A black, ugly week it had been for soccer in the U.S. And on Saturday afternoon, with about 14 minutes left in what turned out to be a three-hour, 34-minute marathon NASL National Conference Championship game between the Cosmos and the Vancouver Whitecaps, it looked as if a lily-livered refereeing decision might turn out to be the final vertebra-snapping straw for those who, out of love for the game, have accepted all the nonsense surrounding the NASL's version of it with truly camel-like patience.
This is how it was. On Wednesday night in Vancouver, the Caps had won the first of the home-and-home series 2-0. In Saturday's second game, in East Rutherford, N.J., they had tied the Cosmos 2-2 in regulation time. Then, as the grotesquely complex NASL rules decreed, the teams had played 15 minutes of sudden-death overtime. No score. So a shoot-out followed. This the Cosmos won.
All right. That meant that the series was now tied 1-1. Now there followed a further 30-minute overtime period—a mini-game, the league likes to call it. Close to exhaustion in the summer heat, the players battled on. Then, with no score and mini-game time ticking away and with yet another shoot-out in prospect, Vancouver's Carl Valentine found himself clear in front of the Cosmos' net, with Goalie Hubert Birkenmeier well beaten. Valentine's shot hit the underside of the crossbar and slammed down onto the goal line.
On the line? Or just over the line—as it had to be for the goal to count? The referee apparently had no doubt. He immediately pointed to the center of the field, indicating a score. The decision drove the Cosmos berserk. Led by Giorgio Chinaglia, they rushed across to the linesman, who would have been consulted by the referee had there been any doubt in the ref's mind. Chinaglia roughly grabbed the official by his shoulders—an offense that would have meant immediate expulsion from the game anywhere else in the world. The referee came over, not to eject the Cosmos' star but apparently to join in a discussion. And somehow, after several minutes the ref was persuaded that he was entirely wrong, that no goal had been scored.
At this point, a coach less level-headed than the Whitecaps' Tony Waiters might have called his team off the field. Instead, in the face of this blatant intimidation of officials by the Cosmos, the Whitecaps indicated they would make a formal protest—and then fought on. As it turned out, they made the right decision. But in view of the events that had preceded Saturday's game, it must have seemed sickeningly likely to the Caps that yet again the Cosmos, because they are the NASL's glamour boys, were going to be allowed to get away with whatever they wanted, even though they had already come under severe reproach the previous day.
There had been drama aplenty well before Saturday's game. As the Whitecaps flew east to New York on Friday afternoon, one of the players insisted, "He has to do it. He's got no choice."
That raised cynical guffaws. "He'll do nothing," somebody else said. "You think the league wants Soccer Bowl without the Cosmos? You think ABC wants us instead of them? He'll do nothing."
But, still and all, when the DC-10 landed at Kennedy, there was a rush for the New York Post, the city's evening paper. In seconds the Whitecaps were jostling one another to get a glimpse of a headline. "He did it!" exclaimed the disbeliever. "He really did it!"
What he—NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam—had done was suspend Carlos Alberto, the Brazilian who is the keystone of the Cosmos defense. According to witnesses, immediately following the Caps' win in Vancouver, Alberto had stripped off his shirt and flung it at the referee, Peter T. Johnson, as they walked into a tunnel at Empire Stadium. Then, outside the Cosmos' locker room, he had spat into the face of one of the linesmen, George Lingard.
Not only was the offense disgusting, but it also conveyed a complete lack of respect for the league and for the sport. In Europe, soccer players have received lifetime bans for striking an official. It seemed that the NASL would be compelled to act.
But a call to the league office indicated that the newspaper report had been premature. At 5 p.m. on Friday, Woosnam, apparently acting alone, was still "considering" the referee's report. The word was that three of the Cosmos' brass, Steve Ross, chairman of the board of Warner Communications, Inc., the Cosmos' parent company; Rafael de la Sierra, a Warner vice-president; and Krikor Yepremiam, general manager of the club, had, at halftime of the Wednesday game, converged on Woosnam, who was in Vancouver as an observer, to protest the officiating. Certainly, the commissioner was under heavy pressure from the Cosmos.
The early hours of Friday evening went by and there was still no news. Was it possible, after all, that the cynics were right? That the big, rich Cosmos were more important than the league?
Then, at 7:50 p.m., the decision was announced. Alberto was out. An undisclosed fine was levied, too, but in the terms of international soccer, it was the lightest of sentences. Nevertheless, this was as much, if not a touch more, than the cynics had expected.
This was especially so because the Alberto penalty followed closely another Cosmos suspension. With only eight seconds left in the Wednesday match, and with the game beyond reach, the Cosmos' fullback, Andranik Eskandarian, had kicked Cap Striker Kevin Hector. For that he justifiably received a red card—meaning expulsion from the game and automatic suspension from the next. Suddenly, through self-inflicted wounds, the Cosmos were without two of their starting defenders for Saturday's game.
The actions of both players had been stupid and needless. They might have stemmed from a frame of mind that Cap Coach Tony Waiters had described after the Wednesday game. "They don't think it is possible for them to lose," he said. "They think they have a kind of divine right to win. They have a sort of arrogance which is almost naive."
