South San Francisco, CA October 1, 2017 Submitted by Mike Pizzo, SSFAC
The Story of the Beginning of Soccer in South San Francisco,
and the Formation of SSFAC
Intro by Mike Pizzo
As the summer days’ fade into the Fall, you can find young children at soccer practice at numerous parks in South San Francisco. The main attraction is at Orange Memorial Park where many teams have their sessions going on each afternoon when school lets out. When the evening arrives…the men take over as SSFAC begins its long training schedule in preparation for the Peninsula Soccer League season which is just a few weeks away. Soccer is in full swing, and anticipation is high…. but it wasn’t always this way.
Long before the days of pick-up games in the park, the so called “soccer moms” transporting the kids back and forth to practice, or the adult men’s teams battling for existence in leagues throughout the area, soccer was just a game played in schoolyards as “kickball.” There were no youth leagues, no high school teams, no adult soccer. It was a game that was hardly noticed, or even thought about. It was a sport that flourished in other countries, but had not been taken seriously here in the U.S. Not many understood it, and they didn’t care to spend time learning or understanding a game that wasn’t born here….but then things began to change, and there was an effort to introduce the game to all who would eventually come to love the sport for its simple creativity and artistic display. A sport that could be played by young and old, where size didn’t matter.
In South San Francisco, it started at Martin Elementary School in the old part of South City. What began at recess back in the early 1940’s turned out to be the roots that brought “futbol” or soccer to where it is today in our city, with successful youth leagues, high school soccer teams, and SSFAC men’s soccer club. How it all began is an amazing story of one man’s vision and the many friends and colleagues he was surrounded with along the way. Alvaro Bettucchi was the man who introduced the “beautiful game” to South San Francisco, and what follows is the story of “How it All Began” in his own words as he so vividly recalls it:
How it All Began
It takes me back to 1939-1945 at Martin Elementary School, as I remember playing pickup games during the recesses. Going into Jr. High, they taught us all the sports during gym classes, allowing soccer after football season and before baseball season. The school was Jr. High / High School at that time and the High School did not have soccer. I remember being fairly good when we played, and the football stars were always picking me first. It probably kept my interest because of that.
After WWII, and during the summer of 1948, my parents took me to Italy. Everyone there was playing soccer, and I held up against the Italian kids. Upon my return to South City, I went to work part time for the recreation department. There were a group of wild kids, including three or four Mexicans, and the rest Mexican Americans & White Americans. The director was having some problems with them, and asked if I could get them involved in something. The age group was between nine & twelve years old. Their leader was a short scrappy Mexican American kid named Tony Cevallos. When he would come around, I would kick a ball at him, and he would kick it back to me. I would praise him, saying that I never saw a kid kick a soccer ball so well.
Well, he kept coming back and finally one day, he told all of his “gang”, they had to come to learn how to play soccer. They started to come, two to three times a week. There were no soccer teams on the Peninsula, so I convinced them to form a team and we would go into San Francisco on Saturdays to Beach Chalet and play pickup games. My soccer coaching knowledge was “Zero”, but these kids picked it up fast, and I was learning how to coach by reading books.
The next year, we entered into the San Francisco League, and that’s where I met Ernie Fiebush. He gave me some hints on coaching, and that is when we really began to win quite a few games. Tony Cevallos was made Captain (who would vote against him?) and he was our center forward. He won us quite a few games, and would yell at the team when we got scored upon.
One game I remember, he took about seven shots at the goal, hitting the pole on about five of them. He did put one in, but we all kidded him as the pole kid. He was such a dedicated player, rough as they come and all the ref’s & coaches knew who he was. In our third year, he got kicked out of the recreation, so he moved to San Jose and began playing there.
Meanwhile, some of my Italian & Greek friends and I tried to start soccer in High School. We had enough students to form a team and play against San Francisco High Schools, but the Coaches said no. Soccer was a foreign sport and we (meaning them) play American sports. So, I and my friends would go down to Orange Park and kick the ball around and play against each other. There was no organized soccer in South San Francisco at the time. There were players such as Mario Piretti, Shorty Boido, Archie Fregosi, and others that did play, (I understand they had a team before WWII), but they all played in the San Francisco League. Not one of them thought to start soccer in South City, during all those years.
