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At 3:10 a.m. on Friday, April 20, only two weeks before the North American Soccer League's season opener, Howard Samuels, the president of the league, cradled the telephone in his Manhattan office for the last time in a long night. The switch should have been thrown at midnight, and by now the corpus of the NASL should have twitched its last. Instead, on this very good Good Friday, Samuels was getting word of a stay of execution. The news was that a collective bargaining agreement with the NASL Players Association had been reached; so what had once been labeled America's Sport of the '80s could be unstrapped from the chair and led—where? Back to Death Row for a few more torturous months? Or out into the sunlight of a miraculously granted reprieve and a new chance for the world's most popular sport to conquer its last, least hospitable frontier?
"Everybody thinks we're dead," says the urbane, silver-haired Samuels, who, less than two years ago, left the world of business and politics to try to set the NASL's woebegone finances to rights. "And let me tell you, we're sick. I cannot promise success. But we've changed direction onto a course that may eventually affect all professional sports in America." By that he meant a total cap on player salaries, which is a main element of the new agreement—an $825,000 per annum maximum payroll for each club, to be achieved by mandatory annual 10% reductions. "The National Basketball Association has a salary cap system based on a percentage of team revenues, but, for the first time in America, this is a total cap," Samuels says, "and one day, even though this was forced on us, all of American pro sport will thank us."
In the NASL, though, the wonderful concentration of mind promised by Dr. Johnson to those who are to be hanged in a fortnight is plain enough in the new deal. Each team's player roster will be reduced from a maximum of 28 players to 19. Furthermore, the practice of granting players an automatic 10% raise in the first option year of their contracts is discontinued. Players whose contract options are exercised by their clubs must play their first year with a zero raise; the 10% raise comes in the second option year. Altogether, by the end of the three-year life of the agreement, the nine NASL clubs expect they'll have saved in the neighborhood of $750,000 apiece each season. And, meanwhile, Samuels himself has cut his salary 50%, "to barely six figures."
Most of the owners of the NASL's surviving franchises (there were 24 in 1980) dream of similar cuts in their losses. In San Diego, Socker president Jack Daley says his club has lost $10 million since 1978. In 1983 the Chicago Sting was more than $1 million in the red, while Golden Bay lost more than $3 million. And the four Tulsa oilmen who sold the Roughnecks last January—three months after they'd won the 1983 Soccer Bowl—said they had dropped $8 million over four years. Only the Cosmos, desperately trying to cling to the glamorous image the team enjoyed just a few years ago, speak of insignificant, unspecified losses.
Others who care for the sport feel threatened in less tangible ways. San Diego coach Ron Newman, who has been in the NASL since 1968, its first season, said after the settlement, "If the NASL had gone, it would have been like losing a leg. I've put 17 years of my life into this league." He had no doubts of whom to blame for the near catastrophe. "Management," he said. "We changed directions so many times, you didn't know what would happen next. Days after the biggest crowd ever in Washington, D.C., the franchise folded. We'd shift from foreign superstars to grass roots and back again." Says Noel Lemon, the irascible Ulsterman who's general manager of the Roughnecks, "The NASL is at an alltime low."
If the breast-beating has a single theme, it can be summed up in a well-worn phrase: Too far, too fast. "Our hype tried to present the NASL as a new NFL when we weren't ready," says the Sockers' Daley. Sting owner Lee Stern declares, "We spent too much money trying to market teams as if they were instant big league franchises before the attendance and money justified it." And (Daley again), "It became fashionable to chase the Cosmos. Everyone had to have a Pelé. Coaches went around the world on talent searches, forcing the prices up."
However, sackcloth and ashes on this scale invite yet more criticism. In the marketplace of pro sport, hype is no crime so long as the product has quality. But what the NASL is still unwilling to admit is that what it gave the American public wasn't the game that Brazilians shoot themselves and each other over, that divides the city of Glasgow into two permanently warring factions. It isn't the game whose showpiece, the World Cup championship game, outdraws the Olympics on global TV. Instead, the NASL's product was a slowed-down, predigested, bland, dull copy of the real thing. When a cab-driver in Tulsa said recently that soccer to him is "a bunch of queers in short pants, a Communist game, too slow and boring," he may have been wrong on the first two counts but surely not on the third, at least not in North America.
"Behold thy gods, O Israel!" thundered Rehoboam, King of Judah, and in NASL terms, the false gods in question were Pelé, Giorgio Chinaglia, George Best, Johan Neeskens, Johan Cruyff and Gordon Banks, to name the chief members of the pantheon.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Pelé gave the game here something called "credibility." That's a matter for argument. What is inarguable is that when he came to the Cosmos in 1975 at the age of 34, he was already three years into retirement from the national side of Brazil—in the World Cup finals of 1974 in Munich, his role was chiefly to add class to the Pepsi-Cola marketing unit there. In New York he still displayed touches of ball-playing genius, just as Muhammad Ali, if dragged into the ring right now, might be able to show occasional bursts of life. But that was all, and the NASL seemed to take its pace from Pelé.
Even Chinaglia, whom the Cosmos next added to their international cast in 1976, sometimes couldn't keep himself from yelling at Pelé on the field, treatment that Giorgio himself had suffered in full measure from many thousands of Italian fans when he was replaced during the second half of what would be his last game for his national side during the 1974 World Cup in Stuttgart. Chinaglia had played 14 games for Italy as striker and scored just four goals. For most of his career there he had played in third-and second-division soccer.