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Here comes Chinaglia, steaming across the penalty area in front of the goal as stately and tall as an Italian Line cruise ship. The Cosmos are playing San Diego in their first game of the season. Giorgio Chinaglia (pronounced Kee-NAL-ya) is shadowed by a pair of Sockers' defenders. Behind him the rest of the star-studded Cosmos—Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, Vladislav Bogicevic, Marinho and Dennis Tueart—are patiently working the ball toward the San Diego goal. Chinaglia doesn't look back, because at this point in the game the people back there have only one purpose—to put the ball on his unerring right toe. Chinaglia will do the rest.
He is the Hank Aaron and Phil Esposito of American soccer—even the Babe Ruth, if you listen to Chinaglia—the only top European soccer player to leave home at the very pinnacle of his career to come to the U.S. to play. Chinaglia was the North American Soccer League scoring champion in 1976 with 19 goals in as many games, and again last year when he broke the decade-old 30-goal record, getting 34 in 30 games. Including regular league games, playoffs and world-tour exhibitions, Chinaglia scored 60 goals in 59 games last year, 12 of them game winners. In eight games this season, he has nine goals, making him the league's alltime scoring leader among active players with 77 goals and 183 points.
Suddenly the lazy-looking Bogicevic pushes a neat pass between a pair of San Diego defenders, and the ball bumps across the grass to Chinaglia's right foot. Somehow the double coverage has disappeared, a tribute to Chinaglia's cunning, and he gathers in the ball alone, pounding toward the end line, 10 yards to the left of Socker Goalkeeper Alan Mayer.
The goal madness is on him. His features are contorted with furious concentration. His blue eyes are as cold as the marble from Carrara, his hometown in Italy. As he lumbers along, one can see that he doesn't have the classic configuration of the soccer player—all lungs and legs—but is built more like a tight end—wide shoulders with a bullish hunch and a narrow waist. His curly brown locks lie tight to the scalp. Gone is the flowing hair; the essence of Chinaglia's world is style, and the hirsute rock-star style is passé. Chinaglia's nose is long and aqualine, a gunsight for regarding inferior breeds of men, such as keepers, fans, coaches and team managers. His teeth are even and white. He is a handsome man in repose, but now he is all rage.
Under the lights, 16,393 San Diego fans are on their feet, howling. Mayer rushes out from his net, arms spread, knees bent, to cut down Chinaglia's angle. Chinaglia's eyes are on the ball. His personal radar locates the goal for him. He has dribbled the ball to the end line, trying to get off a shot around Mayer. It's impossible, one thinks. From where he is there can't be more than the width of a ball showing between the uprights.
A Socker defender has rushed into the goalmouth behind Mayer, standard procedure. The players are expecting Chinaglia to realize he is beaten and to chip the ball over Mayer's head to a teammate waiting in front of the net. Mayer meanwhile is brave and businesslike. He knows that only a brash rookie, or Giorgio Chinaglia, would try a shot under the circumstances.
From 1969 to 1975 Chinaglia ruled Italian soccer on the field and sometimes off it. Millions read of his doings, opinions and beliefs daily in Italy's five soccer tabloids. His fan club boasted tens of thousands of believers, who held pitched battles with nonbelievers in the streets. When he finally left Italy to come to the Cosmos, he had to be smuggled out of the country for fear that his departure would cause rioting in Rome. He scored 98 goals in 209 games for Lazio, an enormous achievement in a league in which 1-0 is a typical score.
On this night in San Diego, Chinaglia again shows why he is a legend. When his big right foot begins its swing, his toe passes out of bounds over the end line and comes back in to connect with a slam that can blast the ball as fast as 70 mph. The shot comes in low and so swiftly that, although Mayer is already diving sideways, it grazes his shirt and crashes, true and straight, into the netting on the opposite side of the cage.
Hysteria explodes in San Diego Stadium. Chinaglia's mask of rage dissolves, his eyes roll heavenward. God, for Chinaglia, is not so much a supreme deity as a business partner who deserves a pat on the back for a job well done. It is in moments like this that Chinaglia savors the release of the tensions and frustrations that have been building in him over the last three seasons. They flow out of him almost visibly.
Chinaglia claims that he is able to hear the snick of the ball sliding along the nylon weave netting of the goal, to see the trademark revolve as the ball goes over the white line. He cherishes these details. And Chinaglia is counting. He is an admirer of baseball, because it has so many statistics. He rehearses his own like an actor learning lines. First goal of the 1979 NASL season; 332nd goal lifetime; 149th goal with the Cosmos.