Greg Cote

Catching up with the World Cup legends who shared a career's winter in Fort Lauderdale

Teofilo Cubillas during his Fort Lauderdale Strikers days.
Teofilo Cubillas during his Fort Lauderdale Strikers days.

The World Cup plays on, and the ghosts of greatness past are revived, because if you succeed on this grandest of all sports stages — no, not just succeed, but shine — you are immortal.

Astoundingly a rather notable slice of South Florida sports history includes three soccer players who were (are) World Cup titans, all of whom played the winter of their careers with the old Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the then-thriving North American Soccer League in the late 1970s to early '80s.

One was the English goalkeeper who won the 1966 World Cup and in '70 made the "Save Of the Century" against Pele'.

One was the Peruvian midfielder who to this day is the only South American player to score five goals in multiple World Cups.

One was the German forward won won the 1974 World Cup and for 32 years stood as the quadrennial event's all-time leading scorer.

And here were Gordon Banks, Teofilo (Nene) Cubillas and Gerd Muller, national heroes back home,. international soccer living legends, all playing in ramshackle little Lockhart Stadium, a high school football field surrounded by an asphalt track.

"Gerd came from Olympic Stadium in Munich, it was the massive stadium of Alianza Lima for Cubillas, and Gordon had decorated all the greatest cathedrals of football," said Ray Hudson, former Strikers teammate of each. "And they come to this! They're going from Louis Vuitton luggage to a backpack!"

Hudson, then the Strikers' English midfielder and team captain, is now, at 63, the wonderfully ebullient soccer analyst for beIN Sports. Wednesday, between watching World Cup matches on TV, he reminisced about being a 22-year-old with little pedigree suddenly being among giants.

Old Strikers stars also included three-time South American Footballer of the Year Elias Figueroa and Belfast playboy Georgie Best, but they did not make their mark in World Cups. Brazil's Ronaldo did, and he briefly was a minority owner of the latter-day Strikers in 2016, but that was a fleeting and failed experiment.

"It was a dream come true for a player like me to be among these icons like Banksy, Nene and Gerd," Hudson said. "You'd go out on the pitch and see these names you grew up in awe of. It was such a privilege. They were household names around the world."

Revisiting the World Cup legends who came to us:

GORDON BANKS

World Cup: Banks led England in the 1966 and 1970 World Cups. The Brits won the '66 championship in London's Wembley Stadium, forever assuring "Banksy" as an icon in the United Kingdom. In 1970 his spectacular robbery of a Pele header is widely considered to be the greatest goalie magic in World Cup history, the Save of the Century. "I'll be remembered for that one," he has said.

Strikers: Banks played here in 1977-78 and was all-NASL that first year. His career in the English Premier League had ended in 1972 when he lost sight in his right eye in a car accident that left him with 200 facial stitches, after he tried to pass a car on a sharp turn and ran head-on into a van. But that didn't stop him, years later, from making a comeback in South Florida. "I got tempted to play out in America with the sight of one eye," he said recently. "And I was voted the best goalkeeper!"

Today: Banks is now 80 and living in England, but not without intermittent strife. In 2001 he sold his World Cup winner's medal at auction for 125 thousand pounds. In late 2015 it was announced he was receiving treatment for cancer of the kidney. "A god of the game," Hudson calls him.

TEOFILO (NENE) CUBILLAS

World Cup: The attacking midfielder led Peru in the 1970, 1978 and 1982 World Cups and scored 10 goals in 13 matches, still tied for eighth-most all time. He is considered the greatest player in Peru history. From that continent only Brazilian greats Ronaldo (15) and Pele (12) have more World Cup goals. Pele once anointed Cubillas his successor. World Cups define the globe's most popular sport and the players who own the stage. Or, as Cubillas said before this one began: "Football confirms to remain the sport king."

Strikers: Cubillas played for Fort Lauderdale from 1979 to 1983, scoring a franchise-best 65 goals in 139 NASL matches. He had come here the closest to his prime of any of the three, just one year after scoring five goals in the '78 World Cup. He loved the experience and the area so much he remained in South Florida, and still lives in Coral Springs. "What a smile," Hudson recalls. "It was like opening a Steinway piano."

Today: Cubillas, now 69, is in Russia with the Peruvian team, working as a Telemundo television analyst on Peru's matches. Peru lost its opening Group C match to Denmark and faces elimination Thursday if it loses to group favorite France. Peru's third group game is next Tuesday vs. Australia. This is the country's first time qualifying for the World Cup since 1982 — the last year Cubillas led them there. "This for me is a graduation," he said.

GERD MULLER

World Cup: Muller led Germany (then West Germany) in the 1970 and 1974 World Cups, his combined 14 goals in 13 matches stood for 32 years as the most goals in Cup history. He still is No. 3. Germany won the '74 championship 2-1, in Munich, on Muller's winning goal, cementing the center-forward's status as a national hero.

Strikers: Muller played for the Strikers from 1979 to 1981, a stout, black-bearded striker who spoke no English but spoke soccer fluently, haunting goalkeepers just outside the six-yard box and scoring 38 goals in three seasons. "One of the greatest penalty box predators of all time," said Hudson.

Today: Muller is 72 and living under assisted care in Germany. After recovering from alcoholism, the Bayern Munich legend fell under the grip of Alzheimer's, the diagnosis announced in late 2015. "Der Bomber," now addled by dementia, resides in a nursing home and no longer does interviews or makes public appearances. In an interview six months ago his wife of 50 years, Uschi, described "limited awareness" but said her husband "is doing well in the circumstances."

Today, Gerd Muller is a shell of himself, Nene Cubillas will be 70 soon and Gordon Banks battles health issues.

In their Fort Lauderdale days they were borrowed stars, past their prime, curiosities in a sport still new to many of us.

To the World Cup, they are pieces of history, dynamic and young, the very best of them frozen in time.

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