Considered the most popular ball game in the world, soccer has developed in Georgia primarily as a suburban sport with vast numbers of children taking part. Soccer in the state spread mainly from the Atlanta area, which since the 1960s has been home to more than a dozen professional men’s and women’s teams.
It is unclear when organized soccer first came to Georgia. Amateur players played in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park as early as 1912, and an amateur league played there in the 1920s and 1930s, consisting in part of employees from the John H. Harland Company. Harland had played soccer in Northern Ireland before immigrating to Atlanta in 1906.
The international influence has continued to prove vital to the sport’s development. When Emory University started the state’s first collegiate program in 1958, few of its physical education instructors knew how to play, and games had to be scheduled in North Carolina because there weren’t enough opponents in Georgia.
The 1966 World Cup in England, however, spurred interest in the sport nationwide. The Atlanta Braves, shortly after their arrival from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the same year, purchased a team in a newly launched professional soccer league. The Atlanta Chiefs played their first season in 1967. Phil Woosnam, from Wales, coached the team, and the core of the roster was also from overseas.
The Chiefs won Atlanta’s first professional sports championship in 1968 by claiming the North American Soccer League (NASL) title. At the same time, the team’s players and administrators helped galvanize interest in soccer by staging clinics, organizing youth teams, and inviting well-known international clubs to play at Atlanta Stadium (later Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium). On August 28, 1968, the Brazilian club Santos, featuring the world-famous player Pelé, played the Chiefs in Atlanta before 26,713 spectators, the largest crowd at that early point in the NASL’s history. Santos won the game, six to two. The Chiefs team folded in 1972. A second Atlanta Chiefs franchise competed in the NASL from 1979 to 1981, under Ted Turner’s ownership. Both incarnations of the team played at Atlanta Stadium.
An organizing entity for amateur soccer, the Georgia State Soccer Association (GSSA), formed in 1967. The impetus again came partly from international sources. Before the GSSA’s founding, amateur teams consisting of Scottish and South American migrants had competed informally with teams from Lockheed-Georgia (later Lockheed Martin). Lockheed, which opened its Marietta plant in 1951, had its own league. The 360 players registered in the GSSA’s first season represented thirty-five countries. Separate soccer programs for women and girls took hold in the 1970s through a recreational league at the Decatur-DeKalb YMCA.
Youth soccer sustained its development over the years despite fickle attitudes toward the professional game. The indoor soccer variant with which the Chiefs and other teams experimented also failed to thrive. Yet youth soccer participation increased steadily, from 200 statewide registrants in the Georgia Youth Soccer Association’s first year (1974-75) to a peak of more than 80,000 in 2001.
The game’s popularity resulted in the development of multifield soccer facilities in Athens, Columbus, Macon, and Rome. More than 100 youth teams compete in an annual spring tournament in Augusta. Immigration to Atlanta and other Georgia cities has also generated scores of Hispanic leagues and competitions among other ethnic groups. In 1989 Soccer in the Streets, a nonprofit organization, began in Atlanta to bring soccer and other activities for disadvantaged youth to urban areas. The program has expanded and is nationwide.
Olympics and Women
The large interest in soccer was sustained in part through the 1994 World Cup finals, held in the United States, and the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. More than 1.8 million people attended the men’s and women’s soccer events at the 1996 Games. Preliminary matches took place throughout the Southeast, with the medal rounds decided in Sanford Stadium at the University of Georgia. Nigeria won the men’s gold medal, and the U.S. women’s team garnered attention for its two-to-one victory in the final against China. In what was the first year of women’s soccer as an Olympic medal sport, 76,481 spectators attended the gold medal match on August 1, a record crowd at that time for a women-only sports event in the United States.
Enthusiasm for women’s soccer generated by the 1996 Olympics and the 1999 Women’s World Cup, also held in the United States, led to the formation in 2001 of the Women’s United Soccer Association. Georgia was represented by the Atlanta Beat, which twice lost the league championship game. Atlanta served as league headquarters after a financial restructuring, which could not prevent the league’s collapse after the 2003 season.
In 2009 the Atlanta Beat returned as a franchise of the newly formed Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league. The Beat’s inaugural WPS game took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on April 11, 2010, and the team played its first home game at the Kennesaw State University Soccer Stadium the following month.