Saturday, February 23, 2013

Regular season ended, every club got their 100 and more points, their percentage, and so on, and play-offs started – first the 'divisional' ones, then 'conference championships'. In plain language – cup format. Winners advance. After that – two-leg semi-finals. Cosmos vs Rochester Lancers and Seattle Sounders vs Los Angeles Aztecs. A glance at the final tables of the regular season spots something strange: not only none of the semi-finalists won their regular 'division', but the highest placed was Cosmos – second. The rest all finished third. Direct elimination has its own logic, quite the opposite of prolonged round-robin tournaments, yet the sharp difference between regular season and play-off results begs the question what was the purpose of the regular championship? Was it taken seriously at all? Evidently, it did not matter at all – so why playing it? And it was not taken seriously at Cosmos: the rag-tag team divided into many fractions pulling into entirely different directions. It is even tough to start – who was the biggest complainer and schemer? Pele was angry – the deal was to build a team around him. Seeing that the promise was not fulfilled, the aging King simply stopped paying attention to football matters. He was preoccupied with business deals and gave the basic minimum required by his contract: appeared on the pitch and kicked the ball a little. He skipped the whole training camp before the 1977 season, arriving from Brazil only a week before the first game. Overweight and out of form. Chinaglia was angry too – his easily ignited temper fired at two fronts: one was the South Americans, who ignored him on the pitch, passing only to Pele. The other was the British bunch, who played what they knew – rushing on the wings and bringing high-ball crosses. Chinaglia disliked that – the legend says he had no taste (understand 'skill') for headers, but this is not true. Chinaglia, trained in England as a child, was not only familiar with the English kind of football, but he was deadly in the air , a typical English centre-forward, not an Italian kind at all. But he was also skilful and clever player – with South Americans and continental Europeans in the squad, it was pointless to play English football. There was an opportunity for something more interesting and diverse – the English guys, Tony Field, Steve Hunt, and Keith Eddy, plainly robbed the team of variety, making it predictable at best. Another reason was the artificial turfs, widely used in North America, which made air battles very dangerous – hard landing almost guaranteed injuries. The Brits angered the native American contingent – Shep Messing, Bobby Smith, and Werner Roth. Until Firmani took charge (if he did), coaches were English – and they played English players no matter what. A new Brit arrived – and Smith was benched immediately. Shep Messing, the goalkeeper, complained bitterly in an interview from the 'British mafia' in the league. It was everywhere, not only in New York. Before the arrival of Firmani Smith was indefinitely suspended by he British coach Gordon Bradley after a violent locker room tantrum over Smith's relegation to the bench in favour of British player. The many feuding camps found common enemy in the Yugoslavs – they did not fit anywhere, and were viewed by all as lazy. Then Ertegun brought Yasin and personally (at least that was the perception) placed him among the regulars, putting Messing on the reserve's bench. When Beckenbauer arrived, he was utterly horrified of what he saw – such chaos his German mind was not even able to imagine. Probably it took all of his German character and discipline to resist returning to Munich at once, for Beckenbauer was practically greeted with insult : in the only league in the world using personified jersey numbers , he was not given his famous number 5, but number 6. Somebody named Eddie had number 5, so the Kaiser had to chose another number. And this was not all – later, when Carlos Alberto arrived, there was no favourite number for the captain of the 1970 World Champions either – he got number 15. But the arrival of Carlos Alberto further irritated the Kaiser – Firmani moved Beckenbauer to midfield to make place for the Brazilian. Pushed around like that is not something a German can take, but it worked – now there was somebody creative and precise in midfield, and Beckenbauer's passes rejuvenated Chinaglia. Chaos it was, but the mega-stars were justly great: they saw the mutual advantage and even fun in combining together. Eventually, they took the reigns of the rag-tag team and improved it. Mediocrities no longer ruled – the masters inevitably shaped the game. Carlos Alberto stabilized the leaky defense. Beckenbauer – the midfield. Chinaglia started scoring again. And Pele? The King woke up after the regular season – he was nearing the end of his contract and retirement, perhaps he wanted to end his career exactly as a King – with victory. So far, he won nothing in USA – and let's face it: aging, lazy, playing in mediocre league, great players are ambitious. They like to win, hate to lose. Pele led by example and Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, Chinaglia needed just that spur to ignite themselves into action. Good football immediately attracted crowds – a record 77 691 attended the second leg of the play-off against Fort Lauderdale. Cosmos won.

Cosmos won, but... they lost the first leg 0-3. The second match was tough 3-2 win, and since only wins counted, there was shoot-out to decide the final winner. Cosmos prevailed. The other three winners of the 'conference championships' – or ¼ finals in other structures – were Seattle Sounders, Los Angeles Aztecs, and Rochester Lancers. All of them won both legs, only Cosmos lost a match. The United Nations of New York were still shaky.