That arrogance had first become manifest in the Vancouver game after Trevor Whymark had scored the Caps' second goal 5:44 minutes before the end of the game. At this point, the Cosmos' technical director, Julio (the Professor) Mazzei, in blatant disregard of the rules, had run out onto the field of play, screaming and gesticulating hysterically. It seemed to be his opinion that the goal should have been ruled offside.
True, it had been a hairline decision. It was also true that, stationed as he was on the halfway line, Mazzei was in no position to judge. More significantly, however, nobody saw fit to have him removed from the field immediately. It is entirely possible that, without this foolish example to encourage them, neither Eskandarian nor Alberto would have committed his own piece of foolishness.
The Cosmos had been well beaten before these incidents took place. Caps Goalie Phil Parkes needed to make only two saves, because Vancouver slowly but ever so effectively took control of midfield. Once that was done, a goal was inevitable. Willie Johnston eventually scored it, heading in from a cross by Alan Ball. Johnston, it might be recalled, gained some notoriety after being sent home in disgrace from the Scottish side at last year's World Cup in Buenos Aires; a random drug test showed he had taken a form of amphetamine. Johnston was just dead unlucky: on such grounds, 75% of World Cup players would have caught an early plane.
Now Johnston is well settled with the Caps, whose tightly knit team is in sharp contrast to the Cosmos. That team unity might partially explain why, up until Saturday's game, the Caps had a 6-1 record—3-0 this season—in encounters with the Cosmos.
But considering the difference in resources between them, that record was still largely a mystery. In the context of the NASL the Cosmos are a colossus. No other team can match them in quality of players, in money, staff or facilities. A couple of months ago, when they faltered, the Warner Communications instant remedy was applied: Johan Neeskens of Holland, still one of the world's best midfielders, was signed to a five-year contract worth $750,000. So was the fine German goalie, Birkenmeier. The treatment seemed to work. Ten straight victories followed.
But in the first round of the playoffs, the Cosmos lost to low-budgeted Tulsa in Oklahoma and then, somewhat humiliatingly, had to beat the Roughnecks twice at home to advance. The defeat at Vancouver left the Cosmos once again needing to win both a regular game and a mini-game at home.
Being beaten by the Caps seemed more than the Cosmos management could take, especially because it involved the loss of two important defenders. The hysteria evidenced in Mazzei's invasion of the pitch was soon echoed by de la Sierra, who implied that the penalties assessed against Eskandarian and Alberto were part of an attempt by Woosnam to cause the Cosmos to lose. And by Saturday morning, full-scale litigation was threatened against the commissioner ("Cosmos File Suite" read the handout).
Comic as the misspelling might be, behind all the bluster was the implication that the Cosmos club was bigger than the league, that only the Cosmos gave the league "credibility." And that, by God, the league had better remember it. At a subsequent press conference, Ross said that he had no comment when asked if he would like to see Woosnam removed from office. Only Ahmet Ertegun, president of the club and one of the few senior members of the Cosmos hierarchy with a solid knowledge of the sport, had the sense and decency to say, in effect, "Let's forget this now and get on with the game."
But Saturday's game looked nowhere near as easy for the Cosmos as their second encounter with Tulsa had been. The Roughnecks had made the error of falling back to defend in their own half almost as soon as the game began, gambling they could hold the Cosmos scoreless and win in a shoot-out. The gamble backfired.
Vancouver was a different sort of a team. "It is no use to sit back and try to soak up pressure from very good players," Waiters said on Friday. "The odds are then that skill will tell." That isn't a particularly original theory of how to deal with the Cosmos. Most coaches give it lip service, then, like Tulsa, go back and defend.
But the Caps' outstanding defensive record—they gave up only 34 goals during the regular season, 12 fewer than any other club—wasn't based on packing their penalty area. Waiters explained it: "We don't mark man-for-man. How are you going to end up? Having them run out in pairs? Hand in hand? We mark on a zonal basis, from front to back. When we lose possession we have 11 defenders.
"If you allow time for them in the middle," Waiters went on, "you get great passing players like Beckenbauer and Bogicevic fading balls in behind defenders for strikers to run onto. On artificial turf they can actually hit balls with backspin, so that they slow up right into the path of players like Chinaglia."
What he was talking about was a plan not dissimilar to the so-called "total" soccer used by the superb Dutch sides of the mid '70s. But to carry that out you need players of the highest talent. The Caps are a solid, workmanlike team, but it was asking a lot of them to perform in the manner of the Clockwork Orange, as the Dutch were called.
But they did have a solid organizer in the middle: Alan Ball, small, wiry, now 34, a member of England's World Cup winning team of 1966 and meeting up, for the nth time, with Franz Beckenbauer, the Cosmos' nonpareil defender. They had played against one another as virtual kids on the English and West German sides in that famous final at Wembley 13 years ago.
