It is nearly two hours before game time and Farrukh Quraishi is working the crowd.
Quraishi, wearing dark jeans and a black Rowdies polo, fits right in with soccer fans who have gathered in the Al Lang Stadium parking lot for the April 25 match between Tampa Bay and Jacksonville.
As he eases from one group to the next, Quraishi exchanges handshakes and back pats. He is offered plates of barbecue and beer, politely declining both.
For the most part, introductions aren't necessary. Quraishi, named the Tampa Bay Rowdies president and general manager in November, is known simply as Farrukh by the Rowdies faithful. It's as if fans have known him forever, and many have.
Ever since Quraishi arrived in Tampa as an original member of the 1975 Rowdies in the North American Soccer League, he has made it his mission to see soccer thrive in the area. And 40 years later he is still trying.
"I felt there was some unfinished business for me," Quraishi, 63, said.
It is apparent the fans like having him back on the job.
"He's the best thing that could happen to the Rowdies," said 86-year-old Lizzie Burda, an original member of the Rowdies' fan club in 1975. "Absolute best thing. He knows us. He knows all the soccer people around here.''
Advent of his playing days
Born in Iran, Quraishi (pronounced cue-RAY-she) was moved to England by his parents, who were having trouble financially, at the age of 4. He and two of his sisters lived in a children's home just outside of London, where they spent seven years.
That was where Quraishi was introduced to soccer. He played as much as he could. Every minute on the pitch was one less minute in the children's home.
He eventually reunited with his parents in London, living in a three-bedroom council estate home — known as public housing in the United States — with his two brothers and three sisters. The boys shared one room, the girls the other.
"Life was a bit of a grind," he said. "We by no means lived a luxurious lifestyle."
His luck started to change in 1970 after he met Francisco Marcos during a European tour for college players. Marcos, an assistant at Oneonta State College in New York, offered him a chance to play college soccer in the United States.
"It was a chance for me to see another part of the world," he said. "What did I have to lose?"
He did lose his freshman year when he got into a bicycle accident that severed his left Achilles tendon. But in the next three years at Oneonta State, he was an All-American each year and awarded the Hermann Trophy in 1974 as the best college player in America.
"He was a marathon runner type of player," Marcos said. "He never stopped. He was a box-to-box player, which meant he could run 80 yards between goal boxes and never get tired.''
Quraishi decided to skip his redshirt senior year and enter the NASL draft. Marcos, who joined the Rowdies in 1974 as the director of public relations and soccer development, was instrumental in taking Quraishi with the first overall pick in the college draft.
But he wasn't signed just as a player. As part of his contract, Quraishi was also director of youth development. He would practice with the team, then go to the Rowdies offices and arrange public appearances and clinics.
"I had a love/hate relationship with the players," he said with a laugh. "After training, they would all go back to the apartments at Spanish Oaks in Town 'N Country and they'd be sitting out by the pool and I'd be at the office working.''
Marcos said Quraishi was tireless in trying to promote his game to a 1970s Tampa Bay audience that barely knew what the sport was.
"He was like the Pied Piper out there selling soccer," Marcos said. "He became a community icon because he was willing to go anywhere to promote the game. At that time, we had to convince people that a soccer ball was round. There were no youth leagues to speak of anywhere in the area. …
"We would go to middle and high school assemblies. We went to Sea World once and headed a ball back and forth with a seal. We marched in the Gasparilla parade when it used to go down Dale Mabry. We did everything we could think of."
And for a while, it worked. The Rowdies won the 1975 NASL championship in their first season. They were runnersup in 1978-79. In the years Quraishi was with the Rowdies (1975-80), attendance rose from just more than 10,000 per game to a peak of more than 28,000 in 1980 at the old Tampa Stadium.
Former teammate Perry Van Der Beck, now the Rowdies' community relations director and assistant GM, said Quraishi became popular with fans because of his genuineness.
"Once you meet him, you remember you met him. They say people change, but Farrukh has never changed," Van Der Beck said. "He is and always will be a very caring person who goes out of his way to help you. I have a lot of respect for him."
From player to executive
Once Quraishi's playing days ended in 1981, he worked in public relations until he had a chance to be venue director for Orlando's Citrus Bowl during the 1994 World Cup. The next year that led to the general manager position of the newly formed Tampa Bay Mutiny of Major League Soccer.
While the Mutiny succeeded on the field, with the league's best record in 1996, Quraishi's tenure lasted only one year. The club's vice president of finance was charged with embezzling $100,000. The Mutiny struggled with attendance and Quraishi was fired by then-MLS commissioner Doug Logan.
"I did not have a good relationship with the commissioner at that time," Quraishi said. "Being a league-operated club was difficult. We were in a difficult position to compete. We were playing in somebody else's stadium (Raymond James). The contracts favored the Bucs, as they should. You can't survive on ticket sales and sponsorships alone. There were a lot of forces working against us."
Quraishi stayed in soccer though, working for the United Soccer League and starting a sports agency, which helped place players in professional leagues. He was director of the Hillsborough Community College Foundation before rejoining the Rowdies.
"He's the right man for the job," team owner Bill Edwards said. "He was the candidate I wanted from the beginning, and fortunately, I was able to get him."
Coming full circle
With Quraishi back on board, the Rowdies are starting to look much like they did 40 years ago. In addition to Van Der Beck and Marcos working for the club, one of Quraishi's first hires was Thomas Rongen, whom he also hired to coach the Mutiny.
"Back then he took a bit of a gamble," Rongen said. "There was an immediate liking and mutual respect. He's the only reason I'm here now. …When I talked to him and Bill (Edwards) and understood their long-term vision for this club, it became an easy decision."
Part of the vision — "You can do a lot worse than imitate some of the things that made the original Rowdies successful," Quraishi says — is to look back.
"One of the main things Farrukh talks about is how we're trying to get back to those glory days," Rowdies defender Tamika Mkandawire said. "The days of winning championships and having lots of fans. That's our long-term plan.
"This year we're trying to get back into the community more. Every couple of days we're at events, clinics. Anything we can do to raise awareness."
In their first two home games, the Rowdies drew a sold-out crowd of 7,010, followed by 5,460 for the Jacksonville game. They rank sixth in the 11-team NASL with an average of 6,235. All five teams ranked ahead of them, however, have stadiums with more than a 7,000-seat capacity.
Mkandawire said he has noticed a difference off the field as well.
"We're at the airport and people recognize us more now," he said. "Before it used to be, 'What team are you? You guys play hockey?' It's a long process, but we're getting there."
Quraishi said things are much different than his GM stint with the Mutiny. He is surrounded with front-office personnel he knows and trusts. There is an owner who is willing to promote the team several ways, including via television and billboard ads, signs throughout downtown St. Petersburg, and even a restaurant devoted to the team (the Rowdies Den).
Unlike the Mutiny, the Rowdies are not an MLS team (NASL is a second-division league). But that's a detail Quraishi pays no attention to. He said his passion is identifying young players and developing a team. He knows full well that without wins, no matter the level, the Rowdies will not be successful.
"We don't think of ourselves as a D-II club," he said. "We believe we can compete with anybody. We've got outstanding players. We believe we can develop those players to move on to bigger things. We want to be a magnet for younger players."
Quraishi's job is to keep the ball rolling, both on and off the field. That's why he doesn't mind strolling through the parking lot during home games, greeting fans and getting opinions.
"I love what I do,'' he said. "I don't consider it work. I'm as excited about our games now as I was as a player. Just being around the players and these facilities. I love it."
Sounds a lot like 1975.
Contact Rodney Page at [email protected]. Follow @RodneyHomeTeam.