Outside Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium the temperature was plunging toward zero, but inside 9,000 Stallion fans were heating up as the game against the New York Arrows, Buffalo's big rival in the Major Indoor Soccer League, went into sudden-death overtime. One New York player in particular was being given a hard time by the crowd. Down on the tropical-green artificial turf laid over the hockey rink on which this six-a-side version of soccer is played, the object of this attention was limping glumly around the Stallions' penalty area, the 25-by-30-foot zone directly in front of the Buffalo goal.
His right thigh heavily bandaged to protect a torn tendon, the man Stallion fans call the Commissioner of Sanitation—because, they say, most of his goals are garbage—was obviously in trouble. As play resumed, he gave a sleepy nod to his teammates and waited, his face an impassive mask. He didn't even raise his head as the few Arrow rooters who'd made the trek to Buffalo began to chant, "ZSHUN-gul! ZSHUN-gul!" ZSHUN-gul (spelled Zungul) isn't something one says after sneezing in Belgrade. Zungul is what New York fans intone when the Arrows need a goal. Slavisa Zungul—known as Steve—is the amazingly gifted 26-year-old Yugoslav striker who holds just about every offensive record in the MISL and is its reigning star, the Pelè of indoor soccer. He had scored 71 goals in 26 games at the end of last week, twice as many as his closest rival, and had 33 assists, also tops by a substantial margin, to make him a heavy favorite to wind up as the league's top scorer for the second year in a row. Extraordinary stats, even for the MISL where goals come by the bushel and scores like 12-7 aren't unusual. And this is no recent phenomenon. Zungul has scored goals in 71 of the 76 games he has played in during the league's 2½-season history. Not exactly garbage.
In Buffalo's Aud it's four minutes into the sudden death. The crowd noise subsides to a mere roar as Arrow defender Val (Mad Dog) Tuksa gathers the ball at midfield and steams toward the Stallions' keeper, Scott Manning, with no defender in sight.
Manning glances to his right at the aloof, crippled Zungul and turns to face the onrushing Tuksa. Tuksa will surely shoot—what player wouldn't, one-on-one with the keeper?—but Manning will have a chance to stop the shot. So, instead, Tuksa fires a low, burning pass across the goal mouth, and before Manning can turn again, there's Zungul, his face showing a trace of pain as he accelerates into overdrive. His long, black hair flying, the 6-foot, 175-pound Zungul taps Tuksa's pass under the diving Manning for a goal. The Arrows win 6-5.
February 2, 1981
In the sudden silence of the Aud, Zungul's face breaks into a smile. He dances in a series of twirls, leaps and hops worthy of a Baryshnikov. All of a sudden it's a different Zungul, the one who supposedly cares more about Olivia Newton-John than anything else, who parties all night at Regine's and hangs out with Al Pacino, who without too much difficulty could become Broadway Steve, fond as he is of limos and opening nights.
While performing his small ballet, Zungul seems a happy young man. The goal he has just scored was the 176th of his MISL career and gave him his 34th hat trick. He has had 14 four-goal, eight five-goal, two six-goal and one seven-goal games. He scored 90 regular-season goals last season, including three in a one-minute, 16-second span against Detroit. His fans have dubbed him the Scoring Machine, a nickname he detests but may deserve, not only for his goals, but also for the unemotional air he projects.
Suddenly, in what seems to be mid-celebration, the mask again covers Zungul's features. He turns abruptly from his exuberant teammates, walks quickly off the floor and is the first man in the showers. The Arrows' coach, Don Popovic, a compatriot of Zungul's, watches his departing star, sighs and produces an old Croatian expression to explain Zungul's personality. "He is like a bread with 10 crusts," Popovic says. "You must break through all of them to get to the soft part. With Zungul, I don't think anyone has done that."
One thing is certain: Zungul is the bread and butter of the 24-2 Arrows. In the MISL's brief existence, New York has been the dominant team. With Popovic's wily coaching and talent in depth provided by owner John Luciani's checkbook—to the tune of $2 million last season—the Arrows are clearly on their way to a third championship.
Back in 1978, when MISL began, indoor soccer resembled human pinball, a game of buzzers, flashing lights, disco music, galloping players and the ball rebounding haphazardly off the walls and around the turf. Now the league, each of whose 12 teams plays a 40-game schedule, is relatively solid financially, and the sport has lost its penny-arcade look. Indoor soccer has developed its own tactics, strategies, set plays and theory.
