To a soccer purist, it is an abomination. To a goalkeeper, it is a nightmare. But to the fans who have watched the first formal competition in indoor six-man soccer, it is a joy.
Last week, at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, the North American Soccer League staged its fourth mini-tournament leading to the national indoor championships in mid-March, and the crowds, 9,000-plus, were enthusiastic. So were the spectators in Dallas, Rochester and Tampa in previous tournaments. And it is not hard to understand why.
Unlike outdoor soccer, goals come quickly indoors. Unlike basketball, they do not come too quickly. Unlike hockey, they are readily apparent to the naked eye. Unlike pro football, strategy and tactics are simple, easily understood and, at the moment, in a state of flux.
"We are still working out how to use the boards and how to handle substitutions," says Ivan Toplak, coach of the San Jose Earthquakes. Toplak was an assistant coach for the Yugoslavian national team in the 1974 World Cup and was once a world class player himself. He is a quiet, thoughtful student of the game and a bit conservative, but his San Jose club seemed the most skillful of the teams at adapting to the special needs of indoor soccer.
"It is an all-round game," he said after the Earthquakes had demolished the Seattle Sounders 14-4 in Friday night's competition. "Everyone has to attack and everyone has to defend and they have to change in an instant."
In Paul Child, a 22-year-old British transplant from Birmingham who used to play for Aston Villa in England, Toplak has probably the most accomplished indoor soccer player in the world. Child is extraordinarily good outdoors, too, but the indoor game fits him like a handmade boot.
"You've got to go the course to know it," he says, "and I've played more indoors than most chaps."
Child is built perfectly for indoor soccer, a game made to order for economy-sized athletes. At 5'9" and 155 pounds, he is small enough for the requisite agility and big enough to pack a wallop when he blocks an opposing player into the boards, a tactic at which he excels. Cheerful and open, he has lived in the U.S. for three years. His wife is a registered riding teacher in England, and eventually they will have their own riding stable in Los Gatos, a small community near San Jose. He cleared 78 acres of woody land and built the stables with his own hands, so that the exigencies of soccer seem easy to him.
"I use the boards as well as anyone," he says. "But, then, back in England we used to play one day a week indoors. I played five a side in White City, in the London Express tournament, too. It's a different game and it takes time to learn how to use a wall pass."
Says Ron Newman, coach of the Dallas Tornado who grew up in England in the '30s, "We learned it playing on the cobblestones in the street. We played the ball off the walls of the houses along the lane and got to be quite good at it. Six a side isn't new, either. We used to do that for fun, mate. In the old days, if there weren't more than 12 players and we wanted a scrum, then we went at it six a side. So we all know the game. We just don't know quite how to manage it with all the boards about on both sides and the ends. But that will come, won't it?"
Indeed it will. From the first mini-tournament in Dallas in January to the latest in San Francisco, the players have become increasingly accomplished at using the boards.
"It's a bit like billiards, now, isn't it?" says Johnny Moore, a diminutive striker for the Earthquakes who doubles as their assistant general manager and thinks nothing of working a 14-hour day. Moore may be the only indoor soccer player who ever scored a goal on a header. Since the goal is only four feet high, it is difficult for a tall man to get the ball down far enough. Moore is 5'5".
"It wasn't really a header," he says. "The ball was rolling down off the top of the goal and right in my face and I just nodded it into the net.
"We're learning the use of the boards," he continues. "The Earthquakes are lucky, since we have played more games indoors than most. So we know to stay away from the boards with the ball and force the other chaps into them when they are on the attack. The boards play for you on defense. You put a man into the wood, there is no way he can control the ball."
There are no lulls in the indoor game, since the ball is always in play, unless it is kicked over the wall into the crowd, which happens rarely. Consequently, free substitution is a necessity in the game. No player, no matter how fit, can go for more than three or four minutes without being relieved.
"You can't play like you do outdoors," says Moore. "There, you know, you can cut down the pace of the game, make it slow and deliberate and find the time to rest yourself. Indoors, you have to make your mind up to it. The secret of the indoor game is that you go on for four minutes, run until you drop and then get the hell out of there."
Child agrees. "After three or four minutes, man, your legs go like Jell-O," he says. "Because there's no letting up, you see. I'm a striker and I've never thought of myself as a defensive player. I don't play defense that well, but in the indoor game I must get back as fast as I can go and at least get in someone's way, so that I'm running all the time. I don't really mark anyone when I go back, but I hope I hinder them a bit."
The frantic pace makes the game more dangerous than the outdoor version, because there is much more physical contact with other players, the boards and the unforgiving floor. Indoor soccer is played on an artificial turf with a much shorter nap than the artificial turf used for football or baseball, and it is usually laid over either ice or cement, so that it has little or no give. The short, bristly nap is almost as abrasive as sandpaper, and soccer players, except for the goalie, don't wear pads.
"It's a good pitch in some ways," says Child. "The ball runs true, you know, and you have no trouble keeping your feet, but it's not a kind surface when you are put down. I fell over once in practice and got a great burn on my bum. All our lads have the rug burns on them, but I suppose there's no way it can be helped, is there?"
