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The NASL: It's Alive But On Death Row
Clive Gammon
May 07, 1984
A salary cap has saved the soccer league from complete collapse, but its future looks forbidding indeed
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May 07, 1984

The Nasl: It's Alive But On Death Row

A salary cap has saved the soccer league from complete collapse, but its future looks forbidding indeed

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But the English haven't yet started drumming their heels on the ground and screeching "Foul!" at FIFA, nor is FIFA in the business of persuading that Tulsa cabdriver to buy a season ticket for Roughneck games. The laws of soccer have evolved slowly and naturally since the mid-19th century, and 150 nations follow them. Therefore, when, like a petulant teenager, an official of the NASL says that the league is going to walk right out the door and never come back, FIFA, like an unyielding parent, remains understandably calm.

In fairness to the NASL, much of its trouble with FIFA should never have occurred, because in the world structure of soccer there is a body that should be a link between the NASL—which is merely an organization that arranges games among clubs—and FIFA itself. This is the United States Soccer Federation, which is, strictly speaking, senior to the NASL, has prime responsibility for the game in our country and reports directly to Switzerland. It's responsible also, in the opinion of many, for the disarray in which the NASL now finds itself.

"We had to operate with no really effective support from the USSF, which was jealous and disorganized," Chicago's Stern said last week. Indeed, until recently the USSF has been a relic of the early, ethnic days of U.S. soccer—a small committee of little international prestige that was overtaken by the rise of the NASL and the boom in youth soccer. USSF members enjoyed their junkets to World Cups, voting in committees, mixing with the great ones of the sport. And then they found themselves riding a tiger.

This happened very suddenly, after the World Cup of 1982 in Spain, when it became apparent that Colombia, which was to have been the host in 1986, couldn't mount the finals after all. As the rotating system goes, '86 was to be the turn of the Western Hemisphere, so that the U.S. now found itself with a golden opportunity, enhanced when Brazil dropped out of the bidding, to stage the Cup and thus powerfully imprint the game on the consciousness of the nation.

What went wrong is still a matter of debate. There was an understandable naiveté in the way in which the U.S. went about presenting its strong case—strong because of the unmatched organizational and financial strength and media clout it could give the event, and also because it presented the prospect of converting a whole continent to soccer's cause. Meanwhile, inside FIFA there were forces at work to ensure that in July 1986 the final would be held in Aztec Stadium, Mexico City, not in Giants Stadium, New Jersey.

Very recently, though, there have been indications that the World Cup was lost largely because of a wound that, even as a powerful delegation headed by Henry Kissinger was pleading the American case, was inflicted by our own side. Sources close to Hermann Neuberger, the West German who's a member of FIFA's inner circle, say that at a critical stage in the negotiations Joâo Havelange, the Brazilian who serves as FIFA's president, received a call from a prominent USSF member. The U.S., Havelange was informed by the caller, was "not ready" to stage the World Cup. It is understood that the caller was a USSF official who was jealous of the NASL.

Meanwhile, the USSF has proved to be not ready itself in other matters. The bold concept of Team America that Samuels and his predecessor, Phil Woosnam, visualized as a nucleus for both the U.S. Olympic and World Cup teams was effectively wrecked when the USSF failed to come up with the support that had been promised. Even now, the U.S. Olympic team still isn't set, nor is the U.S. team for the '86 World Cup, which will have to play its first-round games this September. Both teams are the USSF's, not the NASL's, responsibility.

In the meantime also, the sugar-candy diet of indoor soccer has further eroded the NASL. It's fine to say that the indoor and outdoor games are separate, but in truth they use many of the same players, and already there is evidence that they cannot go on playing for 12 solid months without a savage risk of injury. A majority of NASL teams would like to switch to the indoor game altogether, with the Cosmos one of the few exceptions. Many players would also like this. Julie Veee of the Sockers, for example, who would find it tough to hold a place on a European third-division side, recognizes that the simplistic indoor version suits his talents better than the grown-ups' game. "Tell the rest of the world to go on playing in the mud and rain," he says. "We'll get rich while staying clean. The future of American soccer is indoors."

If the NASL goes along with this sentiment and, as is possible, merges with the Major Indoor Soccer League, then that would seem to be the end of the song.

Or maybe just one chorus. Those with a deep love of a game that doesn't need gimmicks to prove itself, whose parish is the world, might almost welcome the demise of the NASL in return for a saner revival sometime in the future. "The game of soccer is stronger than the NASL," says former Roughneck Kevin Eagan. "Even if the people running the NASL ruin it, the game will stay."

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