In 1951, I graduated from SSF High School, but I was unable to start soccer there. Even though we had more than enough to form a team, we would have to play against the teams from San Francisco high schools, and the coaches and gym teachers considered it a foreign sport and would not support it.
In September of 1951 I tried out for the Sons of Italy, but they would not even consider me because I was an American, and you know…”Americans can’t play soccer.” So, since I had some Greek friends, I was accepted to play for the Greek Americans at the right half position. I was able to play in the last 3 games of the season and I learned a lot from being on the team.
In May of 1953, I formed a group of South San Francisco “All Stars”, to play against the Greek Americans, who were the San Francisco Champions. Some of the players who played with me on that team were John Bertolozzi, Gus & John Anathanasio, the Boido brothers (SFAC), Mario Pieretti (SFAC), Victor Ororsco ( S.F. El Salvador) and others. We beat the Greeks 1-0. We went to the State Theater on Linden Ave in SSF that evening with a few of the players. We walked in thinking everyone in the theater knew we had beat the Greeks, and we thought of ourselves as “World Champions”.
After that famous game, I approached the SSF Italian American Citizens Club to see if they would sponsor a team, but they refused. So, at that point I got together a few players from that game, and a few of the Greeks from San Francisco that I had met, and convinced them to sponsor the team. They all chipped in for the cost of the team. We called ourselves the South San Francisco Ermis (after a Greek God). That was the first organized soccer team in the Peninsula since the pre-WWII days. We played in the San Francisco League. The charter members of the team were, John Bertolozzi, John & Gus Athanasio, Manuel Fries, Jessy & Jesus Pellaios, Julio Venturini, the Guardado brothers, John Cesca, Vicor Orosco, Tony Cevallos & myself. Our Coach was Joe Lopez who lived in SSF.
I requested Orange Ave Park from the city to be our home grounds, since we had used it in the past, and they made that the SSF soccer field. That year we lost 14 games in a row, tied our 15th, and then won our 16th and last game. The Greeks did not sponsor the team the following year because they said they couldn’t afford it, but the reason really was, who wanted to support a losing team? Since I could not find anyone to sponsor us, I went to play for the SF Sons of Italy (yes, they accepted me now), for two seasons. We used Orange Park as our field. Lamberto Petri who had played in Series A for Lucchese & Italy’s National Team, was our coach. That is where I really learned about coaching and improved my skills. As I had been working part time with the Recreation Department in SSF, we had pickup games against the SF youth teams during 1952-53.
Finally, in 1954 the City decided to buy us uniforms and we entered the S.F. Junior League. Our name was the South San Francisco Juniors (the kids were probably in Junior High School by this time). There were ten teams in the league, and we won the Championship in our first year. Marty Krumm, who had played with the USA National Team and was greatly involved with SF Soccer along with Ernie Feibush, presented us with the SF Championship trophy. The SSF Juniors would become SSFAC, and the team’s legacy had begun.
At the conclusion of the 1956 season, where I had been playing with the Sons of Italy utilizing Orange Park as our home field, I was drafted into the Army. Two weeks at Fort Ord, Six weeks at Fort Lewis, Washington, and the rest of my time at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. After pitching tents in 112-degree heat, I tried out for the Army band, and that’s where I stayed until 1958.
After a week, a notice came out that they were going to start a soccer team on base. I tried out, and the Coach was Cornellius (Mickey) Cochrane. He put me at center forward where I scored numerous goals. At the same time, I was a reserve goal keeper, second to Sandor Baranyal. During the Hungarian revolution, he was playing in Spain with his National Team. He came to the USA, joined the Army (so he could become a citizen) and was instrumental in starting the team at Fort Sam. He taught me a lot about positioning and goal keeping, and how a center forward must wait and position himself anticipating the play that would allow you to score. I had quite a few “hat tricks”.
On my return from the Army, I set out to re-build soccer in South City. Since I left, no soccer was played here. The Sons of Italy had gone back to San Francisco. I rounded up a group of guys to play in the San Francisco Third Division for the 1958-59 season. The coach was Lamberto Petri, with Assistant Coach Mario Pieretti. Roy Ghilardi the SSF Building Inspector was team president. All 20 members of the team were SSF residents. Those that I remember were: Victor Orosco, Roy Pignoni, Joe Mazzetti, Ron Silva, Jessi & Jesus Pellaios, Marco & John Cesca, Pedro Rodriguez, Francesco & Jose Martinez, Manuel Fries, Nino Corradetti, Vincent & Jessy Guardado, Witt Rinehart, Tony Cevallos, and myself.
