A black, ugly week it had been for soccer in the U.S. And on Saturday afternoon, with about 14 minutes left in what turned out to be a three-hour, 34-minute marathon NASL National Conference Championship game between the Cosmos and the Vancouver Whitecaps, it looked as if a lily-livered refereeing decision might turn out to be the final vertebra-snapping straw for those who, out of love for the game, have accepted all the nonsense surrounding the NASL's version of it with truly camel-like patience.
This is how it was. On Wednesday night in Vancouver, the Caps had won the first of the home-and-home series 2-0. In Saturday's second game, in East Rutherford, N.J., they had tied the Cosmos 2-2 in regulation time. Then, as the grotesquely complex NASL rules decreed, the teams had played 15 minutes of sudden-death overtime. No score. So a shoot-out followed. This the Cosmos won.
All right. That meant that the series was now tied 1-1. Now there followed a further 30-minute overtime period—a mini-game, the league likes to call it. Close to exhaustion in the summer heat, the players battled on. Then, with no score and mini-game time ticking away and with yet another shoot-out in prospect, Vancouver's Carl Valentine found himself clear in front of the Cosmos' net, with Goalie Hubert Birkenmeier well beaten. Valentine's shot hit the underside of the crossbar and slammed down onto the goal line.
On the line? Or just over the line—as it had to be for the goal to count? The referee apparently had no doubt. He immediately pointed to the center of the field, indicating a score. The decision drove the Cosmos berserk. Led by Giorgio Chinaglia, they rushed across to the linesman, who would have been consulted by the referee had there been any doubt in the ref's mind. Chinaglia roughly grabbed the official by his shoulders—an offense that would have meant immediate expulsion from the game anywhere else in the world. The referee came over, not to eject the Cosmos' star but apparently to join in a discussion. And somehow, after several minutes the ref was persuaded that he was entirely wrong, that no goal had been scored.
At this point, a coach less level-headed than the Whitecaps' Tony Waiters might have called his team off the field. Instead, in the face of this blatant intimidation of officials by the Cosmos, the Whitecaps indicated they would make a formal protest—and then fought on. As it turned out, they made the right decision. But in view of the events that had preceded Saturday's game, it must have seemed sickeningly likely to the Caps that yet again the Cosmos, because they are the NASL's glamour boys, were going to be allowed to get away with whatever they wanted, even though they had already come under severe reproach the previous day.
There had been drama aplenty well before Saturday's game. As the Whitecaps flew east to New York on Friday afternoon, one of the players insisted, "He has to do it. He's got no choice."
That raised cynical guffaws. "He'll do nothing," somebody else said. "You think the league wants Soccer Bowl without the Cosmos? You think ABC wants us instead of them? He'll do nothing."
But, still and all, when the DC-10 landed at Kennedy, there was a rush for the New York Post, the city's evening paper. In seconds the Whitecaps were jostling one another to get a glimpse of a headline. "He did it!" exclaimed the disbeliever. "He really did it!"
What he—NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam—had done was suspend Carlos Alberto, the Brazilian who is the keystone of the Cosmos defense. According to witnesses, immediately following the Caps' win in Vancouver, Alberto had stripped off his shirt and flung it at the referee, Peter T. Johnson, as they walked into a tunnel at Empire Stadium. Then, outside the Cosmos' locker room, he had spat into the face of one of the linesmen, George Lingard.
Not only was the offense disgusting, but it also conveyed a complete lack of respect for the league and for the sport. In Europe, soccer players have received lifetime bans for striking an official. It seemed that the NASL would be compelled to act.