Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The African Footballer of the Year - 8th edition. An interesting classification, providing some understanding of African football, but also darkening it. So far, no player won the prize twice. Only two players appeared more than once among the top three – the Cameroonian Roger Milla (2nd in 1975 and 1st in 1976) and Guinean Papa Camara (second in 1976 and 1977). With the exception of the very first winner, Salif Keita, there was not a single European-based professional player. The absence of professionals and the high turn-over suggests raw talent a plenty. It also suggests raw talent and nothing more... players popped in, but somehow depended only on talent, and therefore unable to sustain, let alone improve, their performance. Almost nobody interested European clubs and none of the winners became recognizable star (Keita was already famous in 1970, fading after that, and Milla became a star after the end of the 1970s). Clearly, European-based players were ignored, which casts some doubt of the true qualities of the African players. There were objective factors, limiting choice: African journalists saw little of most players - mostly they knew their own country's players. Few international games, Internet was not even a dream – television was a dream, but whatever TV existed, it covered little football. Most often good players were not seen at all outside their own country. Subjectivity and bias ruled African voting more than anywhere else on top of everything. It may appear strange, but perhaps best known outside Africa players in the 1970s, and one of the best all-time Cameroonian footballers – Jean Manga-Onguene – so far did not appear among the top three. Was African football that rich on talent to make voting constantly changing and introducing new names? Hardly, if compared to stable professionals in Europe, who did not make the lists: was, say, Paris SG, so stupid a club to keep unheralded Mustapha Dahleb, but not to hire Papa Camara? Anyway, there was new winner again in 1977 – and the interesting thing about it was that the top African clubs of this year were not represented. Only Papa Camara (Hafia Conakry) was voted second – of 4 finalists, one player. Third was the Nigerian Sedun Odegbami – his club, Shooting Star, reached the ½ finals of the African Cup Winners Cup, where they were eliminated by the eventual winners Enugu Rangers, also from Nigeria. It was not clear-cut loss – two scoreless led to penalty shoot-out – but still... Enugu Rangers won the tournament and no player of the team impressed anybody. Was it that, or local bias? After all, who was Odegbami?

Above all came a player, whose presence is even more intriguing, for he played in a country not participating in the African club tournaments at all. Tarak Dhiab, from Tunisia, playing for Esperance. Based on what he was voted number one, then? Since practically nobody saw him play, save for Tunisian journalists? How good Dhiab really was?
Tarak Dhiab, 23 years old in 1977, was talented – no doubt about it. No doubt about it nowadays, for he was voted the best Tunisian player of the 20th century. Obviously he was impressive in 1977, but was his performance actually known to most voters? Or he got most points thanks to Arabic journalists, who were familiar with him, when the rest of players simply got votes only from countrymen? Hard to tell – Dhiab got some international exposure: he played for the national team of Tunisia, and in 1977 qualifications for the 1978 World Cup were in progress, along with the African Championship. His country eventually won the African spot for the World Cup finals, and that counted more than club tournaments. Certainly more voters saw him than those players not included in national teams, or eliminated at early stage. Unlike African legends like Manga-Oungene and Sherif Souleymane (Hafia, Guinea), Dhiab was seen by the world – in 1978 – but he did not impress anybody. He played well, but the competition was stiff and he did not measure up to world-class stars. Local hero. Nothing wrong with that – the point is, African players were still weak by world standards. Yet, there was something else – Dhiab was midfielder and goalscorer. A different type of African player – so far, quality there was understood to be flashing striker. Dhiab was a playmaker, suggesting improvement of African football – still lagging behind, but trying to catch up with modern football. And at the end everything is tainted... the Tunisian Federation claims Dhiab played 107 matches for the national team – FIFA does not recognize them. It is possible, for he played for his country until 1990, but who really knows? Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to find out the real qualities of African players from distant past. Dhiab played only in Tunisia – which somewhat places doubt on his talent, but then again: may be he was paid well, officially or unofficially, at home and did not need to go to Europe. One thing is certain: Dhiab became legendary player in Tunisia. He contributed greatly to the national team, and at the end – to the development of African football. Dhiab was more than just ephemeral African player of the year – but for this 1978 had to arrive. So far – top African player.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Little can be said for the rest of the football world – that is Africa. The disappointing performance of Zaire at the 1974 World Cup diminished already miniscule interest – the miracle did not happen and the game appeared in decline. One was able to get some information, like results, final tables, and brief commentaries from French magazines, but that was all. Except France, nobody else showed interest and African players appeared almost exclusively in the French leagues by 1977. Some were good – like the Congolese Francois M'Pele (30 years old), the Cameroonian Jean-Pierre Tokoto (29), and the Algerian Mustapha Dahleb (25), all playing for Paris SG, but none became big European star. There were no African players among the very best players in Europe – players like Larbi Benbarek in the 1940s-1950s, Rachid Mekhloufi in the 1960s, Salif Keita in the late 1960s and early 1970s, not to mention giant like Eusebio. Without high profile players, African football faded from European minds. The continent was not doing well politically and economically too, so it was a miracle that African countries managed to maintain regular domestic and international championships. The most organized was the football in the Northern Arabic countries, yet, they did not dominate the sport – which suggests low quality. It was amateur football everywhere, badly affected by politics with specific African flavour: tribalism. No country was able to get its best players in the national team, let alone clubs. Good players were spread in many clubs, depending on tribal boundaries – thus, no country was able to build strong club, and in turn many skilful players remained local, lacking international exposure. Tribalism plagues African football to this very day – especially national teams, but the main problem is club football, eternally suffocated. A small problem, yet a problem, is the difficulty to find reliable information, particularly pictorial one. An irritating problem, for there were interesting events:

The African Champions Cup culminated with a final between Hearts of Oak (Accra, Ghana) and Hafia (Conakry, Guinea).
One of the oldest and well established African Clubs, traditionally strong, popular, Hearts of Oak represented arguably the country with best football on the continent. Yet... Ghana repeatedly failed to qualify for World Cup finals and so far failed to impress on international club level. Hearts of Oak continued the tradition of disappointment... they lost both legs of the final: 0-1 at home in Accra, and 2-3 away in Conakry.
Hafia triumphed – but there was more. In 1977 Hafia became the most successful African club: they won their 3rd African Champions Cup, more than anybody else. There was regularity to their victories: 1972, 1975, and 1977, suggesting that Hafia had well made squad. The same squad, give or take two-three players. It was spectacular success, for Guinea was not among the top African countries in football. Perhaps they got the best players of the country in the team and well rounded squad, getting more and more experienced, was bound to win. None of the Hafia players made it to Europe, as far as I know, but they were uncommonly steady in Africa.

African Cup Winners Cup was new tournament – it started in 1975, so it was only the 3rd issue in 1977. Too young to trace patterns – quite naturally, every year had new winner. One of the better known outside the continent clubs reached the final – Canon (Yaounde, Camerun).
Camerun was not yet well known, nor it was all that powerful in Africa, but Canon ranked among the strongest African clubs. It was steady club, becoming even stronger – it was regular, and therefore experienced, participant in the international tournaments. A favourite, at least to outside eyes.

The other finalist was almost the opposite of Canon:
Enugu Rangers was young club – founded in 1970. Already very successful at home, though: three times champion and three times Cup winner in 1977. Remarkable success, but... in Nigeria. Nigeria did not rank high in Africa yet. On the other hand, who really ranked high? There was representative of the 'strong' Arabic countries at any of the Cup finals. Ghana lost to lowly Guinea – African club football was entirely unpredictable. The first leg of the final was played in Enugu and mighty Canon was destroyed 4-1. Was it skills or enthusiasm? Doesn't matter really – Enugu did not lose the second leg either. In Yaounde, they managed to tie the match 1-1 and the Cup was theirs!
Astonishing success for a club not even ten years old. Yet... the players were and remained anonymous, apparently nobody was all that great even by African standards. No player of Enugu Rangers was voted among the top African players of the year – a Nigerian was third, but Segun Odegbami played for Shooting Stars. Never mind – Enugu Rangers won the Cup.

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...

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.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Up it was not so crystal clear. America (Mexico City) and CD Guadalajara finished 1st and 2nd in Group 1 and qualified for the next round. UNAM (Mexico City) and Atletico Potosino qualified from Group 2. Cruz Azul (Mexico City) and San Luis – from Group 3, and from Group 4 – Universidad de Guadalajara and Atletico Espanol. More or less, familiar 'big' clubs – America, CD Guadalajara, Cruz Azul. Still clinging to the biggies, yet, declining Atletico Espanol. Atletico Potosino and San Luis probably just had a good year. As for U de G, or Club Deportivo Universidad de Guadalajara, or Leones Negros – they were young and strange. Founded in 1970, the 'Black Lions' climbed quickly to First Division and not only to make the numbers: they reached the championship final in 1975-76. Evidently, ambitious and well financed club, but... a club without supporters. Guadalajara is old football centre in Mexico, hence, the public made their choices long time ago – mainly divided between CD Guadalajara and Atlas. There was UAG too... the city is big, but no matter how big, a club founded in 1970 was doomed to be without fans.

Second stage – 8 teams divided in 2 round-robin groups, no points from first stage carried over. Brand new start, the winners of the groups going to the final. In case teams ended with equal points, goal average was decisive factor – not goal difference. Goal average was old concept, fading away after 1960, but still in use here and there. Its merit is dubious, but then which decisive system is convincing? Yet... sometimes goal average is entirely wrong. No problem in Group 1: UNAM finished first, a point ahead of Cruz Azul, also having the best goal-difference. But goals were not important here – they were in Group 2, where America and U de G ended with equal points, 8 each. America scored 14 goals in 6 matches and received 6. U de G received only 3, but scored measly 8. All things equal, America outscored the competition by far, and ended with +8 to U de G +5. Goal average said different, however: 2.67 U de G vs 2.33 America. Scoring less was more...
America – robbed from playing at the final? Depends on stand point.

