Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The world was hearing more and more about NASL – a mixed US-Canadian league, which, however, was understood mostly as US-league, for Canadian news were few – the big hype was South of the border. Outside North America it was not the quality of the game – abysmal, by all accounts – but the hype of the signing. At home, that was the strategy anyway: sign big names, make a lot of publicity about it, and may be the general public will swallow the new sport. The competition was stiff, of course, and curiously NASL brains took the approach of selling a show rather than really competitive sport. The ‘biggest stars’ of the world played in NASL – go and see them! The Americans went without having a clue about the sport – they still don’t. Pouring money was seen as the panacea – lucrative players’ contracts, massive advertisement, but cheap tickets, often family packages. People went for cheap entertainment – games were amazingly well attended – but the clubs were losing money all the time. Big spending would elevate the sport, was the wisdom. The ills of the concept are well documented, but still a few words: organizers had no idea what is to build a team. They may not have been familiar with football, but were more than familiar with other American sports – and that is what makes their practices so weird. Evidently, they thought it was enough to import a whole line of players from some foreign club and – presto, you get a running team. There was a team almost entirely made of Mexicans. Pele did not come alone, but with two more Santos players: the Peruvian star Ramon Mifflin and the Brazilian Nelsi Morais. British players were brought by the carload… In later years, when the failure of NASL was contemplated, it was said that ignorance played a big role and the league was flocked by mediocrities of foreign origins. ‘Everybody was saying he was a Polish national team player’, mused one former NASL suit, but this was not entirely true – in fact, NASL was largely British. It was crazy picture – aging stars, young hopefuls, mid-aged journeymen, drunks, players on loan, ‘guest’ players, players on vacation, injured, healthy, you name it… it was something like paid vacation and no doubt everybody getting their chunk remembers fondly ‘the days’. It was truly days sometime: many players came just for the summer, between European seasons. Many were registered as active players both in USA-Canada and at their more serious home clubs in Europe. A lot played only a game or two as ‘guest appearances’. No league in the world was organized in such careless way, but money were great no matter what was delivered. Future was not exactly considered – it was only for the moment, for ‘now’. No other North American sport operated in such way – teams were built normally there, for years and aiming at making of strong and long-lasting competitive teams. Football was a circus, topped by ‘international’ games like USA-Italy, where the visitors, lured to come for ‘official’ match, faced a squad of foreigners, Pele included. No wonder FIFA grumbled and threatened to outlaw NASL: basic rules were constantly disregarded.

But the hype was growing and NASL, if anything, was pouring more fuel. In 1975 Pele was signed and that was news made so big, other transfers were practically ignored – Eusebio and his Benfica and Portugal teammate Antonio Simoes also came to NASL in 1975. 1976 really opened the gates: George Best, Bobby Moore, Rodney Marsh arrived, to mention only the biggest names. They were all Fulham players – and remained so: in fact, they played for two clubs simultaneously (well, registered in two clubs in reality – probably the formal situation was described as ‘loan’).

George Best playing for Los Angeles Aztecs. He loved USA and stayed in NASL for years. For him, it was easy, anonymous, and relaxing life, dedicate to the bottle. His drinking buddies from Fulham – Marsh and Moore – faired well in NASL too… It was fun:

NASL loved and encouraged ‘reunion’ photos, like this friendly chat between Pele and Simoes, but a picture like this not only represents the relaxed North American football, but also questions strongly the true nature of the American brand. Was it serious at all? For anybody? In seriously competitive leagues players of opposite teams are never seen friendly together before the game or immediately after the final whistle.

Stars are stars, but overall the league was mediocre…

Pele vs Jose Soroa. Soroa was Uruguayan, but who was he? No wonder, old Pele still shined.

No wonder foreign players were attracted to NASL – effortless cash. It was never a news, but Horst Koeppel played for Vancouver Whitecaps in the summer of 1976. Yes, he was a member of the great Borussia (Moenchengladbach) squad at the time and played serious football in the Bundesliga. And just because of that, it was unlikely that he put much of an effort in Vancouver: why risking injury or getting tired? Bundesliga league season was soon to begin, and that mattered – not NASL. No wonder nobody remember him in North America and his stay in Vancouver is more than dubious – what kind of contribution can make a player, hired for a few weeks? Certainly it had nothing to do with team building.

To which the American transfer policies contributed gravely as well: they were so loose, a player often appeared in few clubs in a singular season. Eusebio was like that, for instance – including a brief return to Portugal, where he still managed to play 12 matches for Beira Mar before the year ended.

Yet, with all media hype, North American football remained largely unknown: New York Cosmos was the only familiar club, thanks to the transfer of Pele. Of course, Cosmos was spending most money and even more in the future, when they seriously got all the big names of the 1970s, but Pele propelled them to fame outside North America.

Here they are in 1976. Having already Pele, Mifflin, and Nelsi Morais, Cosmos made new move – and quite unusual one too: they acquired the services of actual star, not some famous name on his last legs. Giorgio Chinaglia was bought from Lazio. Chinaglia was fed up with hostility in Italy; money were great, he moved. He was 29 years old, not exactly young, but still in his prime. Very likely not Pele, but Chinaglia was the greatest star of Cosmos – he played in New York for many years, and inspired his teammates no matter how famous, or anonymous. He contributed a lot: he arrived with a bang, becoming the top goalscorer of the 1976 NASL season.

Dreams coming true… Chinaglia and Pele. So many players dreamed to play along with the King, but for Chinaglia it became reality.

Well, Cosmos looked like sure champions with this squad.

They were not. The King of the world lost to the former King of European football.

Eusebio in attack, with teammate Wolfgang Suhnholz and Kick’s defender Sam Beck around. NASL teams sported weird kits as a rule, but Eusebio here is equipped with true to the sport and fashionable Adidas. No, it is not Benfica, but his current club Toronto Metros-Croatia. His arrival to North America in 1975 was almost anonymous, because of the noise Pele’s transfer made. But Eusebio won the NASL title in 1976 and Pele did not…

Here are the champions. One player was seemingly enough to win the championship – it looks like so, for the rest are entirely unknown. As the name suggests, the Canadian club had ethnic origins, well preserved in the making of the squad. The mystery, however, is who was Canadian player, even by naturalization, and who was foreign import: most players are clearly ethnic Croatians, but since not a single name rings any bell, they were recruited from the Croatian community in Toronto; not imported from Yugoslavia. The German Wolfgang Suhnholz was also likely naturalized Canadian and not Bundesliga import. Kapetanovic was voted NASL coach of the year, but he too seems naturalized Canadian. Most likely only Eusebio and Evair were ‘true’ imports. It looks like better work was done in Toronto than in New York and elsewhere: the squad is not rag-tag collection of player, but more carefully build from local guys. It was a team, to which Eusebio (who did not stay with Metros-Croatia after winning the title) added class and experience. The winners confirmed old truism: names do not win; teams do. Unfortunately, the increasing importation of foreigners by other clubs left no chance for these guys to repeat their success: they were really small fry. The policies of NASL discouraged team building and perhaps this was the biggest reason for collapse of the league: why trying to teach some Grnja play decent football if you can get Beckenbauer? Oh, well, New York Cosmos had to sulk in 1976 and Eusebio added one more title to his collection.

The season ended optimistically, though. Big names were gathering in the league, Pele mingled with the famous businessmen, rock and film stars, NASL looked stable with 20 clubs second year in row. May be the next year NASl will edge at least ice-hockey and become the forth important American sport? Ah, skies were the limit… booze was limitless for Bestie.