Those words seem strangely patriotic from a man of Greek birth who was coach of Greece's national team from 1973 until 1981 and since then, until January, had been coach of Olympiakos, a leading Greek club. But U.S. soccer isn't all Greek to Panagoulias. He's a U.S. citizen of 15 years' standing, went to school at Upsala College in New Jersey and points out that Vanna, his wife, is a Brooklyn girl, that his 15-year-old daughter, Debbie, was born in that same borough and that his 11-year-old, Johnny, is Manhattan-born.
Panagoulias is well versed in the demands and intricacies of world soccer, and he's keenly aware of the glittering rewards that could accrue to U.S. soccer in the next four highly crucial years. By a freak of circumstance, not only will America host the Olympics next year, and thus automatically qualify for the final soccer round involving 16 teams, but it also stands a chance of being host country for the World Cup in 1986, thus automatically qualifying for the final round of that competition, too. "This isn't some underdeveloped, underprivileged country," says Panagoulias. "Even now as we talk, somewhere—in Harlem, in Tampa, in L.A., I don't know where—there are Pel�s growing up. There was no compulsion for me to leave a comfortable career in Greece and come here. But I believe that American soccer has a tremendous potential for success."
To be precise, Panagoulias' appointment was made not by the NASL but by the U.S. Soccer Federation, which, in international terms, is the governing body of the sport here. He's therefore not only coach of Team America but also of the U.S. national side, with the right to call on clubs other than Team America for native players for important international games. For good measure, he oversees the National Youth team.
So Panagoulias has his work cut out for him: as a coach, and in having to please two masters, the NASL and the USSF, bodies that have rarely been in accord. But he does have one enormous advantage. "All over the world, the dream of every national coach is to have his players together as much as possible," he says. "And here I am, the envy of them all, having the national team together all the time, playing 30 consecutive league games, plus maybe five or six international fixtures."
At the University of Tampa's soccer ground two weeks ago, though, it couldn't be concealed that Team America was a gamble that could go wrong. Though the side may be strengthened later with more MISL recruits, it seemed lacking in firepower; one MISL player in camp, Golden Bay's Tony Crescitelli, was described as the team's "only true striker." And there was more than a little depression over its 3-0 scrimmage loss to a side composed of Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Oddly, in the light of his earlier hesitations, it was Durgan who rallied the team in a private meeting, and as the camp progressed, he emerged very clearly as a leader. Says Woosnam, "Suddenly, there's no fallback for him. He can't be looking over his shoulder for Carlos Alberto anymore. It's done him good. You could almost see his personality and self-confidence grow the last two weeks."
For all its inexperience, though, Team America, as it presently stands, has something that is often missing on the teams of some of the most powerful soccer nations—West Germany, for instance, or even Italy. This quality was expressed best at Tampa by Perry Van Der Beck of the Rowdies, the first player ever (in 1978) to be drafted from high school. He had been selected by Team America. "It's very important for me to be playing for my country," he said. " Tampa's a good city. I'm popular here and I could stay here the rest of my life. But I've always wanted the Olympics—I would have been on the side in Moscow in 1980—and I want to play in the World Cup in 1986." That simple patriotism was at work here was confirmed last week by a Tampa Tribune survey that had as Question 19: "Does nationalism play any part in your decision to join Team America?"
"Yes," answered every player.
"We're like little kids now," Durgan said last week, "feeling our way. We need a little success. We have to be told we're good. Let's not take on Italy in the first two months of Team America's life."
"The first year is going to be difficult," says Panagoulias, "but I tell my boys, 'You are playing for the future of the game in this country.' "