Eddie Firmani, the coach of the Cosmos, was sitting at the Sultan's Tent bar of the Princess Tower Hotel in Freeport, Grand Bahama one evening a few weeks ago, cooling out after a spring training session. The place was filled with tour groups wearing silly straw hats to cover third-degree sunburns and throwing down things like Yellow Birds and Bahama Mommas and Trader Toms. Outside, the temperature was a dry 80°. Firmani was sipping a beer and thinking about the NASL's 13th season, which opens this Saturday.
"There's only one team that can beat the Cosmos this year," he said finally, smiling faintly and tapping his forehead. "And that's the Cosmos." Firmani looked around. Next to him sat Vladislav Bogicevic, the highly gifted Yugoslavian attacking midfielder, who had just explained to his coach and anyone else who would listen that the trick of getting admitted to Studio 54, Manhattan's preposterously exclusive disco, was to show up dressed in nothing but The New York Times. Upstairs in his room, Carlos Alberto, the legendary Brazilian sweeper back and former World Cup-squad captain, was brooding about the fact that Franz (the Kaiser) Beckenbauer, the legendary German who played in midfield last season, was agitating to play sweeper this year. Beckenbauer, who, after all, invented the sweeper position, wasn't in Freeport. He was planning (some said) on showing up much later than March 1, the date his contract calls for, so out of shape that Firmani would have to let him play sweeper. Meanwhile, in his suite—on another floor from the lodgings of the rest of the team—super-striker Giorgio Chinaglia, the legendary Italian who set an alltime league season record of 34 goals in '78, was having one of his legendary delusions of grandeur. Watching a televised German league game, he whispered, "They're not so great."
Firmani's meditations were interrupted by a newcomer to the Cosmos, Marinho, a Brazilian defender of such ball-handling skills and gracious wit that he reminds one of Meadowlark Lemon. Marinho slid in beside the coach and began to beat out a fierce, complicated Latin rhythm on the bar top, looking off into space from beneath his shoulder-length blond hair, obviously in deep communication with Mars.
"See what I mean?" said Firmani, with another faint smile.
March 26, 1979
The other teams in the NASL aren't within several million miles of the Cosmos, either, whether you consider the club's nearly unbearable internal strains or its astronomical payroll—but they're working at it. In fact, a number of teams seem to have adopted the Cosmos as the great and true model of how an American soccer team should be run. Which is sort of a joke, because the Cosmos haven't actually run toward their back-to-back championships but rather lurched toward them, barely under control and threatening at almost any moment to blow up.
It's not exactly the kind of operation you would teach undergraduates in Professional Sporting Structures I, but it's worked for the Cosmos in xwo extremely important ways—they win and they draw the bans. The other teams are beginning to get the message. In a league badly in need of a counterweight to the Cosmos, many teams are suddenly seeing virtue in chaos and in the multinational roster approach and are opening their checkbooks to players from Germany, Holland, Argentina, Peru, Portugal, Denmark and Mexico.
The backbone of the NASL has been and, to a large extent, still is the English player. In England, for a modest price, a league owner could once obtain a player with experience, fortitude and reliable skills who spoke a language the owner understood. He could buy such players from their British clubs, or get them on loan to play in the U.S. after the conclusion of the British season. But the supply of moderate-priced English players—most of them from second-division or lower clubs—was not limitless and, often as not, they produced fairly humdrum results, both on the field and at the gate. The asking prices on top-grade English talent, meanwhile, have soared compared to what was available on the world market. "The English have become very dear," says NASL Director of Operations Ted Howard. Last season, for instance, the Cosmos' purchase of Dennis Tueart for $500,000 was a British record. This year Tampa Bay is offering second-division Charlton Athletic $1.4 million for Striker Mike Flanagan, who last season racked up 30 goals while on loan to New England. And the Detroit Express' 1978 loaner, Trevor Francis, was sold off-season by Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest for a hefty $2.3 million—and will again play for Detroit. Nonetheless, the NASL will remain predominantly English. Tulsa, Vancouver, Minnesota, Portland, Seattle and Memphis will still be solidly English, though teams dependent on English loaners may regret it. The English winter was so severe that about 200 games—a month's worth—were postponed, and loaners, who must finish their own schedules before joining their NASL teams, will be arriving in the U.S. after a quarter of the season is over.
