Last week, the Bruins unveiled a bronze, life-sized statue (okay, it's 10% larger than life, but who's counting?) of Bobby Orr outside the TD Garden. The piece depicts Orr frozen in his iconic, mid-air leap.* You know: the one where he hovers timelessly over the ice after scoring a goal against the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1970 Stanley Cup finals and the TV announcer wildly shouts “BOBBY ORR!!!” and it gets all static-y after that.
(*As the son of sculptor, I can appreciate that it’s a magnificent work. It truly captures that moment, even though I wasn't even alive to witness it. But I can feel it.)
Orr’s statue seems to be the latest in a classy trend among sports franchises in honoring their pasts. Their traditions. Their glory. Their greatness. All of the above.
And that’s what a statue should come to mean. All of which makes the Eusebio statue that sits within the spacious confines of Gillette Stadium utterly ridiculous.
Now, I understand that we are talking about a legend. This is the same Eusebio who catapulted Portugal to its best World Cup finish at England ’66. The same Eusebio who many Portuguese consider Pele’s equal. But, it is also the same Eusebio who played exactly seven – 7 – games for the Boston Minutemen. And it is the same Eusebio who’s done absolutely nothing of record to merit a statue on this side of the Atlantic.
Let me say this: I don’t dispute Eusebio’s accomplishments. He was a virtual god when he played for Benfica back when a Portuguese club could win everything in sight. Seven hundred twenty seven career goals can elevate a player to those kind of heights. He deserves the accolades. The tribute dinners. The mike every two years when Portugal’s en route to Euro or the World Cup.
In short order, he deserves pretty much everything he’s received. And I won’t dispute that. But one thing that isn’t deserved is a statue at Gillette Stadium. Not until Billy Gonsalves gets one.
I’ll admit: I didn’t grow up with stories of Billy Gonsalves. I suspect very few kids did. How many of us grew up on the wonder years of the first (or second or third) American Soccer League? Of Clarkie Souza and the Fall River Marksmen? Heck, how many of us even heard of Joe Gaetjens before we could google him?
And I get it. I get it that soccer has never had the cache of baseball, football, or basketball. Even back when it was called association football, and it was wildly popular among the fledging immigrant classes in southern New England and New Jersey, soccer had a really tough time engraining itself in the American sports consciousness. Sure, the local dailies gave some inks to a few matches, which is a heck of a lot more than it seems to get in today’s papers. There may have been a feature or two on the U.S. Open Cup. But the constant in-fighting within the sport tragically killed any chances that soccer would grow beyond the neighborhood pitches.
Well, Billy Gonsalves thrived on those neighborhood pitches. He dazzled the crowds in Fall River, Pawtucket, Tiverton, New Bedford, or Providence, He terrorized the two-man backlines. He was a tall (6-2) center-mid who could unleash a deadly shot just as easily as he could put one through to a teammate. Despite his stature, it is believed he was not once carded or sent off for unsavory behavior.* The 339 words contained within his bio on the National Soccer Hall of Fame coldly betray the greatness of his playing career.
(*I’m not saying it’s impossible. It’s not. BUT it’s hard for me, personally, to believe that a 6-2 center-mid didn’t get hacked over and over and over by smaller opponents and never ONCE retaliated. I mean, even Steve Ralston, the epitome of a gentleman on the pitch, was carded a few times over his lengthy career. And who knows? Maybe Gonsalves carried a Ghandi-like demeanor. But not a single card - in 25 years? In the old ASL, where fights were almost as common as they are in hockey? I don’t know – I think I smell a new episode of “Mythbusters.”)
We’ll never comprehend the true greatness of Billy Gonsalves. Never. It’s because we don’t have those grainy, black-and-white images of Gonsalves weaving through the middle of the park. We can’t recite his stats by heart because his career goal totals are painfully incomplete. Little has been done to preserve magnificent accomplishments. But we do have something.
We have writers like Steve Holroy digging through archives and finding tidbits. News briefs that mention the way his peers often marveled at the way he could put a ball into the net, with either foot. He turned down massive amounts of money by staying in the States, even though European clubs were practically banging at his door every summer. He played for eight U.S. Open Cup Championship clubs, three ASL champions, and two Lewis Cup winners. He starred for the 1930 and 1934 World Cup teams. When the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame announced its inaugural list of inductees in 1950, Billy Gonsalves was among them.
I understand the reasoning behind the Eusebio statue. He’s a legend among the thick Portuguese population that resides in southern New England. He is the Portuguese Pele. Unquestionably. And that statue is for them.
But, on the real, Eusebio has about as much to with New England soccer as Pele has to do with ice fishing. To assert that that one season – correction, one portion of a season –warrants a one’s bronzed likeness is an absolute farce.
Nevertheless, the Kraft family gave Eusebio his statue outside of their stadium in 2006. Hey, it’s their money, their land, and their resources. They can spend it (or stash it it, as they seem to do with the Revolution these days) in any manner to which they see fit. But in doing so, they brazenly overlooked one of the best American players of all-time.