Beckenbauer is almost the only player on the Cosmos whom Ball respects. He was plainly shocked by the Alberto spitting incident. And others. "All this fighting with workmen," he sniffs, referring to the notorious clash at Giants' Stadium between Chinaglia and a maintenance crew last July. "They disappoint me as a club. When their reign ends they'll lose all the respect they've gained." Ball is of the opinion that great clubs tend to dominate for four or five years—Real Madrid in the late '50s, Bayern Munich in the early '70s, Liverpool nowadays. The Cosmos cannot be compared to any of these teams, of course, but in the context of the NASL, Ball considers that they should behave themselves, live up to their reputation.
As they had in the second game against Tulsa, the Cosmos came on Saturday at a storming pace, with Chinaglia and Seninho spearheading and Dennis Tueart attacking from the midfield. Certainly there was depth enough in the Cosmos' defense not to be totally crippled by the loss of Alberto and Eskandarian. But for the first 10 minutes their defense was hardly tested, except when Whymark, breaking away, headed in with Birkenmeier beaten, only to see his shot cleared magnificently off the line by Ricky Davis, the most promising young American player in the NASL. Otherwise, it was all Cosmos.
This was the kind of pressure that had made Tulsa yield an early goal and then virtually concede the game. There the parallel ended, though. The Cosmos got their goal all right, a beauty, after 10 minutes, constructed by Vladislav Bogicevic and finished by Chinaglia, but the Caps didn't lie down and die, although they still seemed nervous. Their passing kept going astray, particularly in the midfield, which they would have to eventually dominate to win.
There were rough moments also, flurries of fouling, the kind you expect in a playoff game, but nothing serious. On the contrary. For instance, when Kevin Hector, the Caps' central striker, went down heavily with Beckenbauer, the two exchanged courtesies like the generals of opposing 18th-century armies.
At this stage, what seemed missing from the Caps' play was invention and progress on the wings. They had Johnston, a superb player when he puts his mind to it, and Valentine, a gifted 21-year-old, but there was little seen of them. Whymark came close once again: he hit the bar and saw the ball come down on the line. But most of the narrow escapes were at the Vancouver end, Seninho's fast runs being particularly troublesome.
The run of the play was all with the Cosmos until their Dutch defender, Wim Rijsbergen, fouled Ball somewhat ostentatiously and then made the mistake of arguing with the referee. Ball hit the free kick sweetly into the penalty area for John Craven, who had come up from the Caps' defense. Craven beat the hapless Rijsbergen to the ball and scored to tie the score, 1-1.
Now the Cosmos looked more vulnerable, especially when Tueart had to leave with a pulled hamstring, but seven minutes before the half, they went ahead again, a classic Seninho run finished off by Chinaglia, 2-1.
And 2-1 it stayed almost throughout the second half. Now the Caps were gaining confidence, creating more chances, and when Neeskens, chasing Goalie Parkes for a loose ball, collided with him, went down in agony and shortly afterward left the field, there was a gap in the middle that his absence and Tueart's left open to exploitation. And Vancouver did the necessary exploiting. Six minutes before the end, Bob Lenarduzzi broke out of defense and crossed, and there was wee Willie Johnston to soar up, flick the ball with his head and tie the score.
It remained that way until the end of regulation time. Anywhere else in the world the Whitecaps would have now won the series 4-2 on aggregate goals. But because this was the NASL, there was a long way to go yet.
First came the fruitless overtime, then the shoot-out that equalized the series for the Cosmos. Then a mini-game and that extraordinary disallowed goal.
And so now it was all down to a final shoot-out. The Caps had lost the first one easily. Their shoot-out record, extraordinarily bad in the light of Parkes' skill in normal play, was now 1-5 for the season, while that of the Cosmos was 5-1.
Astonishingly, Beckenbauer was first to miss for the Cosmos. Ricky Davis missed, too. Neeskens and Terry Garbett netted, but in the meanwhile three Vancouver players had scored. That meant that Nelsi Morais, the Cosmos defender, had to hit one home to keep the Cosmos in the game. Morais took his time, pushed the ball carefully from the 35-yard line, glanced up at the advancing Parkes, chose his position and netted the ball. Giants' Stadium exploded with joy.
But the referee was waving his arms negatively. Morais had taken a second too long to shoot—only five seconds are allowed. Suddenly the stadium was silent and the blue track suits from the Vancouver bench were on the pitch. Glory, hallelujah! The unthinkable had happened. The Cosmos were beaten.
A little later in the locker room Waiters was the only calm person from Vancouver. He doesn't care for games to be decided by the shoot-out, even though that was how his victory had been achieved. "Where should we head next week?" he asked. "The Meadow-lands or Disneyland? There was so much good play today, so much good stuff. A shoot-out devalues what has gone before. It might be a good idea for NASL now, but maybe in a year or two it will disappear."
Maybe. The times seem to be a-changing. A week that had started so darkly had ended with a remarkably fancy sunset. What a city Vancouver would be this night. ABC-TV might be more than a little worried about its Soccer Bowl ratings next Saturday when Vancouver faces the Tampa Bay Rowdies. And more than likely Giants' Stadium, site of the final, wouldn't be sold out. But those would be small prices to pay for a fresh, cool breeze blowing through the league and a new realization of an old truth, that there are 11 men on every soccer team and that you cannot always buy your way to glory.