This Doctor's Goal: Get America Hooked on Soccer

Article excerpt

When Abraham Hawatmeh was a lad in Jordan, his parents bought him a new soccer ball for his birthday. Hawatmeh skipped school the next few days to play the game on a local sandlot.

His father would have none of that; he wanted Abraham to become a doctor, not a soccer star. He made the boy apologize in front of the entire school.

The father's dream came true, although he didn't live to see it. Hawatmeh is a respected, board-certified urologist in St. Louis. But Abraham's sandlot dreams came true, too, in a fashion. Today, he owns not just a soccer ball, but a soccer team--the St. Louis Ambush, 1995 champs of the National (indoor) Professional Soccer League. The team fizzled in the 1996 playoffs, but set league attendance records, nonetheless. Hawatmeh vows to make believers of those who doubt that pro soccer can thrive in America.

"We can only go up," he declares.

Like ice hockey, indoor soccer is nonstop action. So is Hawatmeh. A boyish 51, he not only logs 60 hours a week in his medical practice, but functions more or less as general manager of the Ambush.

The oldest of eight children, Hawatmeh earned his medical degree--and met his wife, Rita--at the University of Parma in Italy. "I played a joke on her," he says. "I described myself as this Bedouin who was born in the desert, even though I had never seen a camel. She believed me, for a while."

Hawatmeh came to the United States in 1974 and completed a urology residency at St. Louis University School of Medicine. His mother and all but one of his siblings live here now as well--including brother Sam, an internist. Hawatmeh is so thoroughly acclimated that he feels he was "born an American."

"I always loved the United States. I knew it from movies and books--Abraham Lincoln, the American Revolution, everything. The society is more open, more free. Here I'm a king.'

One thing he disliked about the U.S., though, was the low status of soccer. "In that regard, I felt like an exile here," says Hawatmeh. In 1987, the mayor of St. Louis asked him to invest in the struggling St. Louis Steamers of the now-defunct Major Indoor Soccer League. Hawatmeh wrote a check for $25,000 on the spot. "Venture money," he says, "which in this case I call adventure money."

The Steamers folded in 1988. In 1989, Hawatmeh put more adventure money into a successor team called the St. Louis Storm. Three years later, the entire league died.

Indoor soccer appeared jinxed. Not surprisingly, his attorney and accountant tried to talk their client out of buying the Tulsa Ambush, in the upstart National Professional Soccer League, and transplanting it to St. Louis in 1992. "They told me I'd lose my money again," says Hawatmeh, who owns an 80 percent stake in the Ambush. "But I'm not in this for the money."

Which is a good thing: With about $750,000 sunk in the Ambush, he has yet to see a profit. "But we'd have broken even this year if we had stayed in the playoffs until the end," he says.

If the Ambush becomes profitable-- Hawatmeh says "when"--he wants to hire a topflight general manager. "The first few I hired didn't love the game; they ran the team poorly and brought it to its knees."

For the time being, "Dr. Soccer;" as he's known, calls most of the shots in his $2.5 million operation, which includes 22 players and 13 office employees. "He's a very hands-on owner," says player-coach Daryl Doran, whose contract requires him to call the boss after every road game and explain why the team won or lost. On some nights, Doran would rather not dial. In a promotional video for the NPSL, Hawatmeh says he loves his players when they win, but hates them when they lose.

Despite the red ink, Hawatmeh and the Ambush are doing some things right. They're averaging crowds of 9,100 per home game, tops in the league. "St. Louis is the flagship franchise," says NPSL commissioner Steve Paxos. "I tell other clubs to call Abe for advice. …