The world governing body of football, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), is about to lock horns, it seems, with the North American Soccer League unless the NASL ceases to fiddle with the rules of the game.
It is hardly surprising that this has happened. The Secretary of FIFA, Dr. Helmut Kaser, makes no secret of his distaste for the way soccer is run in the States. He sees is as a soulless concern, with no true interest in the game except making money. Why should he think as he does is easily understood, because between the American custom of running sports franchises for profit and the rest of the world's habit of eschewing any such notion runs a deep abyss.
"If football is a business," Gianni Agnelli, head of the Fiat Motor Company and patron of the Juventus soccer club of Turin, once said, "then it's a losing business."
(Of course, there are a thousand ways soccer club directors may extract advantage from their positions, whether it be social prestige, political clout or the chance to further business connections. To that extent, the American way, the very use of the word "owner" in connection with a club, is perhaps more honest.)
However, the fact is that Americans were fooling about with soccer long before the NASL came along, and often to a far greater extent. Some college divided games into quarters rather than halves, permitted unlimited substitutions and employed the kick-in from touch rather than the throw-in.
The NASL's first offense was to use a 35-yard offside line instead of the halfway line. Then it introduced the shootout to decide the games.
In New York some weeks ago, Phil Woosnam, commissioner of the NASL, spoke of growing sympathy in Europe for such changes. Attitudes had changed, he said, interest had grown, since the Cosmos had that 77,000 crowd at Giants Stadium.
Certainly, that crowd was the envy of almost every leading club in Europe, but it had nothing to do with shootouts and a phony offside. It was the significance of the game, the presence of such as Pele and Beckenbauer, that induced all those people to buy tickets.
The NASL offside rule not only distorts the game, it places an appalling burden on the overlapping fullback, who has to come back not just halfway but to the 3-yard mark. The shootout, for all its echoes of the O.K. Corral, is as silly and superflous as were the previous extra periods and penalty kicks for tied games.
When the official of an NASL club said, "A tied game is like kissing your sister," he demonstrated not merely his ignorance of Freud's totem and taboo, but a still deeper ignorance of soccer. There is nothing wrong whatsoever with a drawn game. A recent 0-0 game between two London second-division teams, Orient and Charlton, each bent on avoiding, relegation to the third division, was immeasurably exciting.
Many NASL spectators may be untutored in the arts of soccer, tending to cheer things along like goal kicks and long headers out of defense, but to indulge them in such dubious ways is no real help.Other suggestions, such as widening the goals so there will be more scoring, seem to reflect a wish to exploit and prostitute a great game, in which the very difficulty, the capricousness of scoring goals is itself a fascination.
Although The Cosmos were responsible (with his own connivance) of depriving the coming World Cup of Franz Beckenbauer, it would be untrue and unfair to believe that the Cosmos are run by people who care nothing for football. If the Ertegun brothers, who at present occupy the drivers' seats, have a fault, it is that they care too much, are too passionately and knowledgeably involved.
Go back to the famed battle of Highbury in North London in 1934, when Italy did its best to kick England to pieces; and earlier still to the winter afternoon in 1932 when Austria at Chelsea, so nearly and deservedly ended England's unbeaten home record against foreign teams. Nesuhi Ertegun, a schoolboy then, saw both games.
One must be cautious, therefore, of generalizing. What can be said it that the NASL is doing its players no service by obliging them to play under different rules. So they must adjust each time they play abroad or in international competition. The question of artificial turf, so hated by the European pros, is another vexing one. I should like to see the U.S. get the 1990 World Cup: but how can it convert its artificially turfed stadiums?