"It looks like hockey," says Popovic, "but the tactics are more like basketball. I search all the libraries I can for books on picks, zones and defenses. But I don't have to worry about a pivotman—that's Zungul."
One freezing evening in January, the Arrows were practicing as usual on a balding rug in a converted airplane hangar near suburban Nassau Coliseum, where the team draws an average of 7,227 to its home games. The pivotman and the rest of the Arrows were being run through a hard scrimmage by Popovic, though for Zungul a hard scrimmage is hardly an ordeal. Like Giorgio Chinaglia of the Cosmos, Zungul is a "pure" forward—he parks in front of the opponent's goal and waits to be fed. The mundane chores of indoor soccer, in which all five field players run themselves into a lather racing up to attack and back to defend, aren't for him. However, Zungul suffers from the occupational disease of all star strikers—bruised shins from double, even triple coverage.
Alone in the scoring zone, trying to make himself invisible, Zungul seems comfortable being at arm's length from everyone else. When the feed comes to him, he's ready and explosive. If the ball arrives too late or too early or goes to another player who fails to score, Zungul writes volumes with his hands, accusing teammates, showing where the ball should have gone, indicating what would have happened if it had been on target—all with a deadpan expression Chaplin would have admired.
There's a stir among the players in the hangar. The Man—Chinaglia himself—has arrived. Lately, Chinaglia has been practicing with the Arrows. He's wealthy now, what with his annual salary of nearly $800,000 from the Cosmos and the bundle he has made in construction in New Jersey, and he's interested in buying an indoor team. But because he's also Chinaglia, indoor soccer is a game he wants to master. He gives a friendly hug to Popovic, a wave to the team. Alone at the far end of the field, Zungul, who makes almost $150,000 a year from the Arrows, observes Chinaglia with an amused calm. Although they've never played against each other outdoors, each is well aware of the other's reputation.
Popovic delightedly blows his whistle, and a mini-game is under way. Chinaglia stays in the penalty area at the opposite end of the field from where Zungul has set up. Zungul, as usual, seems inattentive. Chinaglia gets the ball and slams a hard shot just wide of the goal. Seconds later Zungul, who had apparently been examining with great interest a pile of lumber just outside the rink, is steaming toward the other goal with the ball and puts away a swift score. He trots by Chinaglia as the teams set up. "Hey, George," he calls in Berlitz-perfected English, "take it easy, huh?" Chinaglia smiles and shakes his head.
After the workout, Chinaglia says, "Zungul is one of the top forwards in the world. That's well known in Europe. He's a true star. He's almost perfect." This from the man who has bad-mouthed Beckenbauer, Cruyff, even Pelè.
Zungul is a remarkably private young man. On the field and off, he tends to wear the mask and, except for rare moments, assume an imperious air. Popovic may be right about the 10 Yugoslav crusts. When the Arrows repair to the Salty Dog restaurant across the street from the Coliseum after a game, Zungul usually doesn't sit at the communal table and drink wine with his teammates. He goes to what regulars call Zungul Corner, where in the shadows he accepts the court paid him by large numbers of young ladies. Says one girl, an unabashed Arrows groupie, "When Zungul first came around here nobody minded if he stayed in a corner. Yugoslavs must have water rationing at home. It takes them a while to learn about showers. But now we all wish he'd come out and join us."
Zungul doesn't live on Long Island's North Shore, where most of his teammates reside, but in an apartment on Manhattan's East Side, just a stone's throw from luxurious Sutton Place. He makes the scene at Regine's and other discos occasionally, but quietly. And he likes good food.
Elaine's is an Upper East Side restaurant where people Elaine likes—most of them well-known—can dine and drink in relative peace. Those she considers nonentities are herded into the bar area, a thick wall away from her favorites. Norman Mailer can have a drink at Elaine's without getting challenged to fisticuffs, and Woody Allen's veal chop won't be elbowed by an autograph hound. Elaine's staff, at home with movie stars and Pulitzer Prize winners, ordinarily isn't fazed by anything short of a bomb scare.
