Outside Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium the temperature was plunging toward zero, but inside 9,000 Stallion fans were heating up as the game against the New York Arrows, Buffalo's big rival in the Major Indoor Soccer League, went into sudden-death overtime. One New York player in particular was being given a hard time by the crowd. Down on the tropical-green artificial turf laid over the hockey rink on which this six-a-side version of soccer is played, the object of this attention was limping glumly around the Stallions' penalty area, the 25-by-30-foot zone directly in front of the Buffalo goal.
His right thigh heavily bandaged to protect a torn tendon, the man Stallion fans call the Commissioner of Sanitation—because, they say, most of his goals are garbage—was obviously in trouble. As play resumed, he gave a sleepy nod to his teammates and waited, his face an impassive mask. He didn't even raise his head as the few Arrow rooters who'd made the trek to Buffalo began to chant, "ZSHUN-gul! ZSHUN-gul!" ZSHUN-gul (spelled Zungul) isn't something one says after sneezing in Belgrade. Zungul is what New York fans intone when the Arrows need a goal. Slavisa Zungul—known as Steve—is the amazingly gifted 26-year-old Yugoslav striker who holds just about every offensive record in the MISL and is its reigning star, the Pelé of indoor soccer. He had scored 71 goals in 26 games at the end of last week, twice as many as his closest rival, and had 33 assists, also tops by a substantial margin, to make him a heavy favorite to wind up as the league's top scorer for the second year in a row. Extraordinary stats, even for the MISL where goals come by the bushel and scores like 12-7 aren't unusual. And this is no recent phenomenon. Zungul has scored goals in 71 of the 76 games he has played in during the league's 2½-season history. Not exactly garbage.
In Buffalo's Aud it's four minutes into the sudden death. The crowd noise subsides to a mere roar as Arrow defender Val (Mad Dog) Tuksa gathers the ball at midfield and steams toward the Stallions' keeper, Scott Manning, with no defender in sight.
Manning glances to his right at the aloof, crippled Zungul and turns to face the onrushing Tuksa. Tuksa will surely shoot—what player wouldn't, one-on-one with the keeper?—but Manning will have a chance to stop the shot. So, instead, Tuksa fires a low, burning pass across the goal mouth, and before Manning can turn again, there's Zungul, his face showing a trace of pain as he accelerates into overdrive. His long, black hair flying, the 6-foot, 175-pound Zungul taps Tuksa's pass under the diving Manning for a goal. The Arrows win 6-5.
In the sudden silence of the Aud, Zungul's face breaks into a smile. He dances in a series of twirls, leaps and hops worthy of a Baryshnikov. All of a sudden it's a different Zungul, the one who supposedly cares more about Olivia Newton-John than anything else, who parties all night at Regine's and hangs out with Al Pacino, who without too much difficulty could become Broadway Steve, fond as he is of limos and opening nights.
While performing his small ballet, Zungul seems a happy young man. The goal he has just scored was the 176th of his MISL career and gave him his 34th hat trick. He has had 14 four-goal, eight five-goal, two six-goal and one seven-goal games. He scored 90 regular-season goals last season, including three in a one-minute, 16-second span against Detroit. His fans have dubbed him the Scoring Machine, a nickname he detests but may deserve, not only for his goals, but also for the unemotional air he projects.
Suddenly, in what seems to be mid-celebration, the mask again covers Zungul's features. He turns abruptly from his exuberant teammates, walks quickly off the floor and is the first man in the showers. The Arrows' coach, Don Popovic, a compatriot of Zungul's, watches his departing star, sighs and produces an old Croatian expression to explain Zungul's personality. "He is like a bread with 10 crusts," Popovic says. "You must break through all of them to get to the soft part. With Zungul, I don't think anyone has done that."
One thing is certain: Zungul is the bread and butter of the 24-2 Arrows. In the MISL's brief existence, New York has been the dominant team. With Popovic's wily coaching and talent in depth provided by owner John Luciani's checkbook—to the tune of $2 million last season—the Arrows are clearly on their way to a third championship.
Back in 1978, when MISL began, indoor soccer resembled human pinball, a game of buzzers, flashing lights, disco music, galloping players and the ball rebounding haphazardly off the walls and around the turf. Now the league, each of whose 12 teams plays a 40-game schedule, is relatively solid financially, and the sport has lost its penny-arcade look. Indoor soccer has developed its own tactics, strategies, set plays and theory.
"It looks like hockey," says Popovic, "but the tactics are more like basketball. I search all the libraries I can for books on picks, zones and defenses. But I don't have to worry about a pivotman—that's Zungul."