Leones Negros reached the final for second consecutive year – may be this time champions? Or UNAM? Pumas vs Leones Negros. Intriguing not only because of carnivorous names – both clubs are University clubs, neither was champion ever before. No matter what, brand new champion was coming, emphasizing power shift in Mexican football. University-based clubs were becoming power-houses, successfully elbowing traditional big clubs. The rivalry between Mexico City and Guadalajara was preserved, but it was not a classic derby.

The two-legger was tied struggle: UNAM clinched a scoreless tie in Guadalajara. Back at home , they scored the single goal at the final. 1-0. U de G lost the final again. Pumas defeated Lions.
Probably it was not so gloomy in the Lion's den: remember their date of birth? Founded in 1970, and already playing twice at the championship final. Two silver medals in 7 years of existence – and clearly establishing themselves among the strongest Mexican clubs. With such strength may be they were to build a fan base too.

As for UNAM – it was their first title ever.
The club was not young, but never a big player in Mexican football until the 70s. During this decade they established themselves in the First League, grew stronger and stronger, until they won the championship.
Pumas looking menacing and winning. Standing from left: Candido (Brazil), Genaro Bermudez, Héctor Sanabria, Leonardo Cuéllar, Enrique Vázquez del Mercado, José Luis López, Velibor " Bora " Milutinovic – coach.

First row : Juan José Muñante (Peru), Spencer, Cabinho (Brazil), Jesús Iturralde, Arturo Vázquez Ayala.

Champions are always worth praising, but this squad is special for more reasons than for the obvious historic first title. Not for the exotic look of Leonardo Cuellar either – Cuellar was Mexican national team regular, but still not the most important member of the team. Two of the foreigners – the Peruvian star Munante and the lesser known Brazilian Candido were not the most important items either. Yet, the mentioned so far outline quite a strong team. But add the Brazilian centre-forward Evanivaldo Castro, or simply Cabinho. The prolific goalscorer is often considered the best ever footballer in Mexico. No doubt, part of the legend comes from 1976-77. And missing on this picture is another mega-star, much more famous than Cabinho – Hugo Sanchez. Sure, he was young and unknown internationally at that time, but already a national team player and deadly striker. Now, having Cabinho and Sanchez in front is something... lethal. There was no regular place for the Argentine Jorge Paolino. Pumas, even by European standards, were star-studded team:
Cabinho, Jesús Ramírez, Juan José Muñante, Hugo Sánchez, and Cándido -such a group would have made many an European club envious. Stars are stars, but making a winning team is another matter. Bora Milutinovic was a debutant coach – he was still playing for UNAM the previous season. Champion in his first coaching year! May be now becomes clear why he is the coach with most World Cup finals – he was good at the very beginning. Yes, the squad was not 'legendary' in 1977 – but looking back, here are legendary people. The best ever player in Mexico; the best ever Mexican player; Bora Milutinovic. Oh well, it was not only felines – there was also 'La Cobra' Munante. A team to stay on top. Simple game, football – all you need is great players and a great coach.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Date of birth was important in another country as well, but in another part of the world – North and Central America. Nothing really changed there – only two championships worth mentioning. Mexico was elbowed by USA-Canada, thanks to the famous players moving to NASL, but still Mexico had the only good championship outside Europe and South America. The structure of the championship is very strange – a mixture of North American professional sports leagues and South American concepts. Like South America, championship went through different stages, mixing regular format with Cup-like direct elimination. Like North American sports, the league was not simple collection of clubs, but of franchises. The 20-team league was divided into 4 groups, teams playing against each other, but also playing against teams from other groups. North American formats are forever confusing for non-Americans, largely because it is never clear why clubs face some of the rest, but almost never other clubs. In Mexico was clearer – looked like every club met all others twice in the first stage. At least the total of games played – 38 – suggests so. Which makes a mystery of the division into 4 groups – the best two of each progressed to the next stage, but it would be just the same in regular undivided league. Anyway, it was not all – the US sports model is closed league: no relegation-promotion, same 'franchises' play always in the league. Bankruptcy is practically the only way of changing the members, a franchise can change owners and move to another city. Usually, the name is preserved – it is part of the franchise. The franchise concept in Mexico was a bit different: entirely different club can buy the rights of one playing in First Division and replace it in it. This was done fairly often, so the league members changed, but it was not entirely closed league like in the USA. There was promotion-relegation too – one club went down at the end of the season and another went up to replace it. Strange championship, but otherwise it was normal professional football: big clubs gathering the best players and there were many imports, generally from South America. The trouble with Mexican clubs is their location – some moved from place to place back then, but it is more frequent nowadays, so it is hard today to make sense – one sees Atlante, but is it the same club of 30 years ago? Now Atlante plays in Cancun... same name back in the 1970s, but for a club located in Mexico City. Yes, it is the same club after all – the only question is what happened to the supporters. Did they move to Cancun too?

