Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Simple game, football. All you need is great players and a great coach. And lots of money to buy stars. The North American approach. NASL clubs fell short on good coaches, but spent lots of money on players. The 'strategy' kind of worked – 18 teams played in the 1977 championship. The public was kind of getting larger, although the numbers did not mean gains at the gates. So far, American 'soccer' was losing money – an 'investment', hoping to win fans. And television time. But the NASL version of 'soccer' was becoming a freak show – North Americans prefer their native sports, and soccer was no more then temporary amusement before 'real' sports start. Soccer is unsuitable for American TV – there are no convenient breaks for commercials. Major American sports are designed and redesigned to fit TV format – redesigning soccer was not possible because of the hawkish FIFA, threatening with expulsion. It is not that the Americans did not try – in 1977 they introduced new rule: no ties. Every match had to end with a winner, as becoming to any American sport. Overtime was to break the tie, and if not succeeding, weird shoot-out. Not penalty kicks, but free attack from 35 yards. The striker had to shoot the ball in 5 seconds time. May be entertaining, but the bulk of foreign players hardly took it as more than freakish fun. Even such innovations did not help – in a closed league, the only relegation is a literal one: bankruptcy. Two clubs were into receivership in 1977 – Boston and Philadelphia, and few others relocated, which means they were close to bankruptcy. The season started without Miami, San Antonio, San Diego, and Hartford, but with Fort Lauderdale, Hawaii, Las Vegas, and Connecticut.

New or old? Team Hawaii. Standing : Dan Counce (15), Chris.J Carenza (2), Ismaël Moreira (3), Hilary Carlyle (20), Peter Fox (1), Jimmy Joerg (0), Bert Bowery (17), Peter Nover (6), Tommy Taylor (7)
Sitting : Jim Henry (9), Keith Robson (10), Axel Neumann (11), Keith Coleman (8), Mark Stahl (4), Charlie Mitchell (5), Victor Kodelja (14), Brian Tinnion (16), Yilmaz Orhan (18), Pat Holland (19)

Same franchises, different names and location – for the fanatic non-American public this provided clear answer why the sport was not popular: how possibly one can support a club which may change its name every new season and move across the country just as often? The whole structure was weird – 18 clubs make a perfect league elsewhere, but not in North America, where everything has to look bigger and more important. Hence, the eternal love of divisions in North American sports - one league is too plain. The scale must be grand – two 'conferences', divided further into two 'divisions' each. Mini-celebrations – winners of the leagues, winners of the conferences, eventually winners of the Universe. And statistics, running endlessly – the goalscorers, the leading goalkeepers (where 1170 minutes playing time minimum was needed to qualify), and who knows what else. Plenty of information, but the game? Well, NASL increased the championship games of the 'regular' season to 26. Don't ask who was playing with whom, for 26 games match nothing. Certainly not traditional 2-leg championships. As for points, this is purely fantastic: Fort Lauderdale Strikers finished the 'regular' season with 161 point. And as if bombastic points were not enough, there were also percentages... what they did and to what end, I have no idea. Toronto Metros-Croatia finished with .500 % Seven clubs had higher percentages than them, but so what – Toronto finished first in the Northern Division of the Atlantic Conference. But even if they were not first no big deal – 16 out of 18 total qualified for the next stage. First or last, 160 points or no points, 100% or 0%, practically everybody advanced. As for Toronto, the champions of 1976 finished with 13 wins and 13 losses the regular season – in a normal league, they would be mid-table, far away from the top. But separate divisions with cross-division games provided for teams even with negative record to be first. For whatever this first place counted... for after that play-offs for 'divisional' title started, then – the 'conference', then – national title. And every stage seemingly provided some titles... Nobody was left empty handed. The inflation hardly helped the quality of the game, but the view of building a team did not at all. It was naïve at best and plain ignorant at worst: instead of careful and gradual building a team, North Americans evidently thought that a bulk of players, mostly foreign must suffice. Rosters were huge, largely thanks to constant transfers in a single season – often over 30 players were involved. Cosmos used over 40 in 1977. With players coming and going all the time, meaningful building of a team was a gas. Add to this the case of many English players, who are difficult to describe – they played in England, arriving in NASL for the summer, between the old and new seasons in England. Technically, they played for two clubs in a single year, but who they belonged to? Were they in USA and Canada on loan? Or on their own, despite contracts with English clubs? Or were they signing entirely separate contracts for portions of the year? One thing was clear – their main interest was in England, and it was hard to imagine they gave their best after the grueling English season. For them it was more like well paid vacation, but coming in mid-season, they simply took the places of others for awhile – how was to build a team in such conditions. If coaches tried to build anything, for they were well aware of the ignorant approach of the owners, and since they were mostly British, they preferred British players no matter what. Often it looked like one foreign mega-star was enough for success – Eusebio arrived and Toronto won the NASL championship in 1976. Now the owners of Las Vegas Quicksilver decided to follow the example and hired Eusebio – only to finish last in their 'division' and to be one of the two clubs missing the play-offs. Gambling did not work well in football, but most foreign players entirely enjoyed playing in USA and Canada. George Best was the prime example – he was happy to be anonymous, without journalists following his every step and mischief, without coaches disciplining him, without fans booing him. Best was happy to bask in the sun, to chase the girls, to drive his car fast, and mostly to booze in cozy bars. And because of his name Los Angeles Aztecs were considered contenders for the title. Their performance was something quite opposite to predictions, though. In the weak league veteran stars, even boozers like Best, were capable of occasional stellar moment and making a difference. Some even managed to revive their careers - Gordon Banks came out of his untimely and unhappy retirement, and almost recovered his form. But many did not bother to do much, and still got plenty of money. Nobody was actually building a team and Cosmos was the best example.

