The way it looked, late last Saturday at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, it was Glory-Glory-Hallelujah Night. The mighty, which is to say the Cosmos, had fallen, and the humble, which is to take but minor license in describing the Chicago Sting, had been exalted. As a consequence of which, some 4,000 Sting fans had invaded the field, joyfully torn down the netting from the goal at its western end and been balked from doing likewise to the other goal only by the timely arrival of security guards and a forklift.
Not a black-and-yellow-bedecked reveler among them cared that Chicago had won the 1981 Soccer Bowl 1-0 and, thereby, the NASL title by a dubious device, invented by the league, called the shootout, or that the score, after 90 minutes of regulation play and 15 minutes of overtime, had stood at 0-0. Their side was home free. Even in the moment of victory, though, it might have occurred to a few of them that the Sting had also thrown a lifeline to the beleaguered NASL and that sometime in the future Chicago's victory might be regarded as a turning point in U.S. soccer history: Here, at last, was an alternative to the tedious succession of Cosmos Soccer Bowl wins (1977, '78 and '80) and a rare outburst of fan enthusiasm.
Before Saturday night, though, it looked as if nothing could help the league, even though Soccer Bowl finally would feature franchises from two of the largest American cities. Goodby, Fort Lauderdale. Farewell, Tampa Bay. This time it was Goliath vs. Goliath, each with a 23-9 record, each committed to attacking play—didn't the Sting's and Cosmos' last regular-season game end 6-5 in Chicago's favor? And together their home areas could muster something like 17% of the nation's TV viewers.
But despite the potential for a huge audience, the privilege of watching this match of giants live was confined to Brazil and a few portions of Canada because ABC chose to telecast the game via tape delay in the U.S. At game time, a Sting fan tuning in to WLS, ABC's Chicago affiliate, would have found himself confronted by a Love Boat rerun. But, at least later in the evening, he would get to see the game. In New York, Cosmos backers would have to wait until 12:30 p.m. On Sunday to watch it. Otherwise, the fans' only shot was to turn up at Exhibition Stadium, the rickety Toronto ballpark, its worn AstroTurf hastily rearranged to cover the pitcher's mound. Marvelously, 4,000 Sting fans traveled the 515 miles to do just that.
The TV embarrassment reflected the league's parlous state. Almost a year ago, the number of NASL franchises shrank from 24 to 21. And last week, as the surviving owners assembled in Toronto for Soccer Bowl and the meetings that would follow the game, it seemed as if at least five more franchises were headed down the tubes. There would be no more Washington Diplomats, Dallas Tornado, California Surf or Atlanta Chiefs, it seemed sure. Probably no more Calgary Boomers either, though their financially troubled owner, Nelson Skalbania, was making a last-ditch attempt to find a buyer.
With that massive el foldo in the offing, a somewhat desperate new party line was being promulgated by NASL executives: that the new league, slimmed down to 16, would be more viable. Which, translated, meant: Let's toss out the weak sisters, lighten the sled and maybe we'll cheat the wolves yet.
The possibility that Phil Woosnam, the NASL commissioner, might join the weaklings in the snowdrifts was being openly discussed. "However hardworking he is, he has to go," one dissident declared. "He promised too much. Nobody will listen to him now."
And, fashionably, a strong monetarist voice began making itself heard, the league's David Stockman being a new comer to the NASL named Ralph Sweet, since last November the principal owner of the Minnesota Kicks and, like Woosnam, a Welshman. Sweet is given to hardline statements like "I don't enjoy paying out $100,000 a year to keep people comfortable in midtown Manhattan"—an unconcealed reference to the league's headquarters on New York's Avenue of the Americas, which, Sweet believes, should be moved 25 miles out of the city to White Plains, N.Y. Another of his pet peeves is the NASL budget, which, he says, should be reduced from $4 million to $1 million.
The odds are, however, that Woosnam has enough allies to keep him aboard the sled. What's more, somewhat improved attendance in the last stages of the season—it was nonetheless down 8.42% for the year—and the result of Soccer Bowl itself permitted at least a few rays of light to cut through the encompassing gloom.