Our first practice game we defeated the Sons of Italy 2-0. Our opening game against St. Paul Malta we won 4-1, then we again defeated Sons by 5-1. We ended the season in 4th place out of 9 teams. During this time, I was director of soccer for the SSF Parks & Recreation, with the help of Tony Cevallos and “his gang?”. One additional highlight from the beginning of 1959, the San Francisco All Stars played against the Los Angeles All Stars. We won the match 2-1 and Marco Cesca & Nino Corradetti represented SSFAC along with such names as Evio & Lino Marcucci, Vic Ottoboni & Marino Magiola, and I was named best defensive player.
Having taught soccer with the SSF Parks & Recreation Department, and starting Adult soccer in the early 50’s, all teams from SSF had to play in the San Francisco Leagues, since no soccer was played in the Peninsula. When I began teaching in the SSF school district, the youngsters I taught in the recreation department leagues were entering into SSF High School. By 1959, over 350 boys on 19 teams were playing in the SSF recreation leagues. In 1959, going from school to school, I was able to form a four team Peninsula High School league with SSF, San Mateo, Redwood City & Serra. We played a double round.
During the off season, I would go to the different peninsula high schools and talk with “foreign born” teachers, seeking to have them begin soccer in their high schools. In 1960, Woodside Priory, Capuchino, Palo Alto & El Camino joined the league.
I must comment at this point the following negative occurrences that happened to me while I was coach of South San Francisco High School, due to the popularity of the sport at SSF High. I guaranteed every student that signed up to play soccer, that they would play at least one quarter (soccer in high school was played in four quarters.) More and more students were signing up for soccer rather than football, so Ray DeJong, the football coach would not allow the soccer team to play on the football field. On a rainy day after the conclusion of basketball practice, Coach Mike Mullen went home, so I called practice in the gym with tennis shoes and a volleyball. Mullen went to the school superintendent and stopped us from playing indoors
I was able to arrange the SSF High School vs El Camino High School night game at SSF’s football stadium. Over 3000 fans showed up for the game. The next day, Bob Keropian, principal of El Camino High School telephoned me stating: “We will never allow another night soccer game, football is to remain the major sport in our district, not soccer”. I mention these occurrences to show the difficulties in trying to promote soccer in those days, not to mention that everyone considered it a “foreign sport”. For two years I helped to teach at both SSF High Schools, SSF & El Camino, with an assistant coach, Bob Rienecke, who never played or saw soccer. Bob then went on to coach El Camino for numerous years.
During that same year, the Peninsula Adult League asked for recognition into the California Soccer Football Association. It was at that time I met Umberto Abronzino, founder of the Peninsula Soccer League in 1957. He would referee our high school and adult games. The sponsor for our adult team in 1959 was the local Mexican club Morelos.
With the high school, I won a few first places, but mostly second or third place finishes since I always allowed everyone to play at least one quarter. In the Peninsula League, from our start in the Third Division, we went up through to the First Division. In the First Division, I remember winning the championship in 1978, but we took numerous seconds & thirds. In 1972, I tried out for the Olympic trails. Even though I did not make the Olympic Team, it was an honor to be nominated. In 1978, I was inducted into the California Soccer Association Hall of Fame. I was also elected to the Peninsula League Board of Directors and also served on the Board of Directors for the California Soccer Association. By the time I left teaching in 1969, and went into Administration, we had a high school league from Daly City to San Jose, and a full six leagues in the Peninsula Adult Division.
Remembering one game that stands out over the years!!….I remember two.
The first was at the SSF High School field, playing in the mud. We were facing our rival, Azteca of SSF. They were in 1st place with an all Mexican team, and we were in the middle of the standings. With about 5 or 6 minutes left and the score 0-0, our fullback David Saracino took the ball from a corner kick at our own goal, ran up the field and as he went about 10 yards past the midfield area, I yelled “shoot it, shoot it”. He was about 40 yards away, and he took a shot at goal. The ball sailed right into the seven (the upper right angle of the goal). We knocked them out of 1st place.
