When the first goal—the one that mattered—was scored after 48 cruel, sweltering minutes of 1980's Soccer Bowl, it came from the left foot of the Cosmos' Julio Cesar Romero, but it was Giorgio Chinaglia who made it possible. Giorgio escaped from the Strikers' Ken Fogarty for once so that Defender Arsene Auguste, coming across to help out, had no choice but to sweep Chinaglia's legs from under him. What else can you do when the league's premier scorer is unguarded a foot outside the penalty box?
Vladislav Bogicevic tapped the resulting free kick to Chinaglia, who slammed it against a wall of Striker defenders. The rocket shot rebounded back to Little Cesar, who hit it home. 1-0. "It was the first goal that mattered," Chinaglia said later, and he was entirely right. It was the breaking of the dam.
Until then, at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, it seemed as if the real winner would be the wicked heat. At the half it had hit 99° and the relative humidity was a sweltering 75%. Only the NASL and, presumably, mad dogs, would think of playing soccer in this kind of noonday sun. Even in Brazil they switch to night games when the thermometer goes crazy. Which, possibly, is why Francisco Marinho, Fort Lauderdale's often magical, always temperamental Brazilian midfielder, elected to stay out of the game rather than, as he said, sit it out on the subs' bench. And why another non-starter, though not by his own choice, was the Cosmos' redoubtable Carlos Alberto, also of Brazil.
No one, though, had expected the Strikers to hold out against the Cosmos until 2:55 had gone by in the second half. The playoffs had been a piece of cake—a doddle, as soccer players call an easy game—for the Cosmos. Except for one hiccup, when they lost a home game to Dallas and had to win a 30-minute minigame to clinch the series, the Cosmos had enjoyed a royal progress to Soccer Bowl, King Giorgio and his 16 playoff goals leading the parade.
September 28, 1980
In contrast, the Strikers had made their way to the final with all the precision, style and speed of the town boozer footing it home through a snowstorm. Three times in the playoff rounds they had won tough road games, three times they had lost the return match at their own Lock-hart Stadium. They scrabbled by California on the 11th goal of a tie-breaking shootout and needed minigames to beat Edmonton and then San Diego.
Right through the regular season, in fact, the Strikers, who once had the most stable image in the league, with reputedly the happiest, most loyal fans, seemed on the verge of disintegrating. At least twice Fort Lauderdale's new coach, Cor van der Hart, needed police protection to get out of Lockhart unscathed, while the general manager, former hockey player Bob Lemieux, happily referred to the whole equipage as the Gas House Gang.
Van der Hart, 53, a florid, heavily built Dutchman who wears his reputation as a disciplinarian with pride, had replaced the easygoing Ron Newman in the off-season. Some of the fans' favorites, notably David Irving and Eduardo Bonvallet, were early victims of the Dutchman's ax-swinging program. And soon former World Cup stars like Teofilo Cubillas of Peru and Gerd Mueller of West Germany started studying the job market of their own volition. Both may choose not to rejoin Fort Lauderdale next season.
Whatever his difficulties with players, van der Hart in one magic moment did make a linguistic innovation that might solve a problem that has haunted the NASL for years. It's the New York Cosmos, the league likes to insist. Just the Cosmos, say the Cosmos, who, after all, play in New Jersey. Van der Hart may have fixed that for good. "When we play in New Yorsey..." he said, referring to the second of two meetings between the teams in the regular season.
Indeed, in spite of their woes, the Strikers had won their first regular-season game with the Cosmos handily, 4-1, in Florida, though in New Yorsey the Cosmos had come back with a 2-0 victory. All that, however, was before Chinaglia had come into quite extraordinary form.
Last week, in practice at RFK, he belted the ball high into the stands, where normally it would have disappeared among the empty seats. No: against heavy odds it hit a seat, bop, bounced forward, hit another seat, bop, and rebounded almost to Chinaglia's feet on the field. It couldn't happen again in 20 years. It did, though. Twice. Ahead of the game, it seemed he could do nothing wrong.