No matter. Back in 1976-77 Atlante struggled to return to First Division. They were relegated the previous season, quite a blow for the old club, but eventually they reached the promotional final – facing Queretaro. Queretaro also played in the First Division not long ago and was eager to return, but it was not to be. Atlante won 4-2 at home and 2-1 away in Queretaro. Back among the big boys after a year in exile and getting powerful sponsors – a state owned mighty company, which poured tons of money, wishing to make Atlante the strongest club. This, however, happened after the club succeeded in winning a promotion. So much for second division and promotion.

Relegation, then. The rules were simple – among the last placed clubs in the 4 groups, the two with least points met in relegation play-off. Theoretically, it was possible for a club to finish with less points than one of the unfortunates – if playing in one group with the weakest one – but this year there was no confusion: UANL and Zacatepec were last with clearly less points than any other club. UANL are also known as 'Tigres', and the 'tigers' finally showed some teeth... not very sharp teeth, but enough for survival. They managed a 2-2 tie away and clinched a home victory in Nuevo Leon 2-1. Zacatepec was relegated.
Lucky tigers. The club is one of University-based clubs. Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon. Students club, by the name – in reality, a professional club financed by the University. May be that is why such clubs are known by their nicknames, thus confusing foreigners: UANL is the official name and the one seen in most records. But in Mexico a glance at a newspaper shows no trace of UANL – there is Tigres. Now the nicknames are actually incorporated into the official names of such clubs. Clear? Better be, for Tigres survived difficult season and remained for the next. So much for bottom of the league.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Down the South American line information becomes scarcer and scarcer, particularly pictorial information. However, there was something interesting at the very bottom. Portuguesa FC won the Venezuelan championship. The club from the agricultural capital of Venezuela – Acarigua – was founded in 1972. A baby, in a sense, but they won their first title in 1973. Not many clubs in the world win championships in their second year of existence, especially in the 1970s, when hierarchies were established for a long time already. It was not just accidental victory either – in 1977 Portuguesa won its 4th title, third consecutive as well. Some babies!

The Venezuelan league was small – only 12 clubs – but, following the South
American pattern, the championship was complicated affair of three stages. The culmination was two-legged final between the first and second from the 6-team championship playoff group (second stage). Portuguesa won every tournament, beating their competitors Estudiantes (Merida) in both final matches – 4-2 in Merida, and 3-0 in Acarigua. Portuguesa played a total of 34 championship games, losing only 3 matches during the campaign. In the first standard league stage they left the nearest pursuer, Deportivo Italia, 8 points behind. Clearly supreme squad. The best goalscorer of the championship was also Portuguesa player – Juan Cesar Silva with 20 goals.
Four titles in 5 years of existence – what a record! Of course, names of players mean nothing... like everywhere in South America, Venezuelan football had plenty of imports and foreigners more or less dictated the fate of their clubs. They were fairly unknown players, though – except for Brazilian striker playing for the champions. Here he is, second in the first row – Jairzinho. Already 33 years old and a pale shadow of his glory days, nevertheless, a world famous star. Did he really made a difference, or not – doesn't matter. Portuguese was proud to have a legendary name in its squad – and to add one more title. May be Jairzinho was very happy too – world champion he was, but on club level he had few titles. Venezuelan championship was may be weak and not glamorous, but... a title is a title. Jairzinho won and... left the club, returning to Brazil. Portuguesa stayed where they were, of course – on top. On top of the bottom, one may say, but who cares – just recall their date of birth.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Colombia – like Paraguay, unknown and uninteresting to outsiders. The great years of Colombian football – the 1950s – were long gone. With them – whatever novelty existed for outsiders. So far, Colombian football produced nothing – even in South America it did not rank high: may be above Bolivia and Ecuador, but lower than anybody else. Why Colombian football stayed so low is difficult to figure out: the sport was popular and drug money were available in the 1970s just like they were in the 1980s and later. Money were good by South American measures – the country attracted foreign players for long time and continued to be preferable destination. May be foreigners stifled local development – they were too many. But foreign players were beneficial to local football elsewhere, so why not here? Foreigners came in every possible shape – from veteran stars, nearing retirement, to virtual nobodies. They were all South Americans, unlike the 1950s, when some European players joined Colombian clubs. Ladislao Mazurkiewicz, Juan Veron, and Oscar Mas played in Colombia in 1977 – perhaps the biggest, but also over the hill stars. The Argentinians were perhaps the biggest group, a traditional trend. Some were fairly famous, like Nestor Leonel Scotta, who played for the national team of Argentina. Others were of smaller caliber, but became Colombian legends. Evidently, foreigners shaped Colombian football – 8 of the top ten goalscorers of the 1977 season were Argentinians – Veron, Mas, Scotta, Osvaldo Marcial Palavecino, Miguel Angel Converti, Jorge Ramon Caceres, Ramon Orlando Gomez, and Alberto Benitez. The two Colombians were not in the top three... Colombian football depended on foreigners too much. To the point of naturalizing foreign talent, like Caceres. A foreign talent, which was second rate at their native countries...

