With 20 minutes left in last Sunday's game at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., soccer fans suffering from the nagging worry that the Cosmos, with their legions of star players and their massive financial capability, would march serenely through the NASL season could rest a bit easier. The score stood at 0-0. The princely Franz Beckenbauer was being harried into mistakes by a 20-year-old Irishman. Giorgio Chinaglia was being bottled up by a Yugoslavian whose most noteworthy credit was an appearance in the 1977 Balkan Cup final. The Cosmos had surrendered the mid-field, and their defense, only tenuously held together by the veteran Carlos Alberto, looked as solid as a damp Kleenex.
And, on paper anyway, the opposition did not have the talent to cause such disarray. The Tulsa Roughnecks, formerly Team Hawaii, are an odd conglomeration of Irishmen—mostly Ulstermen—and Yugoslavs. Their star is Ninoslav Zec, who the previous weekend had scored two goals in their first NASL victory, a 2-0 defeat of Toronto. But had the Roughnecks more depth, it is doubtful that Zec would have been in the lineup against the Cosmos, because his ankle was still strapped up after being injured in Tulsa's opening games. "He took a lot of stick in Detroit and Toronto," said General Manager Noel Lemon.
The Roughnecks had arrived at Newark Airport on the eve of the game. If you are a team struggling in a new city, you are aware of the costs of each night on the road; allowing a day or two for workouts at out-of-town stadiums is an unwarranted luxury. The feeling among the Roughnecks was a mixture of defiance and slight awe. Lemon had already thought of one plus. "The Cosmos aren't clobberers, anyhow," he said. "They won't try to kick us off the field." His Belfast accent is still perceptible in spite of 12 years' erosion in the U.S. "It's a real charge-up for some of our boys. Like young Don O'Riordan. He's idolized Beckenbauer ever since he started to play. He can hardly believe that he's playing against him."
Not only O'Riordan and the Roughnecks had Beckenbauer on their minds last weekend. So did the West German Soccer Federation, which last January asked the Cosmos to release Beckenbauer for both the June World Cup and a lengthy training period preceding it. No, replied the Cosmos. You can have him for the actual games, they said, but not for three months. No, thank you, said the Germans. End of story, seemingly. But when West Germany made a disastrous showing against Brazil on April 5 (SI, April 17), it became clear that without Beckenbauer its midfield is a mess. That, in turn, led to Krikor Yepremian, general manager of the Cosmos, spending much of last Friday on the telephone in conversations that generally went like this: "I'm sorry, Karl, but I can say nothing yet. Maybe later. You'll call again at 2 p.m.? O.K., Karl...."
April 24, 1978
Two floors below him in the Warner Communications building in Rockefeller Plaza, a West German TV unit was lying in wait for Ahmet Ertegun, president of the Cosmos. They, too, had got wind of something. But in a flash of Mephistophelian silver beard and heavy gold wristband, Ertegun was through the crew and into his office. Inside he admitted that, yes, the Germans had now renewed their quest for Beckenbauer's services. "But the answer is no," he said. "The authorities who pick the time for the World Cup did not take our season into consideration." The somewhat arrogant presumption of his last sentence struck him immediately and he amended it. "Of course, we are not that important yet, I suppose." But he could not resist a final taunt. "To them, that is."
Implicit in Ertegun's remarks was his widely shared view that, at least when it comes to North American soccer, the Cosmos bestride the world. Their off-season recruiting, notably of Dennis Tueart from Manchester City—$475,000 worth of high-scoring winger—and their avowed intention to acquire at least one more world-class player this season looked very much like overkill in the context of the NASL, especially after the Cosmos' 7-0 opening-game thrashing of Fort Lauderdale three weeks ago.
The Cosmos management does not, of course, agree with that. "We could easily have lost to the Aztecs last week," Yepremian says. "One-nothing is no great margin. Of course, we will win games 5-0 and 6-0, but we will lose some, too. It will be hard to beat us but we will not overwhelm every team...."
Which was exactly the case in Sunday's match with Tulsa. Just to show how things can go wrong, even with colossi, three of the Cosmos' first string did not start. Tueart was out with a hamstring injury, as he has been since the start of the season. So was Steve Hunt, with a charley horse. And Bobby Smith was absent, too, having been suspended for 10 days after indulging himself in a piece of obscene mime in front of live television cameras during the Aztec game. Nor did the Cosmos appear in the new club colors—blue and yellow. Back to green and yellow, insisted the league, on the grounds that the team had not given sufficient notice of its intention. Balancing these setbacks was the morale-raising presence of 10 NFL-style, flouncy and feathered cheerleaders.
The Cosmos got off in fine style. Gary Etherington, coming in from the right wing, barely missed a top corner of the net with a drive, and seconds later Beckenbauer forced Colin Boulton, the Tulsa goalie, to dive full length to stop a free kick. All that was in the first minute. And it was a full 12 minutes before Tulsa managed its first shot. All in all, it looked as if a repetition of the Fort Lauderdale massacre was about to occur, especially when Chinaglia broke loose from Tulsa Centerback Stojan Nickolic, who had been detailed to mark him, and headed the ball narrowly over the bar.
But thereafter Nickolic tightened his hold, an accomplishment made easier when Etherington and Santiago Formoso, the wingmen who had replaced the absent Hunt and Tueart, failed to provide Chinaglia with the perfectly placed passes that he has come to expect, at least from Hunt. For his part, Nickolic was always there to cut off the ground balls, to win the heading duels. Chinaglia's afternoon grew worse and worse.
In another duel, Beckenbauer predictably was having the better of young O'Riordan, treating him to a soccer lesson replete with impudent back-flicked passes and shaking loose to make long, penetrating runs down the center of the field. But toward halftime, even Beckenbauer seemed to become rattled by the Cosmos' inability to convert their scoring opportunities. "It's up to them to break us down," said Noel Lemon. And breaking down Tulsa was no easy task; realizing that they were not necessarily in for a hiding, the visitors started to push the ball about methodically. Only the inaccuracy of their own forwards, notably Billy Caskey, prevented the Roughnecks from going into a halftime lead.
In the second half the trend continued. For 10 minutes, Santiago Formoso, his wild hair flying, waged a one-man war, and one of his shots came close enough to hit a post. But it was unrewarding individualism, evidence of the kind of desperation that was now infecting the whole Cosmos side. They were jeered at by the 41,216 fans at Giants Stadium. From time to time, O'Riordan even got the better of Beckenbauer, forcing him to pass back to his defense instead of allowing him to proceed on his magisterial runs.
But then, as the last minutes ticked away, Tulsa gave away a free kick just outside their penalty area and Beckenbauer ran up to take it. Earlier, in a similar situation, he had found himself impeded by the referee and protested strongly. This time he took pains to make sure that the official was well clear. And some of that Warner Communications money was well repaid when he hit the ball hard and true to the right of Boulton in the Tulsa goal. That score stood up until the end. The defeat was a sad one for Tulsa, perhaps, but it was a reminder for everybody else that, as yet, nothing is sewn up in the NASL.