But when Zungul comes in, the place goes bananas. The celebrity seekers in the bar can't figure out who the foreign-looking guy in the cowboy hat, warmup jacket, three-day beard and silk scarf might be, but the waiters have gone berserk. Howling greetings in Serbo-Croatian, they crash-land trays of food and drink and rush Zungul. Most of them are Yugoslavs, and to hell with Woody, Mia, Norman. Zungul is their star. The waiters crowd around him, patting his back, getting autographs for sons, asking after his goal production. Even Elaine smiles at their behavior. A huffy film producer glowers, trying to discover why his dinner isn't being served.
Zungul smiles faintly as he explains the situation to a friend: "Yugoslavs are very lucky in America. We always seem to have countrymen in the restaurant business."
Led to the best table and assured of the best veal piccata Elaine's can offer, Zungul sips a white wine spritzer, sighs and says, "A lot of people wonder about my life. I used to go to discos all the time, that's true, but I don't much now. They're full of kids who smoke and drink too much." Zungul does none of the former and only a little of the latter.
"I have a lot of memories about Yugoslavia, but my home is New York now. I want a business or two and citizenship. And I want to get married, but not too soon." He eyes two young women dining in a corner. "I know the blonde. I think she's in a soap opera. I met her in Regine's once." Later, Zungul goes on to Xenon. He sits stony-faced in the disco, complaining that the girls aren't to his liking. Only when he's joined by his friend Andre Constantin, a Swiss who owns a Manhattan restaurant, does he begin to relax. But it's not until the next evening at Madison Square Garden, where a Gold Cup soccer game between Brazil and West Germany is being shown on closed-circuit TV, that Zungul comes alive, whistling, yelling, stomping. As a player he may be detached, but as a spectator he opens up, becoming Slavisa from Split, the All-Yugoslav boy.
Zungul grew up in a lower-middle-class family in the Dalmatian coastal city of Split, from which his father, a semi-retired army instructor, fishes the Adriatic on small commercial boats. "My only relaxation at home after I became a professional was to go with a few friends into the mountains, hunting for wild boar and pheasant," he says. "We would drink wine and eat at mountain inns. They were the most relaxing times in my life. Now, when I drive to practice on Long Island, I see pheasants beside the road, but I have no time to hunt them."
At 11 Zungul was so good at soccer that a document was forged to give his age as 15 so he could play in youth tournaments. He would get up at midnight to fish with his father until five in the morning. Then he went to school where he learned auto mechanics. Afternoons and evenings were given to soccer and more soccer. "When I was 15,1 ran away from home and school to be in a soccer match," he says. "I was gone a week. My family was furious. My mother locked me in my room and said no more soccer. But I climbed two stories down a rope and went to practice anyway. It's what I love."
That single-minded passion, that devotion to practice, paid off. At 17 Zungul was signed by the first-division Hajduk Split team. Yugoslavia is the only Eastern-bloc country that allows out-and-out pro soccer, and Zungul's earnings were soon enhancing his family's meager income. And the goals came in floods—250 of them in 350 games while leading Hajduk Split to three league championships in six years. When he was 24, France Football honored him as one of the six best forwards in Europe. As the leading scorer of the Yugoslav National Team, Zungul began to see Europe. And Europe began to see him. The world of top-rank soccer was impressed.
As the press discovered him, so did Zungul discover the press. "Those soccer magazines' and papers in Europe knew where I slept in Paris, who I danced with in Rome and who I dated in Berlin," he says. "It made it a little hot in Yugoslavia." He became known as a "difficult" player, overly fond of women and fast cars, overly inclined to deliver emotional outbursts to the press.
In 1978 Zungul was due to report for 18 months of compulsory military service—a recent law exempts men over 26, so Zungul is now safe—and his girl friend, a Slovene nightclub singer named Moni Kovacic, was leaving for the U.S. It was time to split from Split.
That same year the Arrows had hired Popovic, whose interest in indoor soccer, which for years Europeans had played informally during the off-season to stay in shape, and dreams of coaching it on an organized basis had led him to save press clips on players he thought suited to the game. The thickest file was Zungul's. Popovic had once played for Hajduk and knew the team's ownership; he persuaded the club that it wouldn't hurt if Zungul came to New York for a few indoor "exhibitions." "Europeans think indoor soccer is a practice game you play on a basketball court with no tackling and no rebounds," says Popovic. "I knew they wouldn't understand a whole professional league."