The other memorable game, was the last game I played. I had received quite a few muscle pulls in my career while playing, so in the last few years I played goalie. As a goalie, I assisted for a goal! ….. it isn’t what you think. The opposing team had just kicked the ball out of bounds. I set it up for a goal kick. I ran towards the ball to kick it up field. At the same moment as I kicked the ball, I pulled my muscle. The ball went right to the head of the center forward of the opposing team, who was right in front of my kick. He headed it directly into my goal and scored. I got the assist. That was the last game I ever played.
Over the years, there are four players I will never forget.
The first is Chandra Sing. He played for the National Team of Figi. He moved to SSF in his mid-thirties and became a good friend. He played four or five years for us, and was a gentleman. He never argued, was very quiet, and was one of the best center halfbacks that I ever saw play soccer in SSF.
The second player was David Saracino. He started with my early recreation team as a full back, played for me at SSF High School as a left back, and all the years with the SSFAC, until the day I retired.. One of the toughest fullbacks on the Peninsula. He looked like Gatuso of AC Milan, and played like him. He was wanted by many teams, including Azteca, but he always stayed with us.
The third player was a player who had come to SSF from Guadalajara Mexico. Victor Orosco was his name…and we were like brothers. We would do many things together, going to dances, dating girls, and he was always at my parents’ house, especially the two years I was in the Army. He played center back or sweeper every season for SSF. During the summer he would play for El Salvador or Mexico A.C. in the San Francisco 1st Division. They were willing to pay him to play the regular season, but he always stayed with us.
Last but not least, was Tony Cevallos. The first player I taught with the Recreation Team, and then during the first year of High School (he had dropped out of high school), he played with SSFAC. Everyone in the Peninsula League knew Tony. In every season he was red carded at least two or three times per season. The last four or five years of my playing soccer, he moved to San Jose. He played there for a while before moving to Seattle, Washington. He played there in an Adult League, and I hadn’t heard from him for a few years. The last call I got from him, he said “coach (he always called me coach), the doctors have given me about a month to live. Before I go, I just wanted to thank you for being in my corner all these years. If it wasn’t for you and soccer, I would have been in prison all my life”. Just that call from him, made all the battles, all the sacrifices for this sport called soccer all worthwhile. I thanked him for the challenge he gave me in bringing a group of misfits to become a great bunch of soccer playing guys.
At this point, after my last game, I turned the team over to a guy named Mike Pizzo, who took it on to greater heights. I owe him so many thanks for sticking it out and keeping the name of soccer in South San Francisco.
Finally, my favorite team….the San Jose Earthquakes. I’m proud to know that my little involvement, my drop of water into the ocean, helped to bring soccer to where it is today. My favorite Italian team is “Bologna”, where my people come from. The USA is number one, then Italy followed by Mexico.
Now, I follow soccer on TV, go to the Earthquakes games, play the game of Bocce everyday (that’s another sport I brought to SSF) and wait for the World Cup every four years…….
Mike Pizzo Concludes:
So there you have it…the story of how soccer began in South San Francisco, told by the man who single handedly made it happen. Alvaro Bettucchi’s passion, determination, personal sacrificies, and dedication to the sport he loved, was the driving force in bringing what was thought of as a new sport, to the community that he called home.
He was more than just a coach or teacher. He provided an opportunity for youngsters to play a game that was new to them and fun for all who participated. When these players became young men, they learned more than what the game would bring to them, they learned what they were able to achieve in their own lives on and off the soccer field, as they had been mentored by their first real true role model.
Today, the youth players, the high school stars of tomorrow, and the adults who go on and play the game for the love of the sport, can thank one man for paving the way for all those who play the game……..Thank You Alvaro !!……. Thanks for teaching us how & showing us the way !!
As a side note to show how this team tied together generations…..Evio Marcucci, who was mentioned as part of the 1959 San Francisco All Star Team that defeated Los Angeles, is the father of Danny Marcucci who began playing for SSFAC in 1984, the season after Alvaro Bettucchi retired. Danny played with SSF until 1999 and became the teams all time leading scorer during this time period, ( 1984-99 ) a title that he still holds today.
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