The final blow in the NASL's 1983 Soccer Bowl last Saturday night in Vancouver came 16:37 into the second half. From the left, Barry Wallace of the Tulsa Roughnecks swung in a corner kick toward the near post. Terry Moore nodded the ball on to where pale, almost fragile-looking Ron Futcher, hanging about for such a chance, hooked it with his left knee into the net from close range. It was the second time in six minutes that the Toronto Blizzard's vaunted defense had been caught flat-footed, and it made the score 2-0 for the Roughnecks. Now all they had to do for victory was keep their composure—and stay on their feet.
This was Tulsa's fourth game in 10 days, and it had been just 48 hours since the Roughnecks had gotten their first glimpse of Vancouver's new domed B.C. Place Stadium and the intimidating breadth of its soccer field—at 76 yards, the broadest in the league. The second-narrowest, at 64 yards, is at Skelly Stadium in Tulsa, where, on Wednesday night, the Roughnecks' three-game semifinal with Montreal had ended in a handy 3-0 Tulsa victory. But that win had taken a physical toll. "Listen," said Laurie Abrahams, a Tulsa striker, "I'm too tired right now to give a damn about the Soccer Bowl. I should have been starting my vacation today." The other Redeyes—er, Roughnecks—felt the same way.
On the other hand, the Blizzard had cleaned up the Golden Bay Earthquakes in two straight games and had earned more than a week off. And if that wasn't enough to send the odds Toronto's way, Futcher, Tulsa's top scorer with 15 regular-season and five playoff goals, seemed certain to be ineligible for the Soccer Bowl. Off the field Futcher is an amiable, laid-back Briton, but in the finale of the Roughneck-Manic series he'd crashed hard into Ed Gettemeier, Montreal's goalie. This had cost Futcher his third yellow-card caution in five games and hence, according to NASL rules, automatic suspension from his team's next outing—which happened to be Soccer Bowl.
Futcher had already been suspended for similar reasons from four regular-season games. As he said before leaving for Vancouver, "I'm not getting a reputation. I've always had one. If it was as easy to get green cards [resident aliens' temporary work permits] as it is to get yellows, I'd be a U.S. citizen by now...."
The Roughnecks appealed Futcher's suspension to the NASL, but on Friday afternoon Ted Howard, the league's executive director, rejected that appeal after examining game films. Howard explained that during the playoffs, the league had routinely alerted clubs as to which players were in jeopardy under the cumulative yellow-card rule.
In the NASL, though, strange things happen. Before Friday was out, Futcher was in again. With seeming insouciance, league President Howard Samuels had overruled Howard. "I went out and played a little tennis," Samuels said late Friday, "and I started thinking, 'Hell, I don't want any clouds over this game.' So, in the interests of 60,000 spectators, of Tulsa and Toronto, of soccer in North America, I overruled Ted."
Ted Howard didn't appear festive that evening at the President's Reception. "I wasn't exactly overruled," he said. "I made a technical decision. The offense will be dealt with in due course, at a later date. Samuels' decision was right esthetically."
Anesthetically, it seemed, would have been the better word. "This is the last Soccer Bowl," Samuels had added (beginning next year the NASL will stage a best-of-three final), "and I want no clouds." But all he had succeeded in doing was further beclouding the league's already less-than-shining image. Soccer aficionados could not help recalling how, during last year's World Cup, Poland's best player, Zbigniew Boniek, was yellow-carded out of the semifinal with Italy. That did nothing for Poland, which lost, but much for the sport. The NASL would have gained greater credibility had it allowed a few gray clouds under the dome in Vancouver.
Also influencing Samuels' extraordinary decision in the Futcher case was the fact that Soccer Bowl, instead of featuring, as expected, a modestly glittering face-off between the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Cosmos, would be contested by clubs that could use a little sprucing up. Tulsa, for example, suffers from a serious lack of support back home, where the Roughnecks averaged only 12,500 fans per game in 1983. Indeed, on Oct. 15 the Roughnecks will go public in the hope that enough Tulsans will buy shares at $2 apiece to keep the club afloat.
Not surprisingly, the Roughnecks—with the lowest payroll in the league—are a crazy quilt of other teams' rejects. Defender Val Fernandes, for instance, was cut by the California Surf in 1981, by San Diego earlier this year, had played in only three league games in between and had spent last season, he says, "watching TV." Coach Terry Hennessey signed him this summer when Tulsa was 2-8. From that point the Roughnecks went 15-5.
Toronto was no prize package either. While in better shape financially than Tulsa and featuring veteran star Roberto Bettega, a forward signed from Juventus of Italy in June, the Blizzard's play this season was remarkable mostly for dour defense. Just as dour, in the eyes of many Vancouverites, was Toronto's surprise elimination of the hometown Whitecaps (two games to one) in the first round of the playoffs.
Still, 53,326 fans, most of them "Caps" rooters, showed up for Soccer Bowl. The vast majority howled abuse at the Blizzard and took Tulsa to its collective heart, though even that romance seemed to be ending toward the close of a first half that had been sterile from the start. Toronto kept pushing its four defenders upfield intending to draw Tulsa offside. Early on, Futcher, off a pass from Abrahams, slammed a ball just over the top of the goal, and minutes later Roughneck Ace Ntsoelengoe struck the underside of the bar with a header. There were sparse, graceful interventions by Bettega, but soon the fans were chanting "Bor-ing, bor-ing!"
And they couldn't be blamed for that, at least until 10 minutes into the second half. That's when Derek Spalding of the Blizzard scythed the legs from under Abrahams, allowing the Roughnecks an indirect free kick a foot outside the penalty box and right in front of goal. The set piece was an elegant combined effort. Iraj Danaifard—an Iranian player who, typically, was signed after walking into the Tulsa office one day in 1979—was shielded from the Toronto wall by two teammates, and touched the ball to Wallace, who teed it up for Njego Pesa. Goalie Jan Moller, who was screened, came nowhere near the ball as it curled into the net to his right.
The Toronto defense had earlier been all but impeccable, if dull. Now it cracked. In the next 10 minutes, Tulsa might have scored four goals. Straight off the restart after Pesa's goal the ball was loose in the Blizzard box with Pesa, Abrahams and Futcher stabbing at it and each barely failing to connect. And then came Futcher's clincher, the goal that, Toronto fans will argue, never should have happened because Futcher never should have been in the game.
Now, in the final minutes, the Blizzard had to come forward against Roughnecks who were close to exhaustion. (Abrahams would later say of a shot he'd taken during the closing minutes, "I was so gone, I hit it so soft, all the goalie had to do was bend down and pick it up.") But a back flipkick by Ntsoelengoe that almost took Tulsa Goalie Winston DuBose by surprise was stopped, if barely, and Bettega's follow-up shot went over the bar instead of into the net. Thereafter Toronto failed to threaten.
Soon the little group of Tulsa fans in red was streaming onto the field in celebration of the Roughnecks' first Soccer Bowl championship.
In the locker room, smiling and laidback as ever, Futcher insisted on having the last word. "It was nice of Howard Samuels to let me play," he said, "but I reckon I paid his fare out here with all the fines I've had."