These Chiefs and Those Chiefs

The Atlanta Chiefs were a professional soccer team that existed from 1967 to 1973, and again from 1979 to 1981. They were originally owned by the Atlanta Braves baseball team, hence the “Chiefs” name. They played the 1967 season in the National Professional Soccer League, but in 1968 the NPSL merged with the United Soccer Association to form the North American Soccer League (or NASL, which was occasionally pronounced “nasal”, for obvious reasons).


Depending on how you look at it, the Chiefs brought Atlanta the city’s first professional, major league sports title:

– Georgia Tech won college football national championships in 1917, 1928 and 1952 (and, later, 1990). But college sports are strictly amateur, and were especially so 50 years ago.

– The Atlanta Crackers were a minor league baseball team that existed from 1901 to 1961. They played in the Southern Association and were league champs 17 times. In fact, the Crackers were the winningest team in Southern Association history, and were sometimes called the “Yankees of the Minors”. However, while they were “professional” (in the sense that they were paid to play, unlike college teams), they were only a minor league team.

– The Atlanta Knights hockey team won the International Hockey League’s Turner Cup – no relation to Ted – in 1993, their second year of existence. But they, like the Crackers, were a minor league team, in this case, an affiliate for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Sadly, the arrival of the Atlanta Trashers caused the team to move to Quebec, where they were known as the “Rafales” from 1996 to 1998, after which the team was shut down for losing too much money.

– The Atlanta Braves didn’t win a World Series until 1995. However, they won two previous World Series, in 1957 (as the Milwaukee Braves) and in 1914 (as the Boston Braves). Thus, not only are the Braves the oldest continually-operating sports franchise in North America, they’re the only team to have won a World Series in every city they’ve called home.

– The Atlanta Hawks basketball team was originally founded as the National Basketball League’s Buffalo Bisons in 1946. However, just 13 games in to their first season the team moved to Moline, Illinois. There they became known as the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, and were led by legendary coach Red Auerbach. But it soon became obvious that the “Tri-Cities” area (Moline and Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa) was too small to support a team in the new NBA. So in 1951 they moved to Milwaukee. And in 1955 they moved to St. Louis, where they won their only league title in 1958. They moved again to Atlanta in 1968. The Hawks’ 55 year championship drought is the second-longest in the NBA after the Sacramento Kings, and the Hawks haven’t even advanced past the second round of the playoffs since moving to Atlanta.

– The Flames NHL hockey team – which played in Atlanta from 1972 to 1980, when they moved to Calgary – has never won a Stanley Cup. In fact, neither the Atlanta Flames nor the Calgary Flames have ever even won their division. And the Atlanta Trashers – now the Winnipeg Jets – won their division exactly once, in the 2006-2007 season. And this also makes Atlanta the only city to lose not one, but TWO NHL franchises.

– The Atlanta Falcons have been to, but have never won, a Super Bowl. Which puts them in the same boat as the Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles, San Diego Chargers, Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans. It also puts them ahead of the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, none of which have ever even been to a Super Bowl.

But this post is about the Atlanta Chiefs.

One of the main criticisms of NASL was that teams barely tried to develop American-born talent. In a rush to get butts in seats, several teams hired famous, but past-their-prime foreign players. For instance, both Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer played for the New York Cosmos. Other teams tried recruiting cheap international talent. In Atlanta’s case, that was a player named Kaizer Motaung.

Born in Soweto, South Africa, Motaung joined the Orlando Pirates soccer team when he was 16 (and that’s “Orlando”, the neighborhood in Soweto, not the city in Florida). When he was 24 he was spotted by Chiefs owner Dick Cecil and team manager (and eventual NASL commissioner) Phil Woosnam, who’d formerly played for West Ham United. He was brought to Atlanta, where he was named “Rookie of the Year” and played a huge part in bringing Atlanta her first title: the 1968 NASL championship, the very first in NASL history!

Incidentally, in that same year the Chiefs beat Manchester City not once, but twice. This was a huge embarrassment for Man City manager Malcolm Allison, especially after he said that the Chiefs were  “Fourth Division standard” (Fourth Division was one of the lowest tiers of English soccer). To give an American analogy, it would be like Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer making fun of a Pioneer Football League team at a press conference… and then losing to that team twice in one season.

As it turned out, Motaung’s time in Atlanta was short. In 1969, NASL contracted from 17 teams down to 5, and it appeared that the league would fold at any moment. Motaung went back to South Africa and started his own team. He gave them his own first name as well as the “Chiefs” name and logo. Yes, his team was named the Kaizer Chiefs:

Kaizer Chiefs

The Kaizer Chiefs went on to become one of the most successful soccer teams in South Africa, and are said to have the biggest following of any team in Africa: around 16 million fans across the continent. And one of Kaizer Chiefs’ most famous players was Lucas Radebe, who was picked up by Leeds United in 1994 and named team captain shortly thereafter. Radebe got the attention of some guys named Ricky Wilson, Andrew White, Simon Rix, Nick Baines and Nick Hodgson, who named their band in his honor: “Kaiser Chiefs”.

Kaiser Chiefs

Interestingly, Kaiser Chiefs aren’t the only band named after a soccer team:

– One of my all-time favorite bands, Saint Etienne, was named after the soccer team from the French town of the same name. Saint Etienne has won ten Ligue 1 titles, the most of any team in French soccer history, although most of those championships came in the 60s and 70s.

– There is (or was) a French blues band called Aston Villa and there is (or was) a Belgian salsa band named Arsenal.

– Closer to home, there was a band from Chapel Hill named Red Star Belgrade, named after Serbia’s most successful soccer team.

– Some say that Simply Red’s name came from Manchester United. The band was originally just called “Red”. Depending on who you believe, this was either because that was the nickname of the red-headed Mick Hucknall, or in honor of Man U. So the story goes, the manager of a venue where the band played one of their first gigs couldn’t understand their name, so Hucknall tried to clarify by saying “Red, simply Red”. The manager heard “Simply Red” and put in on posters and flyers and the name stuck.

– And here’s an obscure one: there’s a minor league soccer team in England called Walton & Hersham. The team won their league back in 1969. In 1976, Hersham resident and punk rocker Jimmy Pursey saw a bit of graffiti which commemorated the championship: “Walton and Hersham ’69”. But most of it had faded away, and only “Sham 69” was plainly visible. He decided to name his punk rock band – Sham 69 – after the graffiti.

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