In the dugout, when asked somewhat naively if he were the world's greatest center forward, Chinaglia replied with a classic phrop. A phrop, in case you are unfamiliar with the term—as well you might be, because it was only recently coined by The Times of London—is something you say, for politeness' sake, when you mean the opposite. As in "Let's have lunch real soon." Chinaglia's phrop involved the Strikers' star. "Gerd Mueller is also a great center forward," he said politely. Then he spoiled it by adding "of his time."
"At the moment," said Francois Van der Elst, whom the Cosmos acquired from the Belgian national team at mid-season, "Chinaglia is playing the best soccer of his life." And those who have watched him for years, in Wales, then in Italy, then in this country, can only agree. Chinaglia, at 33, is more driven than he ever has been. Last winter, for instance, mindful of criticism that he was a poor header of the ball, he spent many hours practicing that skill, one result of which was the glorious, flat-out diving header that gave him the sixth goal of the record seven he got in a playoff game against Tulsa.
For Fort Lauderdale, Chinaglia was clearly the main threat, though hard men like defenders Fogarty and Auguste were not about to faint at the sight of him. "He's 60% of their offense," said Fogarty, an English League veteran with a mean mustache, "but when I heard of those seven goals in one game, I thought, he'd never do that against me. How would I go home and sleep? How would I pick up my paycheck?" Auguste, a six-year NASL veteran from Haiti, actually wanted Chinaglia. "I would love to mark him," he said. "If I am there, he gets maybe 10% of the ball he wants."
Also calculating percentages before Soccer Bowl began was the Strikers' captain, Ray Hudson, small, nippy, a fine attacking wing half. "The Cosmos are talent-laden, I know," he said. "But they are 40% better on AstroTurf than grass. Grass is the great leveler. Get them on grass and they start looking human."
The fact that RFK has a natural surface was, the Strikers hoped, at least one factor in their favor. "Thank God we're back on AstroTurf" was what a couple of Cosmos players had been heard to say after they had come home from Los Angeles in the National Conference finals. And one of those, though he denied it steadfastly afterward, was Fullback Jeff Durgan, the league's Rookie of the Year and a U.S. native, the greater part of whose professional career has been spent on artificial surfaces.
AstroTurf, in fact, is beautifully suited to the Cosmos' speciality, the slow build-up from midfield ending in a fast thrust. AstroTurf plays truly, if boringly. The ball can't hit a divot and shoot off at an angle. Above all, it's difficult to tackle on it. "You can't go in hard," explained Terry Garbett, perhaps the best defensive midfielder who ever played for the Cosmos and now their assistant coach. "On grass you'll slide a couple of feet, but on AstroTurf you just stick, so you delay and delay. It makes for a slow game, which suits the Cosmos."
Still this was so much clutching at blades of grass by the Strikers. On any surface what Fort Lauderdale had to do was contain the Cosmos and then counterattack as successfully as it had done in its 2-0 defeat of San Diego the previous week. An early goal, a quick, lucky one, could be the kind of poisoned apple that Holland received in the World Cup Final of 1974, when they went up 1-0 against West Germany within two minutes of the start, only to be outplayed the balance of the game and lose 2-1.
Maybe also, all the trials and traumas of the Strikers' 1980 season—culminating, somewhat amazingly, in their Soccer Bowl appearance—might stiffen them into doing just this, to take all the Cosmos could throw at them, then fight their way to glory in the last quarter.
