In the NASL's lexicon, 1981 edition, "expansion" is suddenly a word you wouldn't want to catch your kids using. As the hasty redeployment of franchises in the off-season showed, the league had gone too far, too fast when it bumped up its membership from 18 to 24 teams in 1978. Three sank without trace this winter and four others found themselves relocated, a couple of them in places that seemed to have been chosen by a computer with a sense of humor—Jacksonville, Fla. and Calgary, Alberta. And in recent weeks even the Cosmos, the flagship franchise, has been shipping a little water. They haven't been playing very well, and those 70,000-plus crowds at Giants' Stadium in New Jersey were a long-gone memory. Troubled times, indeed, for the NASL. For the sake of the sport, it's good luck, very good luck indeed, that Le Club de Soccer Manic de Montreal is alive and flourishing.
Le Manic is the biggest paradox of the soccer season, a new franchise built on the insubstantial ruins of the Philadelphia Fury, a club that few loved—total home attendance for 16 games in 1980: 76,445—and whose passing none lamented. It took the Montreal Manic, as the team might be called were it not located in the largely French-speaking Province of Quebec, just four home games to exceed that Philly attendance; in its first game at the Olympic Stadium it drew 27,060, the second-largest opening-game crowd for a new franchise. The game with the Cosmos last week brought in 38,667, and average attendance has been more than 22,000. The crowds are showing up even though the Manic's record in the Eastern Division, the league's toughest, is an unremarkable 6-7. But the morale of the side and its mostly joyful acceptance by the sophisticated city of Montreal promise better things.
For a closer look, though, come to the Ristorante Frascati in the Italian quarter, where a waiter isn't entirely sure if he should serve the linguine or run for his Instamatic, so excited is he over the appearance of a group from the Manic—Coach Eddie Firmani, two new players from England, Gordon Hill and Tony Towers, and Bobby Rigby, the enduring American goalie who came to Montreal with the rump of the Fury, a journey he was delighted to make.
"It was a real mishmosh," Rigby says of Philadelphia. "We'd have team meetings and guys would just laugh. It was ridiculous. I'd just come from L.A. where we had Rinus Michels [the austere former Dutch national coach who has since gone back to Europe], where we used to sit in the locker room like we were in a monastery or something. In Philly, Frank Worthington and these guys would be as loose as a goose and the Yugoslavs would be all upset and it was a joke. Our big hope was that we'd get our checks the next weekend. But here, man, it's a rebirth!"
June 15, 1981
A rebirth also for the waiter, now rapidly gaining confidence. "We of Alitalia," he declares to the table at large, referring to a local amateur side, "we play three games, we score 16 goals. I score six of them myself." And he looks at Hill penetratingly. "Why is it that you do not score a goal against the Cosmos?" he demands.
Now there's another waiter in attendance. "In Italy," he says, "I worship Chinaglia. He is nothing to me now. I am for the Manic.
"We Italians meet him before the game. 'I see you afterward,' he said to us. But me, I don't care to show up." He turns, seriously, to Firmani: "We need a libero [sweeper]," he says, "a natural libero. Andy Lynch is O.K. but...."
"The population of Italy," Firmani says, "consists of 60 million soccer coaches." Firmani ought to know; he played there for eight years before becoming the NASL's most successful coach.
The waiter misinterprets Firmani's remark. "My dream," he says passionately, "is to sit there on the bench and tell you what to do!"
The Frascati is where the Manic Étoiles, the team's fan club, gathers. Today, though, the members are a little subdued. The city's French-language newspaper, La Presse, has criticized the behavior of Italian fans during the 2-1 loss to the Cosmos as "undisciplined." They had waved flags and let off rockets when Montreal evened the score at 1-1 in the first half. When the Cosmos got the winning goal in overtime while a Montreal player was writhing on the ground, injured, a number of the Étoiles had attempted a small invasion of the playing field.
Now Tony Incollingo, president of the Étoiles, says sadly, "They don't want our flags no more. They don't want us to sit together." Incollingo sold more than 4,000 tickets for the Cosmos game, but that afternoon he was to meet the sales manager of the Manic. "I have to bring with me very thin woods for my flags to show this man," he informs the party. In other words, there would be no flags allowed inside the stadium unless the flag sticks were obviously too frail to be used for anything but waving. In a moment, Incollingo cheers up. "There's a girl I know," he says, addressing Towers, the Manic captain. "Every time I see her she ask me, 'How can I meet Tony?' " Towers doesn't respond to the gambit. He has been embarrassed enough already by being referred to as Antoine de la Tour by an inventive Francophone also dining at Frascati.
At which point you encounter the main difficulty that Molson, the big Canadian brewery that has invested between three and four million dollars in the Manic, has had to contend with thus far—language.
In Quebec, in Montreal, there is that majority of French speakers (Francophones), and a substantial minority of Anglophones. There are also, though it is hardly ever mentioned, close on half a million Allophones in the city.
Allophones? Well, yes. The citizens who speak Italian (mostly), Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, Yugoslavian, etc. (Allophones, get it?) One would think they would be the natural nucleus of a soccer following in Montreal. Like the boys from the Frascati. The Manic management, however, aims little promotion at them. Or none. "We haven't spent a cent on the ethnics," a team spokesman says. "They can yap and yell that they know the sport from back in Italy or Romania, but we want to build something special to us Quebecois." Meanwhile, though no demographics have been done, it's estimated that about 50% of the Manic's crowd is Allophonic.
And so, in Montreal the main thrust of Molson, which wants the summer exposure that soccer can give it—the Canadiens, whom the brewery also owns, covering the rest of the year—is at the Francophones and, to a lesser extent, at the Anglophones. "So far we haven't stubbed our toes, but we will," a Molson man says, referring to the risky promotional priorities. However, it may have happened already. The only English-language daily in Montreal seems to have identified the Manic as primarily French-oriented. It gives home games only meager coverage and does not send a correspondent to cover the doings of the Manic on the road. The two French dailies are considerably more generous with space.
Even the name of the club has caused division. Why Manic? "It's an Indian name," a team official says despairingly. "It's not French at all." To Anglophones, though, it sounds as if it were at least that or, worse still, something to do with mental health.
In fact, it's a shortening of the name of a river in northeast Quebec, the Manicouagan, where a massive hydroelectric project was begun in the '50s, a source of much local pride for French Canadians. Incidentally, the names it beat out were Chinook (too windy), Kayak (too wet) and Borèal (too wintry). As a club handout says gushingly, "In the hearts of Quebec, Manic remains special, the first son, the romantic one." Well, you certainly could have fooled the boys at the Frascati.
Snubbed but far from deterred, they showed up at Olympic Stadium again on Saturday night for the Manic's game against the Toronto Blizzard, a troubled side—nobody wants to buy it—whose president and chief executive officer, Clive Toye, chose not to make the trip, having seen, he said, quite enough of his 4-9 team already.
It wasn't much of a night for fireworks. For an Anglophone, the main linguistic instruction came from the scoreboard, which duly recorded that first-half tirs au but (shots on goal) were scarcer than soccer fans in L.A. and that when the Manic's Carmine Marcantonio got a yellow card he was presented with an avertissement. Hill could have learned something about himself also. When he completed a pretty if ineffectual bicycle kick, he was electronically described as being 1.7 and 66.6. In meters and kilos, of course.
After halftime, with the score 0-0, Firmani tried a few new tricks. The last 15 minutes were one long Manic—and manic—attack, but no score resulted and the game went to une pèriode supplèmentaire, though not une fusillade (shootout) because four minutes into OT Hill put the winner in for the Manic. He'll be welcome for linguine in the Frascati for a while yet, it seems.