The game promised exactly the right sort of zest, Tampa Bay vs. the Cosmos in Soccer Bowl-78, a renewal of the oldest, most genuine rivalry in the young North American Soccer League. Against the New York-based team, supported by seemingly unlimited financial resources, came the Rowdies from Florida, poor by comparison but equally proud. Previous matches between the two sometimes had seemed as much vendetta as soccer. And what a Soccer Bowl record crowd of 74,901 fans turned out to watch in Giants Stadium outside New York last Sunday was indeed a rock-'em, sock-'em game. The Cosmos won it handily, 3-1, but the victory was flawed, as we shall see.
Until a year ago last June, the Cosmos-Tampa Bay rivalry was confined to the soccer field. For the past 14 months, though, it had seethed like a witch's cauldron. At the root of it all was Cosmos Coach Eddie Firmani's inability to get on with star Rowdies Forward Rodney Marsh when Firmani was coach of Tampa Bay—and vice versa. "Him or me," Firmani had finally said to the Tampa Bay management. It was a rash ultimatum, and finally it was Firmani who went. In a reprehensibly sneaky fashion, claimed Tampa Bay fans, when they saw what happened next.
Scarcely two weeks after leaving the Rowdies and declaring he would take a few months off to decide his future, Firmani was announced as the new coach of the Cosmos. After his arrival last summer, the Cosmos went on to win the playoffs and the Soccer Bowl. The Rowdies crumbled. Last week, though more than a year had gone by, there was still bitterness. Rowdies owner George Straw-bridge had demanded compensation for the loss of Firmani. The Cosmos had conceded their share of receipts from a Rowdies-Cosmos game—$125,000. Moreover, it is strongly rumored that between seasons the two teams were placed in different conferences of the league so that a game like Sunday's could become a lucrative possibility. Under the arrangement, Tampa clearly stood a better chance of winning through to the finals.
As late as Saturday morning, dressed for practice as he was. Marsh looked ready to assume his customary starring role for the underdog Rowdies, even though he seemed more anxious to talk about the new home he had just bought in Florida than the way the championship game might go. Nor did Firmani have any doubts that Marsh would play. "The biggest threat," he called him. And nobody could really dispute that. Marsh, of uncertain temperament but capable of winning a game on his own when in the right mood, had scored 21 goals in 1978, including the playoffs. It was Marsh's shootout goal that decided the American Conference championship game and put the Rowdies into the Soccer Bowl.
But then—and there had been no hint of it until a couple of hours before Sunday's contest—it developed that Marsh would not tread the AstroTurf after all. In last Wednesday's conference championship game against Fort Lauderdale, he had clashed heavily with the Strikers' Maurice Whittle. "He came in high and late," said Marsh. Whatever happened. Marsh's shin was spiked. The gashes became infected. Sunday morning his right leg was badly swollen. "If I were 80% fit I would play," he said, "but I can't even run half speed. After the season I've had it is sickening."
So the prospects, which had seemed somewhat out of balance even with Marsh fit, took a further swing in the Cosmos' favor. At Saturday's practice, even though he could have had no knowledge of Marsh's injury, Firmani had been unusually chipper and ebullient, hailing a friend 50 yards away with a shouted, "How's the pizza parlor?" indulging himself in the occasional "bleddy" (which is South African for "bloody"), reassuring a reporter who didn't care for the way Cosmos Midfielder Vladislav Bogicevic was moving after a shoulder bump he had taken the previous Wednesday. "That's the way he always walks," Firmani said, grinning.
And he was certainly in a sunnier mood than he had been less than two weeks earlier after the Cosmos' Aug. 14 debacle against the Minnesota Kicks, who had driven in nine goals against them. A 9-2 score occurs rarely in professional soccer. A defeat of that magnitude is normally reserved only for doomed teams on their way out of the league.
"They lost discipline," Firmani said. "They had done the same thing before once or twice, but they managed to get away with it."
Since that time, though, the Cosmos had atoned somewhat. They retrieved the Minnesota defeat with a skin-of-their-teeth victory in the shootout of the return game. There was a creditable 1-0 win over Portland in Oregon in the first game of the conference final, and they routed the Timbers 5-0 in the return match.
Tampa Bay, meantime, had also made rather ragged progress to Giants Stadium. Fort Lauderdale, which started the playoff as a wild-card team and proceeded to eliminate favored New England and Detroit, ran the Rowdies very close—right to that Rodney Marsh goal that earned them the trip to Giants Stadium.