Soccer top-scorer Chinaglia transforms boos into cheers

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

If Giorgio Chinaglia (Keen-AL-ya) could have imagined scoring the ideal goal for his record-breaking 102d in the North American Soccer League, it could not have been better than the one he actually did score May 18 in Anaheim Stadium, California.

With his back to California's goal, the Cosmos striker trapped a pass from wing Angelo DiBernardo just inside the penalty area. He gracefully lifted the ball over defender Andy McBride with his left foot, spun to his left, and as the ball hit the ground he booted it with his right foot past the onrushing goalie and into the cage.

With the goal, he became the NASL's all- time leading scorer, breaking the record of 101 goals held by Ilija Mitic, a Yugoslav who played 166 games in his nine-year NASL career before retiring in 1978. Mitic and Phil Woosnam, the league commissioner, presented Chinaglia with the game ball in a brief ceremony. The Cosmos went on to win the match, 4-1, as Chinaglia notched one more goal in his 109th league game, almost exactly four years after he began his American soccer career in Yankee Stadium.

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The 33-year old Italian native has made his living, now quite a prosperous one, scoring soccer goals since he was 15 years old. He learned the game in Cardiff, Wales, where he grew up. He went on to play six years for Lazio of Rome, which he led to a national championship in 1974.

Always outspoken and volatile, the controversial Chinaglia, Italy's highest paid soccer player, stunned and alienated the fans of his native land when he came to New York to join the Cosmos in 1976.

"Soccer players are professional and go where they are best treated," Chinaglia said about the defection. "The level of play in the NASL is as excellent as anywhere in the world, and what's happened to soccer all over the US in the last three or four years is beautiful. Everybody is playing it."

Not only has the soccer boom started more people playing the game, it has attracted ever larger crowds, evidenced by the record 77,691 that poured into Giants Stadium to see a 1977 Cosmos-Fort Lauderdale playoff game.

"American audiences are much more civilized than European audiences," said Chinaglia, who was a member of the Italian team that lost to Poland, 2-1 in the 1974 World Cup, causing rabid fans to turn into a rock- throwing mob when the team returned home. "Americans are catching on fast to the game. It really doesn't take that much to learn soccer, but the problem is when people think they know too much."

Chinaglia left Italy behind, officially becoming a US citizen two summers ago , but he brought controversy with him. Although the most prolific scorer in NASL history and a "money" player with 20 goals in as many playoff games, including game winners in the 1977 and '78 championship matches, he constantly is booed by local fans.

Critics accuse him of scoring "garbage" goals, putting the ball in the goal cage and getting all the glory after the rest of the team has done the hard work. This is one of the reasons Chinaglia was so happy to score his historic goal the way he did. He had, in fact, missed a penalty shot the previous game playing at home.

"I blew my chance at the record, but that penalty shot was just not meant to be," Chinaglia said of only his third penalty miss in 18 attempts. "The record will come."

The record did come, but it is only one of Chinaglia's many scoring marks. His first year with the Cosmos, playing alongside the game's folk hero, Pele, Giorgio was the league's leading scorer with 19 goals and 11 assists. He relinquished the scoring title the next year, but deposited 15 goals and made eight assists as the Cosmos took the NASL title. Chinaglia bounced back to recapture the scoring crown in 1978 with a season record 34 goals and 11 assists as the Cosmos won their second straight and third league championship.

Last year Chinaglia suffered what he termed the biggest disappointment of his career. The Cosmos were eliminated in the National Conference playoffs by the eventual league champion Vancouver Whitecaps in a hot, 3 1/2-hour marathon, decided by the second tie-breaking shootout. Chinaglia also finished second in the scoring race to Argentine Oscar Fabbiani of Tampa Bay, who tallied 25 goals and eight assists (58 points) to Chinaglia's 26 goals, five assists (57 points).

One favorable memory from last season came on May 20, "Giorgio Chinaglia Day" at Giants Stadium. The fans, who have made a ritual of booing the 6 ft. 1 in., 190-pounder, turned out to cheer him. Chinaglia took the microphone and thanked the crowd, but he showed a more typical form of expression when he scored two goals in a victory over Tulsa. At the end of the season, fans around the league voted the enigmatic star the circuit's Most Popular Player of 1979.

Much of Chinaglia's controversial reputation stems from his performance off the field. Exerting the same confidence he has as a striker, the articulate Chinaglia never has been afraid to voice his opinion on almost any subject, including the personnel of the team and its management. One of his more operatic incidents was an altercation last July with three members of the stadium maintenance crew at practice.

No one, however, argues that Chinaglia fails to perform his job -- that of scoring goals. As expected, he's in the thick of this year's scoring race, currently running second behind Seattle's Roger Davies with nine goals in as many games, plus three assists.

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