If the pangs of the season weren't enough to psych the Strikers up for the game, maybe the small annoyances would be. Like being stuck, they claimed, in a hotel inferior to the one the league had put the Cosmos in. There were other things. "We arrive for our first practice," said Fort Lauderdale Assistant Trainer Eddie Rodgers indignantly, "and we find the Cosmos have taken over the Washington Diplomats' locker room, which is beautiful. Two whirlpools, all the equipment. We get the visitors' locker room. All it has are lockers." His voice rose a little. "I requested two 10-gallon coolers of orange Gatorade," he said tragically, "and what do I get? A couple of four-gallon tubs of lemon-and-lime!" Nothing to start a war over but, it seemed at the time, a little something to fan the flames.
And that, as it turned out, would have been entirely redundant. A few more degrees of heat at game time and RFK Stadium might have ignited spontaneously. And the spark, no doubt, would have come from the 5,000 or so New York, sorry, New Yorsey fans who had traveled to Washington for the game and outshouted the 45,000 other spectators who were inclined, clearly, to root for the Strikers.
As might have been guessed, Fort Lauderdale fielded its two hardest defenders, Fogarty and Auguste, and the battle plan was plain. Defend in depth from the mid-field and counterattack through Mueller and the tiny—at 5'2" the smallest athlete in the major leagues in the U.S.—Jeff Cacciatore from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. The Strikers would throw in occasional raids by Hudson and Cubillas.
Grimly, Fogarty took up his position alongside Chinaglia, and in the first half allowed him only two shots, one from a free kick that Fogarty had no control over. And for much of the first half Van der Elst, a skilled provider of high-quality feeds for Chinaglia, was blotted out by Auguste.
Play, though, was grindingly slow, with long periods at a near-walking pace, South American style. The temperature dictated that. But there were flashes of excellence, as when Mueller suddenly turned his back on Durgan, still a neophyte by Mueller standards, and slid a pass to Hudson, whose hard-driven shot was just over the bar. Occasionally the action came from individual duels, like the one between Angelo DiBernardo and Cacciatore, which the latter, wriggling his legs like a water beetle, won more often than not.
For the Strikers, Mueller—who might more appropriately be called Der Barrel than Der Bomber these days—made chances, as did Romero for the Cosmos. But the buildup by both sides was painfully slow. How else could it be in the appalling heat? It was a full 25 minutes before Chinaglia could break free from Fogarty, and then it was to center the ball for Romero, who blazed a shot over the bar at close range.
So it went in the first, grueling half, and it was clear even then that the first goal would be all-important. In the last 15 minutes of the half the Cosmos began, if not exactly to dominate, at least to take over more territory.
Then came a stunning blow to the Strikers. Five and a half minutes before halftime, Mueller limped off the field with a pulled thigh muscle. And, inexplicably it seemed, van der Hart decided to replace him with the young Forward Koos Waslander, instead of the more experienced Keith Weller of England. "I believed that Koos was more an attacking player," van der Hart would say. "Weller is a midfielder." As it was, Waslander played ineffectively. More fuel for the flames back in Lauderdale.
Almost as soon as the second half started, just after Waslander had missed from point-blank range, came the first goal from Romero. Now, it seemed, the Strikers had to come out, to throw everything into the game. But without Mueller they only sputtered. Indeed, they looked ready to be overwhelmed.
Everybody except Fogarty, that is, who earned his money. A full 70 minutes went by before Chinaglia was allowed to make his first clear shot on goal. Unhappily for Fogarty, one was enough. At 70:06, Giorgio made the Cosmos' lead 2-0, driving the ball home into the near corner of the net from just inside the box. In the heat, there was no way for the Strikers to come back.
And then, three minutes from the end, the frosting on the cake, provided, appropriately, by Chinaglia. Uncharacteristically he had hit a post earlier. Then he missed at close range, driving the ball straight at Jan van Beveran in the Strikers' goal. Roberto Cabanas headed the rebound back to Chinaglia, though, and this time he made no mistake: 3-0 and exit the Strikers. For the New Yorsey Cosmos, it was their third Soccer Bowl victory in four years. And Chinaglia, the recipient of the MVP award for the playoffs, clearly was entitled to the honor. And that's no phrop.