In that first season Zungul had 43 goals in just 18 games and was edged out of the scoring title by Philadelphia's Fred Grgurev—now an Arrows forward—who got 46 in 24 games. Zungul also shone in the playoffs, with 15 goals to Grgurev's four.
If he had not missed Arrow road games, Zungul almost certainly would have won the scoring crown that year. "Steve liked New York...hell, he loved it," Arrow Goalkeeper Shep Messing says. "But he didn't believe that places like Buffalo and Pittsburgh really existed."
Another Zungul quirk also endeared him to Messing. "During the first season Steve asked me what was an acceptable demonstration in America after you'd scored a goal," says Messing. "I like that. The guy's a complete professional. I told him that America was wacky anyway, and as long as it wasn't X-rated, he could do what he wanted." Hence the ballet leaps Zungul performed in Buffalo.
Zungul could have gone home, but he stayed on in the Big Apple during the 1979 off-season, making a splash with the disco set. "He was getting Americanized," says Popovic. Indeed, soon after his arrival in the U.S. Zungul developed a passion for Olivia Newton-John and once skipped an Arrow game to go to a concert of hers in Los Angeles. When asked about the episode, Zungul smiles and says, "She is very beautiful and very magnetic. I was at a party where she was once, but I was too shy to talk to her. Look, I have fans. Why can't I be the fan of another person? It's the nature of things."
In his first season, Zungul was the league's MVP but lost out as playoff MVP to Messing, which still rankles him. "Can you believe it?" he says. "I scored 15 goals and they give it to Shep! I cried like a baby then. Now I understand that MISL needed identity and Shep was better for that. But I hate to lose; I hate to be beaten at anything."
A bit more of the crust flakes away as he adds, "How I score goals I cannot tell you, it happens in a dream. It comes from God. But why is easy—I will not lose. It hurts me physically to be defeated."
Zungul generally pals around with fellow Yugoslavs—there are eight among the 20 members of the Arrows—and one can find them in their cowboy hats and disco boots lounging in an airport area two hours before departing on a road trip, munching Mr. Goodbars and talking their own language, pausing occasionally to translate proverbs like, "The chicken has not yet set on the eggs."
Zungul is especially close to 19-year-old Forward Branko Segota, a Yugoslav raised in Canada and one of the best North American-trained scorers in the game. In Zungul's view, the kid still has a lot to learn. "I was in Tampa recently," Zungul says, "and they have this slogan: 'Soccer Is a Kick in the Grass.' That's good P.R., but it's completely wrong. If you teach American kids that soccer is a funny good time, they won't learn the game. Watch the Americans in the pros. They play the game like John Wayne—good guys and bad guys. That's too simple. Cowboys don't score goals.
"The goal-getter must be a con man, a thief, a clown, a magician. And you must think hard about what you're doing. When the game is over, I tell Branko, it's not his body that should be tired, but his brain."
One circumstance has cast a shadow over Zungul's three years in the U.S.: he hasn't been able to play the outdoor game, "real" soccer. Hajduk Split, which had him under contract until last August, steadfastly declined to permit him to play outdoors here, and was upheld in this by FIFA, international soccer's ruling body. Because the North American Soccer League is FIFA-sanctioned and can't afford to defy the edict, Zungul has remained on the sidelines. Recently, however, a Federal Court judge held that the FIFA ruling unconstitutionally deprived Zungul of his right to earn a living in this country. Lawyers for all parties are trying to figure out just where that leaves them.
"He's such a world-class talent, such a complete player, it's a shame we can't see him play outdoor soccer," says Messing. "It would be a rare treat." After a recent game in the Coliseum, Zungul was warmly embraced in the Arena Club by Gordon Jago, coach of the NASL's Tampa Bay Rowdies. "I've seen Zungul play in Yugoslavia," Jago said. "I hope we can solve the legal problems so that he can play outdoors for us. He's the Nureyev of soccer." Playing for Tampa Bay would add $300,000 a year to Zungul's bank account.
"I will play in Tampa on the grass," says Zungul. "I will not be beaten out of it. But for now I must concentrate on goals, goals, goals." He should have well over 100 of them, far surpassing his own record of 90, by season's end in March—a crusty enough accomplishment even for Zungul.