Anyhow, football is football. In the South American tradition, Colombian championships were complicated – two separate phases, Apertura – a standard two-legged tournament, followed by Torneo Finalizacion, in which the 14-team league was divided in two 7-team mini-leagues. Some results were carried over from the Apertura, so in the final table of Finalizacion each team ended with 21 matches total. Either that, or there were some inter-league fixtures. The logic of such complicated tournaments is incomprehensible, unless the motive is to keep fans intrigued and thus get full gates.

But even this was not the end: after Finalizacion the top three of each group played Final Hexagonal – two-legged round robin championship, finally deciding the champion of the year. Hard to tell what for the Apertura was played for - unless the champion was to be decided at last by a final between the winners of both championships. If so, there was no need this season – one club won both tournaments. Whatever the quality of Colombian football was, one thing cannot be denied – there was a lot of it. A fan of so-so club was able to see 47 matches. A fan of the contenders – 57.

Aperture was practically two team race – Atletico Junior and Deportivo Cali. Atletico Junior won by 2 points, seemingly thanks to supreme defense. Bellow the best was a thick group of fairly equal clubs – 7 teams positioned themselves largely on goal-difference. America finished 3rd with 29 points and Deportivo Quindio ended 9th with 27 points. Four clubs had 28. America topped Independiente Santa Fe with better goal-difference as well. The clear outsider was Cucuta Deportivo, finishing last, 7 points behind 13th placed Deportes Tolima. So far – so good, first stage finished.

In the second stage things were... confusing at best. Atletico Junior finished dead last in Group A. Deportivo Cali won the group very confidently – with 29 points, 3 points better than 2nd placed Millonarios and 5 points above Atletico Nacional at 3rd place.

Group B was either weaker or tougher, for there was no obvious leader – three clubs finished with 20 points and goal-difference decided their final places. The winners, Atletico Bucaramanga, ended with 2 points more. The pariah of Apertura – Cucuta Deportivo – finished 3rd! Looked like clubs chose in which tournament to play at full force, neglecting entirely the other. But Cucuta earned nothing at the end, for they did not make it to the real final...

Torneo Hexagonal – 6 participants. On what criteria, though? The best 6 of Apertura? Or the top three of each group of Finalizacion? Or may be combination of both phases? The top three of Group A were among the last six – Deportivo Cali, Millonarios, and Atletico Nacional. However, Millonarios was 5th in Apertura, and Atletico Nacional – 6th. Atletico Bucaramanga was 1st in Group B, and measly 11th in Apertura. Atletico Junior – winners of Apertura, but last in Group A of Finalizacion. Deportes Quindio and Cucuta Deportivo were 2nd and 3rd in Group B of Finalizacion, but 9th (Quindio) and last 14th (Cucuta) in Apertura. Seems the final six was made of the champions of the two groups of Finalizacion, plus the winners of Apertura, plus the next three of Apertura, allowing for duplications of winners in both stages. And it came to the already mentioned above plus Independiente Santa Fe - 4th in the Apertura, and also 4th in Group A of Finalizacion. Did not make much sense, except for providing some incentive for the clubs playing Group B – the lower half of Apertura final table. If not having a chance to go up, why playing at all? But to be the best among the worst hardly pays off – Atletico Bucaramanga finished last in the final group. They won only 2 games, earning a total of 4 points. No surprises by them. No surprises by Independiente Santa Fe either – steady, but not great in either earlier stage, they finished 5th at the end with 7 points. Atletico Nacional, also steady, continued to be just that, finishing 4th with 10 points. Millonarios and Deportivo Cali finished neck to neck with 12 points each – goal-difference decided their final position and more: the second placed club was going to represent Colombia in the Copa Libertadores. The most famous abroad Colombian club – Millonarios – ended empty handed – 3rd. And the championswere Atletico Junior – once again they sailed confidently, winning 7 matches and losing only 2. Two points ahead of the nearest pursuers – seemingly, they saved strength by neglecting Torneo Finalizacion... and now were fresher than the rest.

Deportivo Cali – silver medalists and thus earning the right to play in Copa Libertadores as the second Colombian participant. Some Colombian legends here, but one important member of the team is missing – the coach. One Carlos Bilardo.
Atletico Junior – the team of Barranquilla won the title. Old 'Bruja' Veron getting a title again. If anything, at least he was nearing the end of his career as a winner. For the club it was much cherished moment – their very first title! Always special, the first victory. One can even explore the magic: Atletico Junior faced mighty opposition – 'El Gordo' (Escobar), 'Frijolito' (Gomez), 'Pescadito' (Calero), 'Tola' (Scotta), 'Obelisco' (Landucci), 'La Tortuga' (Otero), 'El Tigre' (Benitez), and 'El Maestro' (Arboleda). But all together were no much for the old 'Witch' Veron! 'La Bruja' tamed them all. More seriously, it was Argentines vs Argentines: coach Bilardo, Alberto Cardacci, Abel Da Graca, Angel Landucci, Ricardo Cesar Luis Moreno, Carlos Alejandro Leone, Roberto Rogel, Alberto Benitez, Nestor Scotta, and the Paraguayan Aristides del Puerto for flavour (Deportivo Cali) vs coach Jose Varacka, Juan Ramon Veron, Camilo Abelardo Aguilar, Juan Carlos Delmenico, Cesar Lorea, Eduardo Solari, Carlos Alberto Vidal, and the Uruguayan Julio Avelino Comesana (Atletico Junior). Varacka either left or was sacked during the season and Juan Veron finished the season as playing coach. 'The Witch' prevailed over 'El Flaco' Carlos Bilardo, quite an irony from today's point of view, for Bilardo became world champion, and Veron's coaching career was mediocre. Just the opposite back in 1977, though, when both coaches practically started.