One owner who was all aglow last week was Chicago's Lee Stern, who arrived in Toronto wearing a magnificent black Stetson with a yellow cockade—his team's colors. "You have the new city, Montreal," he said, "and now you have the old, veteran city, Chicago, that's been lying there like a dead dog, waking up."
He was speaking of the new and successful Montreal Manic side, which drew a crowd of 58,542 to the Olympic Stadium in the playoffs, and then of how the Sting, in the third game of its semifinal series with San Diego, had been cheered on by 39,623 at Comiskey Park. "When Karl-Heinz Granitza [the Sting's high-scoring West German striker] walks down the street in Chicago now," he said, exaggerating somewhat, "he could be Walter Payton. After that game they took his shoes, his shirt and they tore down the goalposts in a sheer outpouring of love. There's been nothing like it in the city since the Bears won the NFL championship in 1963."
The Sting hit Toronto like a circus coming to town, not like a team that had had to play nine games to reach the final. And the ringmaster, the most ebullient of them all, was Coach Willy Roy, whose game plan, he announced to reporters, featured a bigger goal at the Cosmos' end, with a midget to defend it, and Exhibition Stadium's ratty AstroTurf ripped up and replaced by grass.
For their part, the Cosmos hadn't looked like world-beaters this year. The 4-0 and 5-1 victories of other seasons had been rare. Up to the playoffs 12 Cosmos wins had been by a mere goal. And none of those victories had been against Chicago, which had not only beaten the Cosmos twice but whose record over the years against the easterners was an astonishing 6-1. "I'm afraid of the Sting, and I'm entitled," Giorgio Chinaglia, the Cosmos' captain and the league's leading scorer, with 29 regular-season goals, said last week. "Each time they beat us we were on a seven-game winning streak. And Toronto has bad, hard AstroTurf."
What no one could have forecast was that these two attacking sides could fail to score a goal through 105 minutes of play. In the first minute, the Sting's Ingo Peter drove a fierce, curling ball from outside the 35-yard line just wide of the near corner of the goal, and a slip by Cosmos Midfielder Johan Neeskens almost let Chicago's spectacular Argentinian Forward Pato Margetic, he of the shoulder-length blond locks, through moments later.
The Chicago defense looked permeable, though. Frantz Mathieu, especially, committed hair-raising errors in the first half that twice almost led to Cosmos' scores, although he had no particular difficulty with a mostly subdued Chinaglia. Why was Giorgio subdued? Possibly because of an incident that happened as the Cosmos' bus waited to leave the hotel before the game, when an unruly Sting fan yelled insults at Chinaglia in Italian. Giorgio charged out of the bus and a short fracas followed. A historic moment perhaps: the first touch of soccer hooliganism to reach North America. The game is clearly maturing here.
There was on-the-field rough stuff, too, as frustrations mounted. With half an hour left in the game, Chicago's Rudy Glenn heavily fouled Wim Rijsbergen from behind. Shoving matches developed, notably between Neeskens and Granitza. In the ensuing melee, Rijsbergen ended up painfully doubled over and had to leave the field, having been, as players delicately put it, "banjoed." It remained a mystery why no Chicago player received a red card as a consequence.
By then the game had become a succession of notable misses, mostly on the part of Chicago and most spectacularly in the second half, when Peter, with Cosmos Goalie Hubert Birkenmeier way out of position, hit the post from close range. And there was 15 minutes of barren extra time, and then the shootout.
It wasn't until the sixth shootout attempt, when the Cosmos' Vladislav Bogicevic struck the ball hard and true into the roof of the net, that the deadlock was broken and the Cosmos were a goal up. But immediately thereafter Granitza leveled the score for the Sting, the Cosmos' Ivan Buljan had his shot saved and at last Glenn clinched it for Chicago.
Later, Weisweiler said, "I think it would be better that we repeat this game, better for U.S. soccer," and he was right. As was Roy when he said, "We could've gone to New York or Chicago next week and replayed this game in front of 70,000 or 80,000." That's what would have happened anywhere else in the world, and such a rematch might, almost by itself, have set the NASL on its feet again.
As it is, there will be a long wait until next spring, a new season and maybe the final test of the league's resilience.