Eight foreign players arrived in 1977 – one was the mega-transfer of the year, creating a buzz all over the world: Franz Beckenbauer (32 years old) from Bayern. Cosmos already had the King, now added the Kaiser. Carlos Alberto ( 33), the captain of Brazil in 1970, arrived from Flamengo. Another Brazilian, a lesser star, yet a star, came from CEUB – Rildo (35). From Galatasaray – the Turkish national team goalkeeper Erol Yasin (29). Two Yugoslavians as well – Vito Dimitrijevic (29) from Radnicki (Nis), and Jadranko Topic (28) from Velez (Mostar). The usual English player – Steve Hunt (21) from Aston Villa, and finally – a South African: Jomo Sono (22) from Orlando Pirates. Almost a whole new team, but the players did not even arrive at the same time – Beckenbauer came in May, when the German season finished. Carlos Alberto - in mid-July. As a whole, the newcomers were rag-tag bunch – just bulk, for there is nothing to suggest any meaningful idea for acquiring them: too many, too diverse, from world superstars to complete unknowns. Mismatched.
Jadranko Topic, far left, crouching, with Velez (Mostar) in 1975. This is arguably the best squad Velez ever had and there were star players – Bajevic, Vladic, Hadziabdic, Halilhodzic, Primorac. Topic was not one of them.
The transfer of the year – Kaiser Franz moving to New York.
A dream-team or a circus? Beckenbauer, Pele, and Chinaglia. What could be? The best football in the world, elevating NASL to serious league, or clash of egos?

PR is one thing, strong team entirely another. It is not just a collection of stars – strong team needs a coach. Clive Toye, the English coach of Cosmos was fired by the brass – that is Warner Brothers Company brass. Headed by Ahmet Ertegun, a Turk, who brought another Turk to play in USA – Yasin. Toye, at least retrospectively, is big name in US football, but let's face it – before moving to the US, he was a journalist. He may have been better coach than others in North America, and got credit for bringing Pele to New York, yet... having the King, he failed to win a championship. Coaches are fired for less – but US football was dominated by Brits and a mere Turk firing a Brit... it may not be said openly, but Ertegun was blamed for undue meddling in purely managerial affairs. Especially when those replacing Toye did not deliver either – a soap opera followed until another 'big name' became coach or manager: Eddie Firmani. The credit for his arrival went entirely to Giorgio Chinaglia – he personally went to conspire and complain, but not to Ertegun – he used another big shot in Warners, Steve Ross. The perception of Firmani was clear from day one and remains firm so far: a puppet of Chinaglia. Effectively, Chinaglia managed the team. A picture of scheming, incompetence, and back room deals emerge – Cosmos, the show case of NASL, was without serious concept. It was chaotic and if it was the best club in the league, it is easy to imagine the rest. No wonder George Best was happy in NASL – massive incompetence prevented his employers from even seeing his mischief. And no wonder the league failed to really improve its game, swerving entirely into circus. Further attention to the cosmic chaos of Cosmos will be given soon.