If you're looking for a yardstick to gauge the success of the North American Soccer League (NASL), the championship game should logically be it. The Soccer Bowl, after all, eventually hopes to take its place alongside the Super Bowl, the World Series, the National Basketball Association championships, and the Stanley Cup finals as a major spectator attraction.
At this point, of course, the league realizes it's still on the outside looking in. Proof of that was the decision made by the NASL and ABC-TV to start last Sunday's Soccer Bowl between the New York Cosmos and Fort Lauderdale Strikers at 12:44 local time. The idea was to grab some viewers before the pro football games came on and swallowed them up.
At the gate, the league faced perhaps a more significant test, that of filling a stadium ina neutral city where sports fans are already familiar with NASL soccer from following the Washington Diplomats.
The game, won by the Cosmos 3-0, was not a sellout, but a crowd of 50,768 came within a few thousand of reaching the capacity of RFK Stadium. The league had to feel good about that, since the previous best-attended Soccer Bowl held outside the New York area had drawn 35,548 spectators in 1977.
The league's success in selling tickets may stem in part form the district's cosmopolitan audience. People here appreciate seeing such former World Cup stars as Teofilo Cubillas, Gerd Mueller, and Franz Beckenbauer.
Above all, however, they came to see New York's Giorgio Chinaglia, the most famous player on the league's most visible team.
Chinaglia (pronounced Keen-Al-ya) is to the Cosmos what Reggie Jackson is to the Yankees, a superstar with a lust for the lime-light. When Giorgio scores, which is often, by soccer standards, he races toward the madly cheering crowd, exulting in its salute before turning to embrace his teammates. A naturalized American born in Italy, Chinaglia made many such "curtain calls" this year.
After winning his third league scoring title with 32 goals in as many games, he deposited 18 more in the playoffs, including a whopping 7 in a record-breaking outburst against Tulsa and 2 in the Soccer Bowl itself. Ah, shades of "Mr. October."
Like Jackson, the Soccer Bowl MVP is showered with verbal abuse when his team slips, which it did in last year's playoffs, losing to Vancover, the eventual champion.
As a result, Giorgio felt he had to prove himself to a public that expects the Cosmos to reign. For since crossing the Hudson River four years ago to set up shop in New Jersey's Meadowlands, the club has imported enough international talent (beginning with Pele) to make it a virtual All-Star team.
New York won the 1977 and 1978 Soccer Bowls and on paper appeared a cinch to secure a third in four years this time around. The roster, after all, lists four first-team NASL All-Stars (Beckenbauer, Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto, and Vladislav Bogicevic), two-second team selections, and the league's Rookie of the Year, Jeff Durgan, a 19-year-old fresh out of high school in Tacoma, Wash. Fort Lauderdale, by contrast, managed just one all-league player, first-teamer Cubillas.
Despite the seeming mismatch, the game was lent an air of suspense. The clubs had split a pair of games during the regular season, and the Soccer Bowl was on grass, a surface the Strikers play on in Florida. Furthermore, Fort Lauderdale had proved to be a bizarre team, the kind that defies logic.
Internal strife appeared to overtake the club in midseason, when it lost 9 of 12 games. After recovering to make the playoffs, the Strikers established an odd pattern of winning the first game of each playoff series on the road, losing at home, then advancing by winning the decisive mini-games.
The Soccer Bowl, of course, was an all-or-nothing affair, and the Strikers came up empty-handed. They thus inherited the frustrations their Florida neighbors, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, had experienced in losing the two previous championship games.
Some people wonder if the Cosmos, once a low-profile operation, wield a bit too much power around the league. At one point, other franchises actually helped to pay New York's high-salaried players, an arrangement ultimately expected to benefit everybody by garnering global respect for the NASL.
Today the team is the expensive toy of Warner Communications, a corporation that can "buy the pennant" and transport its VIPs in limousines. Nesuhi Ertegun , the chairman of the board and a native of Turkey, works with his brother, Ahmet, the club's president. Under them in the club directory are vice-presidents born in Cuba and Cyprus (Krikor Yepremian, brother of the football kicker, Garo); a German head coach (Hennes Weisweiler); and a rock star , Mick Jagger, who serves as an international consultant.
The organization has produced a team that not only wins Soccer Bowls but makes a name for itself during an ambitious schedule of postseason exhibitions and overseas tours.
The first of these appearances this year occurs Wednesday night in Giants Stadium, where the Cosmos will play an NASL Select Team in Beckenbauer's farewell game, with Pele himself appearing as a special guest player. Beckenbauer is returning permanently to his homeland, West Germany, after four years in the league. The league, in the meantime, won't be going into mothballs , for after a short break, 19 teams will commence a four-month indoor season on Nov. 14.