For Atletico Junior it was a long road to success – back in 1968 they even employed Garrincha (for whatever a single match is worth), but finally succeeded. Thus, Colombia became – without an administrative design – unique in South America: its football was not dominated by the capital, but it was diverse – clubs from Bogota, Cali, Medellin, and Baranquilla were fairly equal competitors. The strength depended largely on foreigners, mainly Argentinians. Colombian football was saturated by the 'Argos':

Here is Deportiva Independiente Medelin, known as simply DIM in South America. Without any search two Argos: Jose Peckerman and Hugo Horacio Londero. Neither was wold famous player, but Londero is well remembered not only in Colombia. As for Peckerman – he was coaching Argentina at the 2006 World Cup. Colombia appeared quite a fertile ground for good coaches in retrospect.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Paraguay – practically off the radar for years. Used to be known for reliable, fearless, and often brutal players, flocking in Spain. Never stars, though. Paraguayans were the way to avoid Spanish prohibition on imports – they were often from provable Spanish descent and therefore permitted to play as 'oriundi'. But the 60s were gone and Paraguayans were forgotten. No great clubs in the country – that is, no club had international success – and Paraguay did not qualify to World Cups for a long time. One thing known, thanks to common sense, was that the country had regular championship. Which in 1977 was won by Cerro Porteno.

Libertad, the champions of 1976, still played strong and finished second. They were may be the third club in Paraguay – by 1977 they had 8 titles, but hardly known abroad, especially in Europe. This year they lost a bit more familiar name – Cerro Porteno.

19th title for Cerro Porteno – much more than Libertad, but still behind the arch-rivals Olimpia – they had 23 titles so far. If anything, the general picture of Paraguayan football can be made clear: a duopoly of Olimpia and Cerro Porteno, occasionally disturbed by Libertad and very rarely – by some other club. All of the above hail from Asuncion, so the big clubs were located in the capital, leaving nothing to provincial football. As in many a country, the best football was concentrated in the capital, which had large number of clubs. Yet, this is very general knowledge, if it is knowledge at all. The champions left no names.
No names, but there is no certainty that the photo is from 1977 – it is from the time period alright, but which season exactly? Mysterious champions at best.

The only real news of Paraguayan football was the debut of talented striker, almost immediately compared to Pele. The desire of new Pele was strong – and pretentious – but the talent of young boy was impressive. Curiously, the rising star did not play for any club from Asuncion:
He debuted for Sportivo Luqueno from the city of Luque. And the name?
Julio Cesar Romero. He became known right away - called in South America 'Romerito'. A different player from the usual perception of Paraguayan footballers – he was skillful and deadly striker, a leader. He dazzled not just the Paraguayans and quickly became one of the best South American players. May be he deserves to be even bigger world star, but his career choice practically prevented that – he not only never played in Europe, but did not join South American giants: Romerito went to USA to play bypassing even the big Paraguayan clubs. He joined Cosmos, but NASL was regarded almost as a joke and Romerito was never fully appreciated. He got recognition largely in South America. As for Paraguay – he is the best ever player of the country, something seemingly clear from the moment he debuted. It turned out, 1977 was an important year for Paraguayan football.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

First Division – 8 clubs from Santiago, the rest – provincial. Chile, compared to other South American countries, evidently achieved all-inclusive championship. Still, the big clubs were from the capital and it was difficult to diminish their traditional positions. Times changed, however. Standard championship, except relegation: the last in the final table went directly down. The 16th and the 17th played relegation play-off against each other. The loser was relegated, the winner, along with the 15th placed went to new play-off tournament with the 3rd and 4th of the Second Division. A bit tricky, but apparently the difference of quality between top flight and second division was recognized factor. Antofagasta finished last – an absolute outsider, they lost 22 of their 34 championship games and finished 10 points behind the 17th team. Which was Santiago club – Santiago Morning. They ended second to last on goal difference, finishing with 27 points. Ovalle was just above them, but Santiago Morning won the relegation play-off 1-0 and Ovalle went directly to Second. Santiago Wanderers (Valparaiso) finished 15th , on goal-difference as well – three clubs finished with 28 points, but Nublense (Chillan) and Universidad Catolica (Santiago) had better record. Bad year for some of the well known names: Santiago Wanderers, Santiago Morning, Universidad Catolica.The promotion-relegation mini-league brought no luck to Santiago Wanderers – they finished third there ,and thus were relegated. Santiago Morning on the other hand won the tournament and remained in First Division. So much drama at the bottom of the league.

