The loss of Franz Beckenbauer - one can really put it no other way - to the United States has been a traumatizing shock for European football. It is, after all, the first instance of a major soccer player at the height of his powers going to the United States.
Pele has been perhaps the greatest of all time, but the siren songs of Clive Toye, New York Cosmos' determined English manager, served to lure him out of retirement. Giorgo Chinaglia was unquestionably a star in Italy, as his Dionysiac reception at the railway station proved when he recently played in Rome with Cosmos.
But Chinaglia never remotely attained the stature of a Pele or a Beckenbauer, and there were special factors behind his decision to come to America, not least the fact that his wife is a New Jersey girl, and that he already had property there.
Beckenbauer is another matter, a superbly versatile, poised and effective player who had just received for the second time the highest accolade: European Footballer of the Year. He was the irreplaceable captain of the brilliant West German international side and of his club, Bayern Munich, three times consecutively winner of the European Cup for champions. As Sinclair Lewis might have said, an altogether "than whom" man.
The $3 million dollars which tempted Beckenbauer were, like the $4 1/2 million which magically resuscitated Pele, beyound the powers of almost any European club to match, though Beckenbauer's chief rival as the best in the world, Johan Cruyff, the Dutchman who plays for Barcelona, earns some $800,000 a year.
What the Europeans are asking, logically enough, is where it is all going to end. Will their football now be pilaged and denuded by the North American Soccer League"? Will the NASL, which has so far been a parasite in a small way on the English League, recruiting merely the very young and those with a great future behind them, now become a parasite on a large scale?
Phil Woosnam, the former Welsh international soccer player who is now commissioner of NASL, scarcely allayed such fears when, last year, he expressed the hope that within some years, all the best players in the world would be playing in Amrica. There is, besides, a disturbing analogy with ice hockey, a game increasingly popular in the States, yet one played largely still by Canadians.
In West Germany, Beckenbauer and his Bayern colleague, the prolific scorer Gerd Muller, were estimated to earn about $200,000 a year directly from this club, plus what they would make out of Public appearances, books and endorsements. The English attacker, Kevin Keegan, recently decided to leave Liverpool and play in Germany because he could treble his $60,000 a year income. All these are sums for which the chief American sports stars would scarecely take off their track suits.
Whether Beckenbauer will be happy in the NASL, whether hs is even the man they want and need, is another matter. One English international fullback who played in NASL last year is convinced that he is not; convinced, he told me, that Benkenbauer's subtle excellence, at the back or in midfield, would be lost on the still naive American crowds, who come above all to see goals scored and, as he said, "would cheer me when there was nothing else to do with the ball and I would head or kick it a long way out of the penalty area."
By this criterion, a Pele, with his magic skills and his marvelous goals, was a perfect choice. Beckenbauer may find himself a Gulliver among Lilliputians, for the general level of the NASL is about that of the English Third Division; a far cry from the challenge of the World Cup and its like, to which Beckenbauer has been responding these last 10 years.
To the natural fear and resentment caused by the possibility of losing all their best players, the Europeans add a further complaint. Why, they wonder, shouldn't the Americans create their own players? Everyone else, after all, has done it. Ever since soccer began to make its way around the world, African and Asian countries have first imported British coaches, then quickly gone on to produce indigenous players:
The Americans, superbly endowed in track and field, basketball, baseball their own kind of football, should surely be capable of breeding soccer players, too. There are, of course, good reasons why they don't; the fact that soccer, for all the massive expansion among the young, remains an unAmerican activity; the fact that the college system takes promising players away from the pro clubs in their vital, developing years.
Meanwhile, the Europeans - and no doubt the South Americans - ask themselves, where will it all end? For there are precedents Italy bled Scandinavian football white in the 1950s, though for years now they have imported no foreign footballers. Spanish clubs have recently pilaged Argentianian soccer. It could scarcely be said that the NASL is setting new standards in moral turpitude.
But the United States is something else, something different, A country which, unlike Italy and Spain, breeds no players. A country whose League has wantonly fiddled with the important offside rule, creating a "different" game. A country, above all, with limitless financial resources.
No wonder Europe is worried.