This is by way of filling you in about a soccer team of which you are, in a sense, the owner. It's Team America, launched with glowing hopes of adding a truly international dimension to the sport in the U.S. The idea was that it would be an ail-American team—that is, all the players were to be Americans—that would play as an entity in the NASL and also do battle with the outside world in World Cup and Olympic competition.
When you received your initial prospectus, the outlook couldn't have been more propitious. There seemed a good chance that the U.S. would host the World Cup in 1986 and thereby automatically qualify for the tournament. As for the Olympics, a relaxation of eligibility rules to allow pros to compete was necessary before Team America could become the U.S. entry in '84, and the International Olympic Committee seemed all set to approve just such a relaxation. Moreover, the NASL and the MISL kindly agreed that your team's coach, Alkis Panagoulias, would be free to cast his eye over both leagues and gather from them the flower of American soccer talent.
Well, that prospectus, I'm sorry to tell you, turned out to be overly optimistic. Because the language of another sport may still be more familiar to you than that of soccer, you should probably think of the situation in terms of a young fighter who in the opening round is already reeling from two savage rights to the jaw. The first of those blows landed in late March when FIFA, soccer's international controlling body, all but formally dismissed the U.S. bid to host the World Cup. Next, FIFA itself was spurned when the IOC rejected its proposal to ease Olympic eligibility rules. This was the end of the road to the Games for Team America; now the U.S. Soccer Federation will have to patch together a college side to meet the captains and colonels of the Eastern bloc countries.
Last week your team assembled in Seattle to prepare for its first NASL game, but much of the week was taken up by a scramble to put a side together. Until Wednesday, Team America consisted of the minimum 11 players and one goalie in reserve. In the end the Cosmos surrendered Boris Bandov, a naturalized American from Yugoslavia. Fort Lauderdale came up with Andy Parkinson, a South African, and Golden Bay gave up an Englishman, Alan Green. Team America? Well, it was explained, both Parkinson and Green will be eligible for citizenship later this year. Now, you may wonder what became of those promises about Team America getting the best Americans. Didn't read the fine print, did you? Certainly clubs were obliged to yield players. But the players had the option of whether or not to join your team, and some of them chose not to.
Well, don't despair. Team America does have some eager fellows, and its captain, Jeff Durgan, sounds a determinedly upbeat note. Reflecting on the fact that the U.S. won't host the World Cup and therefore won't automatically qualify for that tournament, Durgan says, "The World Cup would have been great for soccer here. But this doesn't blow it all. Now we have to qualify. So we qualify. We have to believe we can do it."
Durgan and his teammates also believed they could beat Seattle in their NASL debut, and you know what? They did it, fighting the Sounders, who started six Englishmen, to a scoreless standoff in regulation time and winning 1-0 after a shootout. Team America's next game is on May 8 on its home pitch in Washington, D.C. against the Tulsa Roughnecks. Ah, make that home field.
BLIND MEN AND CRIERS
Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn fined Yankee owner George Steinbrenner $50,000 last week for inflammatory remarks Steinbrenner had made about National League President Chub Feeney and that league's umpires while watching a spring-training game against the Expos in Fort Lauderdale on March 25. Steinbrenner said he would pay the fine, but he also implied that he'd been misquoted about the remarks, saying he regretted that "if in the reporting of the story the impression was given" that he was questioning the integrity of Feeney or the umpires.
This wasn't the first effort by Steinbrenner to blame his troubles over the remarks on the half-dozen reporters who'd been standing with him that day behind the fence along the first-base line at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. The area is a favorite vantage point of Steinbrenner's at the park, and he has frequently been joined there by sportswriters and quoted by them on things he said. This time the quotes had to do with some close calls that went against the Yankees, prompting Steinbrenner to refer to the two National League umpires working the game as "homers" and to claim that on Feeney's instructions, "the National League umps will always give the close play to the National League."
After those statements were published, Steinbrenner at first claimed that he'd been sitting in the stands during the game, and thus hadn't even been in the reporters' presence. When that was shown to be false, he tried to claim that the reporters were in "a place they shouldn't have been." He also insisted that he'd been speaking not to the reporters but to a friend and that his words had been off the record. But the writers concurred that he'd been speaking to the whole group. Some of them were even taking notes as he spoke. All agreed he'd said nothing about his comments being off the record. As for Steinbrenner's subsequent intimation that he hadn't been questioning anybody's integrity, his references to "homers" and to Feeney stacking the deck against the American League speak for themselves.