In cold and blustery Tampa Bay Stadium last Sunday afternoon, with only 14:17 gone in the first half of the game for the NCAA Division I soccer championship, the University of San Francisco's 6'3" Norwegian center forward, Dag Olavsen, took a header from his Nigerian teammate, Alex Nwosu, wheeled quickly toward the Indiana goal and from a few yards out boomed home a shot past Keeper John Putna of Chicago. That settled, for this year at least, the perennial argument between those who advocate recruiting foreign soccer players of great skill and those who believe in developing home-grown talent. By the end of the game, the score was USF and internationalism 2, Indiana and the all-American boys 0.
When Indiana (22-1), ranked No. 1, took on USF (26-1), ranked No. 2—but a three-time NCAA champ and playing in its fourth title game in as many years—it looked like an encounter between the heroes of Animal House and a United Nations committee. While only one Hoosier was born outside the country—star Striker Angelo DiBernardo (SI Oct. 23) in Argentina—all but one of USF's usual starting lineup first saw the light of day in such disparate places as Nigeria, Liberia, Guyana, Surinam, Norway, Greece and Brazil. This dichotomy further fueled the fire of the U.S. vs. foreign players controversy that extends in one way or another from the North American Soccer League down into the high schools.
For the NCAA, however, the match was a dream game. For the first time in the history of the championship, the nation's four top-ranked squads had made it through the often whimsical maze of regional eliminations to arrive in Tampa. They brought with them a combined 82-2-1 record. There were no dark horses, Cinderellas or flukes.
Before USF and Indiana met, each had handily won its semifinal game on Saturday. Third-ranked Clemson's magnificent Nigerian forwards had put on a dazzling display of ball-handling to lead San Francisco 1-0, but the Dons whacked home two quick goals near the end of the first half to win 2-1. In the other half of the draw, in a contest that was so physical it could have provided footage for a bad movie about English soccer, the Hoosiers outgalloped and outshouldered fourth-ranked Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, a small, street-wise soccer power. By the end of the 2-0 match, Textile had drawn three yellow cards and one ejection.
December 18, 1978
"We're by far the better side," said Steve Negoesco, the 54-year-old high school biology teacher, gourmand and philosopher who was concluding his 17th season as USF's parttime coach, for which he is currently paid the princely sum of $5,000 a year. Next season the Romanian-American will finally become USF's full-time coach. "The NCAA wants Indiana to win this year," he said. "It's Breakfast of Champions time in the Midwest. What are we to them? An embarrassment. We're predominantly foreign. But that's the way you build a national soccer power in U.S. colleges today. American kids just don't have the talents yet."
When his USF players visited the It's a Small World ride at Disney World on Friday, what delighted them most about the exhibit was that each of 25 countries was represented by a puppet singing the title tune in its native language. Whenever they heard a familiar tongue they cheered.
There's no love lost between Negoesco and Indiana's coach, the calm and very American Jerry Yeagley. In 1976 the Dons whipped unheralded Indiana 1-0 in the final. Last year, the two teams were 1-1 against each other in regular-season play, but Indiana failed to make the final four. This past September, in a bitter contest in which two USF players were ejected, Indiana held on to a 2-1 lead to beat the Dons.
"Yeagley's tactic is the one he has to use with mediocre American players," said Negoesco. "The name of his game is substitutions. What his kids lack in finesse, they can make up by burning themselves out for a few minutes. Then they are replaced." On Saturday, for instance, Indiana substituted more than 20 times, well above the average of most top college teams. "He can even bring them back in. That's the college unlimited rule. It's not soccer, which is a paced, 90-minute game that internationally allows only two subs. He just grinds opponents into the ground with his depth.
"And they're big, corn-fed kids. Very physical and subtle at fouls. They look so clean-cut, I guess referees can't believe they're breaking rules. It makes other teams retaliate and get players thrown out of the game.
"And cramps! Indiana always seems to get cramps when their opponents are threatening. It stops the game in college. Pfui! But we'll win and the NCAA will have a red face again."
Yeagley responded calmly. "Steve thinks the NCAA is in a conspiracy against him." he said, "but it's not so. Foreign players in U.S. colleges teach the American kids a lot. USF is so skilled they can do anything they want. They'll use a 4-4-2 against us tomorrow, but they could use anything. They're the most sophisticated team in college soccer. Eleven of them have been on their countries' national teams.
"It's just a different value system. I want to develop the American player, and to do so I have to substitute. We're such hicks we just run till we drop. If Steve thinks it's unfair, he's the one who says winning is the name of the game. I agree. I draw from St. Louis and Chicago; he goes to Norway and Nigeria. When American kids get more skills, we'll cut down on the subbing. Meanwhile, I've got a championship to win." And with Yeagley sitting on the NCAA Rules Committee for soccer, changes in the substitution rules are not likely to be rushed along.
"We're the underdog here, rated No. 1 or not," said Yeagley. "Our only hope is to control the tempo. If there's sentiment for some kind of American win, it doesn't matter to us. We want it for Indiana. For us."
On Sunday, when a cold wave plunged the wind-chill factor into the 40s, 4,500 well-bundled fans shivered in the cavernous stadium while Clemson's Nigerians—all six of them—led the Tigers to a 6-2 victory over Textile in the consolation game.
And then to cheers of "U-S-F! U-S-F!" and "Go Red! Go Red!" Indiana and USF began their philosophical debate. Astonishingly, the Dons came out playing Indiana's game of jarring, hard-hitting hustle, nearly always getting to the ball first and swarming over the Hoosiers' playmaking midfielder, Charlie Fajkus. For much of the first half they confused the issue with brilliant runs and created chances for goals by keeping the ball in the air and away from the fast feet of Indiana's forwards.
Led by Norwegian Bjorn Dahl, who was easily USF's outstanding player, the Dons' tall Scandinavian defenders could play keep-away ball when they chose after their early goal. And very nearly as effective as Dahl was Eric Visser, a Dutch freshman who stuck to DiBernardo like epoxy, effectively keeping him out of the game and defusing Indiana's attack. Frustrated but undaunted, the all-American kids galloped about in vain, like commuters arriving at the station just after their train has left.
With less than five minutes left, Alex Nwosu iced the game for USF with a chip shot over Putna's head from close range, and the debate was over.
A crushed Yeagley, shivering in the icy wind, said, "Between Dahl's play and having DiBernardo marked out of the action, we were done. They outplayed us at our own game of being first to the ball. But there's next year. And I'm not going to Norway for players."
Suave but hardly conciliatory, Negoesco said, "I still have an aversion to nationalism for obvious reasons. But there's a real rivalry here. We'll meet them again. Then we'll see."
As the awards were handed out to the players of both teams, an Indiana fan yelled, "Hooray for the only all-American team, you're the best!"
Godwin Odiye, a USF midfielder from Nigeria, yelled back, "Certainly. But you are not the champions! It is us!" He grinned, waving his arm at the yellow-and-green-clad USF squad, which was bubbling happily away in several languages. This year, at least, the victory banquet will not have Wheaties for an entrèe.