The Godfather of Green Bay Soccer: Aldo Santaga’s Life and Legacy

Photos provided by UW-Green Bay Archives and Area Research Center and UW-Green Bay Athletics

In the early 1940s, a young Aldo Santaga lived as a refugee with his mother and brother in fascist Italy. He started playing soccer by kicking around a makeshift ball of scrunched-up rags. By the 60s, he was teaching his sons how to play and introducing the Green Bay community to the sport. By the 1980s, Santaga’s name was synonymous with Green Bay soccer.

When he passed away in November, 2022, Santaga was still the winningest head coach in Phoenix soccer history. His legacy is large—Aldo Santaga Stadium is named for him; his children and grandchildren have played Phoenix soccer; and hundreds of soccer alumni still remember his impact. “It was a great life,” Janet Santaga, Aldo’s widow said, “and he loved every minute of it.” Aldo Santaga’s story is one of a man whose absolute devotion—to his family, to his team, to UW-Green Bay and to the sport that defined his life and legacy—put Green Bay soccer on the map.

When World War II ended, Santaga’s family was finally able to return to their home in Tripoli, Libya, then an Italian colony. Despite the harsh circumstances of his youth, Santaga was healthy and active. His childhood love of soccer persisted. At 17, he played for a number of corporate-sponsored teams and then the Libyan National Team, competing internationally. He could have continued playing soccer in Africa, but an opportunity soon arrived for him to travel somewhere new.

Santaga had befriended an American air force tech sergeant in Tripoli who sponsored his immigration to the United States. At 22, with scant funds and limited English, Santaga landed in Illinois. He worked in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign mailroom while he took classes there. He felt out of place as an immigrant, but he found a community at the local YMCA.

Some Croatian friends at the Y spoke Italian, and after discovering Santaga’s love for soccer, they invited him to play for the Croatian Eagles Club in Milwaukee in 1958. “He drove 250 miles every weekend to play soccer in Milwaukee. That’s how much he loved it,” said Janet Santaga. She lived in Milwaukee and met Aldo when they were set up on a blind date. “Bingo. That was it,” she said, recalling their immediate connection, “That was in September; we got engaged at Christmas.”

The couple eventually settled in Green Bay, where Aldo’s soccer legacy would flourish​​​​. When they first arrived, UW-Green Bay wasn’t yet built, and soccer was an unknown sport in the city. Santaga changed that. He was a key figure in the development of soccer programs at St. Norbert College, Premontre High School (now Notre Dame Academy), and the Green Bay Kickers club team. When UW-Green Bay’s soccer team launched in 1969, Lou LeCalsey was hired as the first coach, but Santaga’s reputation in the community led to him being asked to join the team as assistant coach.

In 1978, when the head coach spot opened up, Santaga was asked to apply. Santaga had his doubts. As an immigrant without a college degree, “He always felt less than qualified,” said Janet, “But then he found out it didn’t matter.” He got the job.

Santaga didn’t thrive immediately. Beyond coaching both the men’s and women’s teams, he had to handle scheduling, hiring referees and fundraising. He was instrumental in securing funds for the Phoenix Field, which was fittingly renamed Aldo Santaga Stadium in 2005.

Santaga’s prowess as a coach grew in the 80s. He saw the men’s soccer program through its transition from Division II to Division I in 1981, and amassed 148 wins. Colleges and international clubs sought to poach Santaga from Green Bay, but he was loyal to his team.

The heart of Santaga’s influence extended beyond the field; he was a mentor and a father-figure to students. Many of his players were immigrants or the children of immigrants too, and he understood them deeply. He made UW-Green Bay a home for them. “Our house was always open,” said Janet, recalling a year when preseason housing wasn’t ready for the team when they arrived, so the Santagas hosted 20 students in their house for a week.

Photos provided by UW-Green Bay Archives and Area Research Center and UW-Green Bay Athletics

“You played because you loved the game,” said former Phoenix player Chad Johnson in an interview with the Green Bay Press Gazette, “but Aldo was a coach you played for because you loved him.”

Though he is gone, Aldo Santaga’s life’s work in promoting and developing soccer in Green Bay has left an indelible mark on the community. The Santaga family has continued his legacy, actively supporting Phoenix athletics.

The UW-Green Bay Phoenix men’s soccer team won the Horizon League Championship last year. The team’s appearance in the NCAA Tournament was only its third in history. The first happened 40 years prior with Santaga himself at the helm.

Janet said her husband would have been proud.

Gifts to the Aldo Santaga Scholarship can be made in his memory.

View article in this UW-Green Bay Spring Newsletter.

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