So if you're an owner in reasonably good financial shape and you want to catch the Cosmos—maybe even win a championship—and pull in a bunch more people, what do you do?
You call up Berlitz is what you do.
Among other things, the 1978 season proved that the NASL could survive without Pelè. Attendance was up to 4,690,000—a million more than in '77—although nearly a sixth of that figure was accounted for by the Cosmos' home attendance, which amounted to 717,842 in 15 games. (Think of how that looked to owners trying to decide what path to take.) In the off-season the NASL also got a toehold network television contract with ABC—nine games with Jim McKay in the booth—and signed up the legendary Henry Kissinger as chairman of its board of directors. The former Secretary of State meets regularly with Commissioner Phil Woosnam to plot the course of the NASL in the world of international soccer. Now for the bad news. As opening day approached, there was the threat of a players' strike. The NASL Players' Association, led by Ed Garvey, the executive director of the NFL Players' Association, last year won the right to bargain collectively with the league. The NASL owners, however, have steadfastly refused to recognize the NASLPA. A strike vote is under way, and player representatives meet this week to count ballots—currently running 3 to 1 in favor of a walkout—and decide on action.
But for the time being, what with no new franchises and only two relocations—last year there were six of the former, four of the latter—the owners are concentrating on emulating the Cosmos. It is a situation in which everyone applauds when someone makes a move. Spirits were high around the league two weeks ago when the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, a successful team formerly dependent on doughty Britishers, signed the German star Gerd Muller for a reported annual salary of $400,000. While Muller is not a Pelè in either drawing power or virtuosity, he is very near the top of the world-class game and is the most important player to come into the league since Beckenbauer. Over the winter, the 35-year-old striker, who scored an amazing 365 goals in 427 games for Bayern Munich and has scored 68 goals in 62 National Team appearances, became disillusioned with his club. When it asked him to help out the defense, he resigned in disgust and declared his availability to the NASL.
Although he almost ranks with Beckenbauer, Muller may suffer in Fort Lauderdale. He scored the winning World Cup championship goal against Holland in 1974, but he must be served the ball accurately and often by fast-flying wing-men. The Cosmos have two such operatives (one of them an English international) to provide this service for Chinaglia, but the Strikers do not. Fort Lauderdale also accomplished the off-season's second-most-notable signing when it acquired Teofilo Cubillas, 29, the Peruvian striker who is fifth in alltime World Cup goals, and who was runner-up to Pelè as the 1970 World Cup MVP. He will get $350,000 for two years. Said Beau Rogers, the Strikers' executive vice-president and general manager, "That's about equal to three llamas and two Peruvian rugs."
The Strikers also have George Best, the much-publicized on-again, off-again goal scorer, although his availability is clouded because of contract problems. Fort Lauderdale's English coach, Ron Newman, is awed by all that has happened to his team. "It's pretty much mind-boggling," he says. "We've got to be right alongside the Cosmos. We'll certainly surprise the rest of the league. Our little team now has stature throughout the world."
Other teams in other ways were also going in for the international look. The New England Tea Men, backed by Lipton Tea's megabucks, have shucked an English look for a Portuguese one in deference to Massachusetts' half-million Portuguese-Americans, and San Diego hopes to sign two popular Mexican wingers in an effort to draw on the vast Mexican population of Southern California.
Except in poverty-level franchises, you can forget about the Americanization of the NASL. "I love the Americans in the game," says Dallas Tornado Coach Al Miller, who last season started more Americans than any club except Colorado which sometimes fielded as many as six. The Tornado average was four or five. But last year Dallas missed the playoff for the first time, and this season Miller will start a team of Brazilians, Argentinians, Portuguese and one standout German. "I have to win a championship," he says. "Americanization will have to wait. If I can make all these foreigners play together, we'll never be embarrassed by the Cosmos again."
One of Dallas' displaced American players managed to be philosophical about the situation. "At least the foreigners coming over here now are top players," said Glenn Myernick, "not guys who've lost so many steps at home that they can't compete. We're going to look at them, take what we can from their experience and skills, and soon we'll take over the league." But first the league will be trying to overtake the Cosmos.