In the ½ finals Cosmos was finally supreme – they defeated Rochester 2-1 and 4-1. Seattle eliminated a team considered a contender, Los Angeles – 3-1 and 1-0. To a point, it was a team vs single star (George Best), and if somebody paid attention, the lesson of consistent and careful work was clear. So far the tournament followed strict divisional lines – teams from East and West did not mix. Apart from obvious practicality, the idea was to build tensions to grand culmination: champions of the East vs champions of the West, and public dying to see the grand finale. Named in true American fashion 'Soccer Bowl'. The final was tightly contested, Cosmos clinching 2-1 win.
For all grand 'championships' during a single year, second best counted for nothing. Were Seattle Sounders 'silver medalists'? Or mere 'finalists'? Well done anyway – for rather modest and unassuming team, it was wonderful run. The 'English mafia' was well presented in Seattle, but Sounders lacked big names – Mike England was the only one. The future great coach Harry Redknapp was also part of the squad – played 5 matches total. The giant and not looking like athlete Mike Ivanow was the reserve goalie, confirming the laughable approach of NASL to professional sport. He played 2 matches. Local heroes, however, made Sounders solid – like the reagular goalie Tony Chursky. Boris Bandov also appeared in few matches. Mike Ivanow was still listed as Chinese player, and most of the squad was British, but Seattle were the antithesis of Cosmos, pointing at other and more productive way for NASL, alas, nobody wished to follow.
The model to follow were the champions. Cosmos won their first title since 1972. Superstars proved their worth, and the message was clear – get together kings, kaisers, world champions, no matter how old, and success will come. Cosmos had the best gates in the league by far. If there was a football player somewhat getting close to the public exposure of the stars of the big North American sports, it was Pele. If American public was attracted to soccer, it was only to see big names showing some flashy skills. If TV was to warm up to the sport, it was to be showing great individuals. Cosmos, not the Sounders, was the model for the future of the league. Champions are to be followed, for they show by example... to the peril of the league.

The regular team of Cosmos shaped up somewhat, but it was ironic development: Pele was promissed of building the team around him, which meant getting Brazilian players. This happened, but only few months before the retirement of the King. Carlos Alberto and Rildo did not come from Santos, but both played together with Pele for Santos some years before. The other Brazilian – Nelsi Morais – and the Peruvian Ramon Mifflin were also suitable for the style of the King. Beckenbauer had no problems playing with Pele and Chinaglia, bringing discipline and authority as well – Yugoslavs certainly were more willing to follow him than the Brits. As for the British gang, they were reduced to providing sturdy support to the real stars – which they were perfectly capable of doing. Erol Yasin was not an European star, but still he was professional player for years and if anything, with better understanding of the game than local enthusiast Messing. Cosmos got a solid back bone. Pele finished his career with a victory – his only US title, but the timing was right: champion to the end, King to the last second. The Kaiser started his American spell just as great, champion in his first season, proving that the departure of Pele would not mean the end of Cosmos. And Chinaglia proved himself right – obviously his unofficial management brought success. The season ended with a tribute to Pele – his retirement was celebrated with a match between Cosmos and Santos. The King played for both teams in front of 75 000 braving the cold rain. Cosmos won 2-1, Pele scoring against Santos. The show continued... the wrong self-destructing direction of NASL.

But in a way NASL was the precursor of today's football – huge, constantly changing rosters; emphasis on individual stars, not the team; focus on player's other activities and business, not on their performance on the pitch; merchandise and advertisement more important than the game; individualized jerseys with personal numbers and player's names – clearly representing these concepts. It was too early to really work – neither players, nor coaches were able to deal with the demands of making a winning team in a few months. The culture was different – everybody knew only steady building, requiring permanency. The negative part of the new concept was also already in place: fans hardly knew their own teams. Few overblown stars was all they knew – the rest of the squad was unmemorable. And really... how to remember constantly changing players? No wonder sports magazines don't publish the names of players when they publish team photos in 21 century – they are here today, gone tomorrow... without a trace. For all the hype of names on the back of the shirts and private numbers... nobody can remember meteoric appearances. Pele and Beckenbauer won. They attended this and that. Did Bobby Smith won too? Just ask the fans, bombarded with something else. And don't ask me who plays for Real Madrid today... before I get familiar with roster, half of it is long gone. Mourinho knows how to do it – it is just the constant whine 'I have no players'. The outcry in NASL back in 1977 – after all, Cosmos needed players, badly needed players, after using 38 in 1977. 38 players used in 35 official matches...