liverpool players — Roger Hunt, Gordon Milne, and Roger Thompson — who skipped the club’s tour to be with the England team that took a 10-0 victory over the US in an exhibition in New York.
The Boston team would compete against several visiting European clubs — Celtic FC, Hapoel Petah Tikva, Hamburger SV, Hearts of Midlothian, Nottingham Forest, West Ham United, several Italian Serie A clubs. They had a nomadic existence, playing at stadiums in Chelsea, Everett, Lynn, Malden, and Somerville.
“The only decent game we had was against Hearts, we tied, 1-1,” said Lo Grasso, who would go on to play in the NASL. “I scored on a free kick. But it was, like, 85 minutes at one end. Our goalie was superior.”
After their playing days ended, the Metro players would keep their hand in the game. In 1972, AS Roma played a preseason contest against Hungarian champion Ujpest at Nickerson Field, losing, 2-0. The referee was Frank Mirisola.
Many of the Metros went into business. Lo Grasso and Mirisola own restaurants across from each other on L Street in South Boston.
Meanwhile, the Liverpool teams of the ’60s achieved legendary status in European soccer. Shankly, the manager, is commemorated by the Shankly Gate and a statue at the club’s Anfield Stadium.
Shankly had established a long-term plan to build a team when Liverpool was in the Second Division, his planning paying off as The Reds were promoted in 1962 and won the First Division title in ’64.
Shankly, a Scotsman, united Liverpool FC based on his belief in socialism’s collective philosophy. Shankly was obsessive, known for saying: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
The Shankly years established the basis for Liverpool’s later success. The Reds won the Champions Cup in 1977, ’78, and ’81 under Paisley. They also won the Champions competition in ’84, with former Revolution coach Steve Nicol in the starting lineup, defeating AS Roma in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, and 2005.
And the Boston area received a preview during Liverpool FC’s May 8, 1964, visit.
“Liverpool was a young team, fast,” Lo Grasso recalled.” They had speed, and that makes a lot of difference, even if you have experience.
“They won the league and the next year they played against Inter in the Champions Cup. And we went back to work. It’s not easy, playing against those guys. They’ve got another speed. When you’re professional you’re professional — that’s what you do for a living. Even though we were good they were better.”Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at email@example.com.