Child got another burn on his bum in the Earthquakes' game against the Seattle Sounders in the Cow Palace. A Sounder had taken advantage of one of the many quick turnarounds that mark the game and had broken free, looking as if he would have a one-on-one shot at the Earthquake goalie. But Child sprinted up from behind and threw himself at the ball, looking for all the world like Lou Brock sliding into second. He prevented an almost certain goal but, unfortunately, he was not sliding in the dirt around second base. The bristles of the artificial surface shaved a saucer-size layer of skin off his hip.
"It smarts a bit," he said after the game, regarding the angry red mark, "but you take that, don't you?"
Like most soccer players, Child looks like a distance runner in hard training. His body is lean, with no layer of fat between skin and muscle. Mirko Stojanovic, a Yugoslav who plays in the goal for San Jose, seemed chubby on the field. In the dressing room, shorn of the long pants, long-sleeved jersey and assorted sponge-rubber pads that protected him from rug burns as he flung himself back and forth across the 16-foot-wide goal mouth, he looked like a heavyweight boxer who had just drained himself to make the light-heavyweight limit.
"It is not a pleasant thing to have to do," he said, his eyes half closed from exhaustion; he had been bombarded by 68 shots. "But it is the thing I am paid to do. And I do it as well as I can. Indoors, it is difficult because the ball comes at you from everywhere. And when it goes by outside the goal, you cannot relax because it has not gone over the end line. It has hit the backboard and it is right back in front of you with so many people kicking it. It has changed the whole thing of playing in the goal. Now, when a goal shot is wide, I must go wide with it and trap the ball against the backboard so that it does not come back out to haunt me."
Moore sympathizes with Stojanovic. "It's bloody impossible to play in the goal," he says. "Forget the shots. When we played an exhibition game against Dallas, I reckon we kicked that kid they had in goal seven or eight times. Because, you see, he's always diving for the ball and there are people coming up, and I figure I myself kicked the poor lad at least three times. It's a sad thing for the man in the mouth of the goal."
Still, with all the physical contact and the kicks and the battering on the boards, indoor soccer remains a refreshingly decorous sport. There have been none of the disgraceful fights that mar hockey, and the crowds, unlike those at outdoor games in Italy and South America, accept adverse decisions without throwing things or attempting to assault the referee.
When a ball is kicked into the stands it is thrown back onto the field, and if it doesn't come back quickly the crowd chants, "Throw it back."
The bartender at the Hunt Club, a small watering hole in the Cow Palace, may have put his finger on the reason. After a long, inactive evening, he looked sadly over the bar at a lone customer and said, "It was a wasted night. We never should have opened. Everybody is here with his wife and kids. They don't drink. I wish rodeo was back. The rodeo brings in the real drinkers."
The only time a fight seemed imminent was in Dallas, when a Yugoslavian striker fired a cannon shot by a Yugoslavian goalkeeper and the two yelled at one another.
"Had nothing to do with the game," the goalkeeper said afterward. "We are from different peoples in Yugoslavia. His great-grandfather tried to kill my great-grandfather, and I have not forgotten that. It has to do with Yugoslavia, not soccer."
The three previous tournaments were decided on goal difference, with the winners of the first round playing the losers and the champion being the team that had outscored its opponents by a bigger edge in the two games. In Dallas and Rochester all four teams wound up 1-1, with Dallas and the New York Cosmos advancing on goal superiority. In the Tampa tournament, Miami and Tampa won both of their games, Tampa advancing on goal difference.
On the opening night in San Francisco, the Los Angeles and Seattle teams were beaten 15-4 and 14-4, respectively, and almost certainly eliminated. So the soccer owners changed the rules to accommodate the public.
San Jose challenged Vancouver to change the rules and play it in the final, since both teams had won overwhelmingly. Vancouver, which had a one-goal advantage, accepted gracefully.
"The people want us to play Vancouver," said Dick Berg, general manager of the Earthquakes. "Heck, the finals will be a knockout. Winner against winner. We're not an old sport. We can change to accommodate what the people want. The only reason we had to stick to the formula for the first three tournaments was that that's the way they played those tournaments. It's great when the teams are equal, because everyone is still alive the second day. But when it doesn't work, we're flexible."
And, sure enough, the game was reasonably close, with San Jose beating Vancouver 7-3, advancing the Earthquakes into the finals along with the winners of the three previous tournaments. Child, paying no attention to the bruise on his hip, scored three times for a total of seven in the two-day event.
The format change saved Terry Fisher, the Los Angeles coach, a further embarrassment, too. After Vancouver had lathered his Aztecs 15-4 in the first game on opening night, he lectured his players on their shortcomings.
"The most discouraging part of the game," he said, "was when I looked up and saw all the photographers squatted down behind our goal."
With time, experience and practice, the teams will eventually even out. It might be rugged on photographers, but it will be super for spectators.