In the closing minutes of France's 6-0 rout of the U.S. national team last week, Michael Platini, 22, one of the stars of what was essentially the same French team that qualified for World Cup play last year, gave a soccer lesson to Larry Hulcer. Also 22, a former all-star from St. Louis University and a first draft pick of the NASL's Los Angeles Aztecs, Hulcer is one of the U.S.' brightest young hopes in the supercharged world of international soccer.
The scoring was over for the evening and this was graduate school. The hard-charging and marvelously speedy French had not, as many predicted they might, turned off the steam and ceased embarrassing their hosts once they had established a comfortable lead. No. They kept galloping belligerently up and down Giants Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands until the very end.
Now Platini, a midfielder of stunning skill, gave his American counterpart the final exam. He deftly flipped the ball 15 feet in the air as Hulcer ran in to tackle, wheeled around the American in a few steps and caught the ball softly on his right instep. Hulcer braked, turned and ran at him again. This time Platini, who resembles Marcel Marceau, executed almost exactly the same trick with the other foot. At the end of that one, he struck a neat heel pass to a teammate cruising behind him and was off.
Hulcer panted, put his hands on his hips and looked at the ground. His expression was a combination of awe and pain, the look of a young club fighter who had just finished three "friendly" rounds with Ali.
Hulcer's experience was not unique. Many of his teammates had suffered similar embarrassing moments. And at the end of the drubbing by the French, one of the top 10 national squads in the world, the U.S. had a clearer—and unfortunately painful—idea of just how far it has yet to travel to reach soccer respectability on a world level.
The match was a result of France's having to cancel a game with Iran because of the revolution. Instead, the French proposed playing the U.S. The offer was enthusiastically accepted by the U.S. national and Olympic coach, the Ukrainian-born Walt Chyzowych. "Quality breeds quality," he said. "We can only get better by playing the French. It will give us a standard against which to judge our progress."
The last outing of the U.S. national team was against the Russian squad last winter (SI, Feb. 12). In two meetings, the Americans lost twice but performed reasonably well on each occasion. Although the French were known to be an incomparably better side than the Soviets, Chyzowych refused to consider tactics that another underdog coach might have employed in such a mismatch. "We won't lay back in front of our net and defend all night," he said. "And we won't try to double-cover their stars like Platini and Marius Tresor [the Guadeloupe-born captain of the squad, the "Beckenbauer of France"] because we won't learn anything that way. We're going to attack and play even up. We'll take our lumps and be wiser for it."
Other national teams are composed of the best professionals—seasoned, proven veterans. Chyzowych's problem was that the best professionals playing in the U.S. are all foreigners and therefore ineligible. Moreover, so recent and so rapid has been the growth of the game here that the most skilled native-born players tend to be youngsters who lack much professional experience.
Of the 18 men on the U.S. roster for the game with France, 12 were technically amateurs. (The other six were out-and-out pros.) The "amateurs" are under contracts to various NASL teams by means of a nifty little piece of paper called the Olympic Registration Form, which ensures a player's eligibility for the Olympics while allowing him to play with the pros, draw expense money and swing some private "clinic and lesson" fees. About 50 NASL players have such deals. U.S. Midfielder Ricky Davis of the Cosmos, for instance, gets $100 a week expenses, the use of a car, an apartment and $20,000 for giving clinics. All legal—and amateur.
Chyzowych's U.S. Olympic team—the national team minus the pros, plus a few other amateurs—squeaked through the qualifying round of the Pan-American Games last month and in July will go to the finals in Puerto Rico. At the end of this month, the team plays Mexico in the first round of the Olympic eliminations. Many of those who took the field last week against France will be on that squad as well. The team Chyzowych selected to play the French reflected his desire to try a number of combinations before World Cup or Olympic eliminations begin in earnest. He may not have fielded the strongest team, but it was certainly a representative one. "The level of play advances so rapidly here," he says, "that by the time of the Olympics, I may have a whole new crop of kids just out of junior high to work with." He was only half-joking.
And while the level of play in the U.S. may be something of a locker-room joke in Europe, the U.S. entry into world soccer is not. Soccer attendance is down in several European countries, causing mild alarm. The hope is that an injection of U.S. dollars, enthusiasm and prestige will bring it back up.
