To a soccer purist, it is an abomination. To a goalkeeper, it is a nightmare. But to the fans who have watched the first formal competition in indoor six-man soccer, it is a joy.
Last week, at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, the North American Soccer League staged its fourth mini-tournament leading to the national indoor championships in mid-March, and the crowds, 9,000-plus, were enthusiastic. So were the spectators in Dallas, Rochester and Tampa in previous tournaments. And it is not hard to understand why.
Unlike outdoor soccer, goals come quickly indoors. Unlike basketball, they do not come too quickly. Unlike hockey, they are readily apparent to the naked eye. Unlike pro football, strategy and tactics are simple, easily understood and, at the moment, in a state of flux.
"We are still working out how to use the boards and how to handle substitutions," says Ivan Toplak, coach of the San Jose Earthquakes. Toplak was an assistant coach for the Yugoslavian national team in the 1974 World Cup and was once a world class player himself. He is a quiet, thoughtful student of the game and a bit conservative, but his San Jose club seemed the most skillful of the teams at adapting to the special needs of indoor soccer.
"It is an all-round game," he said after the Earthquakes had demolished the Seattle Sounders 14-4 in Friday night's competition. "Everyone has to attack and everyone has to defend and they have to change in an instant."
In Paul Child, a 22-year-old British transplant from Birmingham who used to play for Aston Villa in England, Toplak has probably the most accomplished indoor soccer player in the world. Child is extraordinarily good outdoors, too, but the indoor game fits him like a handmade boot.
"You've got to go the course to know it," he says, "and I've played more indoors than most chaps."
Child is built perfectly for indoor soccer, a game made to order for economy-sized athletes. At 5'9" and 155 pounds, he is small enough for the requisite agility and big enough to pack a wallop when he blocks an opposing player into the boards, a tactic at which he excels. Cheerful and open, he has lived in the U.S. for three years. His wife is a registered riding teacher in England, and eventually they will have their own riding stable in Los Gatos, a small community near San Jose. He cleared 78 acres of woody land and built the stables with his own hands, so that the exigencies of soccer seem easy to him.
"I use the boards as well as anyone," he says. "But, then, back in England we used to play one day a week indoors. I played five a side in White City, in the
London Express tournament, too. It's a different game and it takes time to learn how to use a wall pass."
Says Ron Newman, coach of the Dallas Tornado who grew up in England in the '30s, "We learned it playing on the cobblestones in the street. We played the ball off the walls of the houses along the lane and got to be quite good at it. Six a side isn't new, either. We used to do that for fun, mate. In the old days, if there weren't more than 12 players and we wanted a scrum, then we went at it six a side. So we all know the game. We just don't know quite how to manage it with all the boards about on both sides and the ends. But that will come, won't it?"