Nublense – the luckiest team at the bottom of the table: safe 15th place was achieved only by better goal-difference. A single point – the difference between life and death. Note the striped shirt of the goalie – by the late 1970s, such shirts were seen only in South America. In Europe they were gone many years ago, so the kit looked exotic.

In the upper parts of the table some decline was visible – Universidad de Chile, 5th and Colo-Colo, 4th, were entirely out of the championship race. Colo-Colo finished 5 points behind the 3rd placed and Universidad de Chile was lagging 3 points behind Colo-Colo. Practically the mightiest Chilean clubs were evidently not in good shape. Colo-Colo failed to win the title again – already 5 years in a row!
Hard to tell why Colo-Colo was so miserable – may be politics played a role, may be not, but the most popular Chilean club was without a title since 1972. For clubs used to constant winning such a dry spell means more than disaster.

Universidad de Chile – not exactly happy at 5th place, but at least the club was used to lower expectations. One thing is sure – this squad is rather pedestrian. Peralta, may be Pellegrini, may be Salah... and that is all. Second division Cobreloa had almost the same number of known players, but bigger names. Clearly, Universidad did not have good enough team to be a real factor.

Third finished Palestino. An old club, founded in 1920 by Palestinian immigrants and having won a single title so far – in 1955. They had the reputation for attracting star players, obviously having money to do that. Hence, Elias Figueroa arrived. He came with the hallo of superstar: three consecutive years voted best player of South America, voted the best player of the world, champion in Uruguay and Brazil, a living legend. And he was not all that old either at 31. His arrival boosted Palestino: they lost only 5 games and scores were the second-best in the league – 70-33.
Standing from left: Mario Varas, Edgardo Fuentes, Rodolfo Dubó, Elías Figueroa, Manuel Herrera, Enrique Vidallé.

First row: Alberto Hidalgo, Jorge Zelada, Oscar Fabbiani, Sergio Messen, Pedro Pinto.

Sudden transformation . One player can make a miracle? May be. The question is for how long – just one time wonder, or permanent improvement. By the end of 1977 the question stand open – the hard fact was bronze medals.

Yet, Palestino was not able to go all the way to the top – Everton won two more games than them and that made the difference between third and second. Everton (Vina del Mar) is practically the provincial answer to Santiago, preventing monopoly. One of the consistently strong clubs and usually finishing in the top 5.
Another strong year, silver medals, close pursuers of the leaders, but... second. 2 points behind the champions – it was a matter of one match: the champions won 21 games and lost 4; Everton lost 5 and won 20.

The champions were best in everything, as champions normally are: 21 wins, 9 ties, and 4 lost matches. They scored 72 goals, allowing only 28. Strong attack, strong defense – obviously the most balance team. As for the name – Union Espanola. Familiar name in the 1970s.
5th title for Union Espanola – the 1970s were their best decade. By the end of the 1977 Union Espanola already climbed among the most titled clubs in Chilean football. How it measures in Santiago is difficult to tell – there are old rivalries and very likely the success of Union Espanola annoyed various supporters: Colo-Colo's and Universidad de Chile's, for smaller club topped them; Universidad Catolica's – Union not only bested them, but their own club performed poorly; Magallanes', Palestino's, Audax Italiano's , Santiago Morning's – for their glories were in the distant past, but Union Espanola won in the present. As for Union's supporters – they were rightfully happy. They were the best! Again. And in the future – more. Which did not happened... it was the last Union Espanola victory for a long, long time.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Chile – the country was constantly in the news, condemned for the military rule. Yet, compared to the rest of South America... the Junta was not as bloodthirsty as nearby dictatorships; the economy was improving; there were no drug-lords and ultra-left-wing armies, determined to preserve perpetual internal warfare. The general state of affairs affected football as well – the championship was not as messy as most South American championships are, players did not leave the country in great quantities, and there was, although modest so far, rise of clubs from industrial cities. Stars, playing abroad so far, started coming back, even those known as politically against the General Pinochet's regime. If Chilean football was not exactly improving, at least it was not declining. The big news was the return of the great defender Figueroa from Brazil – in 1977 he joined Palestino (Santiago). Another interesting news was made by second division club – Cobreloa, from the mining city of Calama. They acquired the services of the Chilean star Sergio Ahumada and the Uruguayan national team defender Jauregui. There were money in Calama, quite obviously. Running a bit ahead both Palestino and Cobreloa benefited immediately from their new players.

Standard championship. The 18-team Second Division consisted mostly of little known clubs. The first two teams were directly promoted to First Division; the 3rd and 4th played promotion-relegation tournament with the 15th and 16th teams of First Division. The last in the Second Division table was relegated. Coquimbo Unido and Rangers (Tacna) earned direct promotion, finishing 1st and 2nd , but the championship was quite competitive – six clubs competed for the top spots, some former First Division clubs, like La Serena (6th) and Rangers (2nd). Two were hardly known and one of them is actually important to note. Malleco Unido finished 3rd and Cobreloa – 4th, both teams still having a chance of promotion. Cobreloa, so far modest club, was prime example of improving economy: so far, they finished 4th in Second – a success by itself, but they had one more chance at the promotion-relegation tournament.