French Coach Michael Hidalgo arrived in New York last week full of graceful allusions to the Statue of Liberty, and he had no uncomplimentary word for Giants Stadium's "synthetic carpet"—AstroTurf—a surface on which few of his athletes had ever played.
Any talk among the Americans of a "philosophic victory" ceased as the members of the U.S. team watched in awe while the French went through a hard workout, picking up the secrets of AstroTurf in an hour or so. Midfielder Perry Van Der Beck, 19, the youngest U.S. player and one of the best—he has an Olympic contract with Tampa Bay—dug his fingers into his mop of blond hair and moaned, "I can't believe the speed, the perfection." He turned to Chyzowych. "Coach, what are we going to do?"
"Do?" Chyzowych said. "Perry, we're going to pray. Come to church with me."
Team Captain Glenn Myernick, an old-hand defender with the Dallas Tornado—one of the professional professionals—sighed. "We're not going to play defense all night," he said, repeating Chyzowych's message. "We're going to take it to them. If we find out where they are."
With more Tricolors than Stars and Stripes waving in the 20,000-plus crowd, the French took only a few minutes to start the evening's seminar in world-class soccer. They showed a game as hard and fast as the English one, as skillfully team-controlled as the German one, but with a special Gallic individuality in creating plays and attacking with èlan.
They were insolently perfect, passing with a precision that had the crowd gasping and cheering. The Americans averaged 15 pounds heavier per man than the French, and were taller and more muscular. But from the beginning they were overwhelmed and knocked off the ball at will by the agile French.
Bernard Lacombe, 26, who holds the World Cup record for the quickest goal—38 seconds against Italy—took all of 7:55 to score the first French goal. He hit a high volley that a bewildered Don Droege, a Washington Diplomat defender, had failed to clear, and kicked it past the outstretched hands of Goalie Arnie Mausser.
Five minutes later Lacombe struck again, ricocheting a shot off the back of Myernick past a screened Mausser. And 22 minutes after that, Droege again failed to clear a ball in the penalty box and Lacombe had a chapeau trick.
Before the end of the half Myernick hit his own goalpost with a clearing kick, and the luckless Droege suffered the torment of seeing his name on the scoreboard—scoring for France—when a kick that was meant to clear ran over the line into the empty net. At the half it was 4-0 France.
The Americans were missing veteran Cosmos defender Bobby Smith, a madman of a take-charge veteran, and Ty Keough, the young sweeper back with San Diego, both out with injuries. But Chyzowych kept his word and refused to play his team defensively.
Fifteen minutes after the resumption, Loic Amisse scored the fifth French goal. The last score of the night belonged to fiery Winger Didier Six, who charged into the box and was confronted by a milling group of Americans. He shot, and the ball trickled back to him. He shot again, and the ball bobbled about, returning once again to his right foot. He gave a great Gallic shrug of disbelief and sent a whistling, twisting shot into the net. He turned away and sighed.
"The first three goals were absolutely stupid," said a dejected Chyzowych afterward. "Three down and you don't come back against a team like that. What we need to play world-class soccer is technique at high speed. We certainly learned that."
"This is a setback, a lesson. We didn't do our homework," sighed Mausser. "Our players get such little playing time in the NASL because foreigners dominate the game. It'll be a long time before we're up to France's level. I want to play in the World Cup. Do you think I'll make the team when I'm 60?"
Said Myernick, when asked how he felt, "I felt great—until 9:10." The game began at nine o'clock.
Said Lacombe, "We came to play serious soccer. We were very impressed by the conditioning and strength of the Americans. Now all they need is technique."
"We can't teach you skills," said Platini, marveling at the relative opulence of the carpeted Giants Stadium dressing room. "Skill you must learn, as we all have, by simply living the game your whole life. It will come here from the children, I think. But to play in America...." At this he paused and rubbed his fingers together, indicating money, "Vive les Cosmos!"
The thing Platini liked best about the game, though, was the instant-replay scoreboard. "To look up and see your team score the goal again, that is very sweet," he said. World-class, in fact.