Monday, August 31, 2009

Catching Up With Farrukh Quraishi

Farrukh Quraishi, an original member of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, is one of Tampa’s best ambassadors for the sport of soccer. Quraishi played for the Rowdies from 1974-1980, served as the first president and general manager of the Tampa Bay Mutiny from 1995-96, and was the Venue Executive Director for World Cup USA ’94 in Orlando. He made news earlier this month for his efforts in trying to land Tampa as a host site for World Cup games in 2018 or 2022. Quraishi recently sat down to discuss his playing career, the glory days of Rowdies soccer, and what it will take to bring World Cup competition to Tampa.

Q. In 1974, you were recognized as the best male college soccer player in the United States by winning the Hermann Trophy. Did you anticipate going straight into professional soccer here in the U.S.?

A. Well, I was taken first overall by the Tampa Bay Rowdies, who had the first pick in the 1975 North American Soccer League draft. The closest I had ever been to Tampa – and my first time in Florida -- was Winter Park, where we played the Senior Bowl at Rollins College in December 1974. Eddie Firmani, who had already been hired as the Rowdies coach, came over to watch the game and they drafted me one month later.

Q. What was that first season like here in Tampa?

A. I think soccer here was something of an unknown. There were no youth leagues, but because we were the first professional team in town, and because we had such a strong, unique brand, I think it really piqued people’s interest. Preceding the Buccaneers by one year was a major factor in the acceptance of the club, but also that we were very successful from day one on the field. The players were very accessible off the field as well, so the community just embraced the team.

Q. Hard not to embrace a team that wins the league championship in its first season. How did you, as a young player, deal with that rush of success?

A. As a first-year professional, obviously I had to adapt to the pro game, which is a lot different from college. You have to think and execute faster against better players. So it was a year of transition and adaptation. We as a team were a close knit group of players, and some of the guys I knew from playing with or against in college. That made it a little bit easier, but it was a wonderful experience.

Q. Did you have a mentor on that team, someone you looked to for guidance or who looked out for you?

A. Clyde Best, when he came to Tampa, we roomed together. He and I were very close and he had a lot of experience. He played in England for West Ham United, and was one of the first black players in the U.K. Just a fantastic guy, so Clyde was always willing to share his insight with me and he was a good mentor.

Q. How about your coach, Eddie Firmani. What was it like to play for him?

A. I think Eddie was still relatively young, around 42 or so at that time, and was still a very good player. A lot of our training sessions were designed so he could participate. In the first game ever at Tampa Stadium, he put himself in as a substitute at striker. So that gives you an idea of his thinking and his condition.

He always liked to tell us to focus on our game, and not worry about the opposition. There was one time when we went up to Yankee Stadium to play the New York Cosmos. Eddie was giving the pre-game talk to the team, telling us to focus on our game, and Mark Lindsay, who was a mid-fielder, said, “Well boss, what about Pele?” (laughs)

Eddie said, “****, man, don’t worry about Pele. Worry about our game and everything will be fine.” We came back in at halftime and Pele had scored three goals. We were all just laughing our heads off at that.

Q. The Rowdies returned to the Soccer Bowl in 1978 and 1979. Although those teams fell short both times, what were the factors that made the Rowdies an elite team in the NASL?

A. One of the keys was the fact that under Firmani and Gordon Jago, the club continued to identify and sign some outstanding players. We always had a strong nucleus of players, and any changes we made were always one or two players who’d improve the balance of the team. There was a good blend of experience and youth.

We established a high standard from day one by winning the title our first year. Even when we didn’t win it, we were always very competitive. There was a lot of leadership on the field. Everyone was very motivated and knew what was needed to win.

Q. Fast forwarding to today, you’re part of an effort to bring the World Cup to Tampa in either 2018 or 2022. What has to happen in order for Tampa to land this major event?

A. I think one of the advantages that we have is that we are a tourist destination already. You combine the wonderful beaches, our close proximity to Disney and Orlando’s attractions, a first-class airport, plenty of hotels, Raymond James Stadium has one of the best fields in the NFL, and the fact that this is a community that has hosted four Super Bowls. We’re a community that understands the importance of hospitality and hosting big events. I’ve had so many people contact me asking what they can do to help, wanting to support our bid. It’s nice when people are proactive and excited about something years away in the future. The community at large will really embrace the event if we’re named as a host.

Finally, I don’t think you can take anything for granted, but having worked on the 1994 World Cup games in Orlando, I would be surprised if we weren’t one of the cities to host World Cup games. I think we’ve got as good a chance, or better, than most.

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