Even the colours of Cobreloa – orange – suggested ambition. Bright, fiery kit. Two stars in the team, meaning money. Cobreloa was strong, finishing 2nd in the relegation-promotion mini-league. They did not lose at all, ending with a win, two ties, and the best defense. Cobreloa went up to First division and it was not fleeting success – the club not only established itself among the best, but very soon was major force winning titles. 1977 was just the beginning.

Santiago Morning finished first in the mini-league and preserved its place in First Division. Santiago Wanderers and Malleco Unido were the unlucky ones: Santiago Wanderers, the old and respected club from Valparaiso, went down. Malleco Unido failed to go up and stayed in Second.
South America, even when appear normal, is never entirely normal – last in Second Division finished Magallanes (Santiago). Above them, thanks to better goal-difference finished another club from Santiago – Ferroviarios. Ferroviarios is small club, but Magallanes is something special: they were founders of the professional league back in 1933. Back then the club won in a row 4 titles. They were perhaps the greatest... but long ago. Yet, the club is highly respected and probably had enough clout as well: faded, as they were, Magallanes were not forgotten – they faced relegation, but immediately survived. Second Division was extended to 19 clubs for the next season – Magallanes stayed. It was a decision obviously designed to help the club and it was hardly motivated just by the historic significance of Magallanes. So there: clubs with names were helped by hook or crook in South America.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The future was everything to hope for in Uruguay, but mostly in the abstract. Uruguay, under military rule, suffering economically, had little to really hope for. Football was in sharp decline, not surprisingly under the circumstances. In purely sporting terms, a talented generation was aging and retiring, but there was no new talent – things like that happen often quite independently of politics and economy. And the massive exodus of players did not help a bit – everybody kicking a ball was going elsewhere, to Spain, France, Austria, Greece, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Venezuela, Mexico, USA, anywhere. At the beginning of 1977 Luis Cubilla, Ricardo Pavoni, Juan Masnik had retired. Ladislao Mazurkiewicz was in Colombia (America Cali); Pedro Rocha – in Brazil (Santos), where the father of Diego Forlan – Pablo – also played (Cruzeiro). The big names of the 1960s were out and so were the smaller stars of early 1970s – Baudilio Jauregui moved to Cobreloa (Chile) in 1977 for instance. Impoverished domestic football lacking shining examples to inspire the young. Practically, the only stars remaining were Walter Olivera (24 years old) and Fernando Morena (25), both of Penarol – they were not enough to boost the league; they were not enough even make their club a winner. Penarol lost only a single match in the championship, left the champions of 1976 Defensor 5 points behind, but did not win. Nacional won, by a point.

After the surprise victory of Defensor the previous year, not it was back to normal – Nacional and Penarol. Nacional were more than happy – it was their first title since 1972. Five years of suffering was too much... but no more? Well, it was the 32nd title alright, but it was not earth-shaking squad. Promising at best – with 21-year old Juan Ramon Carrasco and 19-year old debutant Hugo de Leon. Too young to be really great, but may be in the future... if they were to stay at home. Presently, nothing astonishing.

Down the table, Huracan Buceo finished last. There is no point of saying where the club is from – both First and Second Uruguayan divisions consisted entirely of Montevideo clubs. Rather, it was relegation of one neighbourhood, replaced by another: Huracan Buceo are from Malvin.
Small club, more accustomed to Second Division, the most interesting part of Huracan Buceo is their kit – three-colouerd big stripes, black, white, and red. Apart from that – nothing. They won only 2 matches out of 22 total.

Second Division, consisting of only 10 teams, was not exactly a producer of potential challengers of the status quo – at best, promoted club was simply trying to avoid relegation the next season. Some permanently faded clubs, like Albion, played in the lower level; some temporary faded, like Rampla Juniors, Racing, Central Espanol; some modest teams, not hoping for anything better – La Luz, Misiones, Colon. Relegation was complicated matter as a result: just because the clubs were modest and hardly able to deal even with second division realities, relegation was decided by separate table, accumulating the points of the last two seasons. Colon finished last, but was not relegated – their combined record totaled 33 points. Misiones, 8th, and El Tanque, 9th, had 32 points – and went down to third division.

On top there was little fight – Rampla Juniors and Racing were not strong at all, finishing far behind Fenix. One team race really.

May be true to their name, Fenix rised from the ashes and went back to First Division. They moved quite often up and down, so nothing really surprising. They were the strongest second division club by far – ending with 42 points from 27 league matches, in the small league teams played 3 games against each other, scoring 51 goals and receiving only 17. Clearly superior – 7 points ahead of 2nd placed Rampla Juniors. Great addition to first league? Unlikely. But they returned to top flight to the joy of the neighbourhood, Capurro. And to the envy of their traditional rivals and neighbours Racing, who remained down in second division.