Argentina got a goal from captain Daniel Passarella with 2:06 to play and escaped tonight with a 1-0 victory over the Cosmos that left the New York club delighted and the World Cup champions angry.
Playing before 70,134 fans, many of them waving blue-and-white Argentina flags, the two clubs hooked up in a marvelous duel of Argentina speed and solid Cosmos defense led by the brilliant performance of Carlos Alberto.
It appeared the Cosmos might pull off a seemingly impossible tie until Passarella, who negotiated seriously with the Washington Diplomats over the winter, headed home a 10-yard shot to salvage some pride for the champions.
"I just came up in our zone offense," Passarella said through an interpreter. "The pass was there and I went up and hit it. I heard a whistle and thought something had gone wrong. But I turned around and the referee said it was a goal."
The Cosmos, who claimed moral victory, thought something had gone wrong. They thought Passarella had fouled Antonio Carbongiani going for the ball.
"I didn't think the goal should have been allowed," said Julio Mazzei, who was named "technical director" of the Cosmos Tuesday. "But we played well. I think we surprised them."
Few would argue. The Cosmos came into the game having gone through Friday and replaced by an acting coach Ray Klivecka, who will take orders from Mazzel - and they were missing their best player, Franz Beckenbauer, and a startling winger, Seninho, both out with injuries.
"We knew we had nothing to lose," Giorgio Chinaglia said. "We've been through a lot and we had injuries. So if we lose, 6-0 so what?"
Argentina played the first 20 minutes as if it expected the Cosmos to accept a 6-0 loss simply because the champions showed up at Giants Stadium.
The Argentines were awakened when Chinaglia broke loose from a midfield scramble and charged in alone on goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol. Fillol raced straight at Chinaglia and managed to deflect his shot over the crossbar.
From that point, the Argentines played aggressively and the Cosmos, especially their defenders, responded to the challenge. With 20-year-old American Ricky Davis marking 18-year-old Diego Maradona (already dubbed "The New Pele") and with Alberto all over the field, the Cosmos did nothing to tarnish the North American Soccer League's image.
"I thought the Cosmos played too defensively," Argentine Coach Cesar Menotti said through his interpreter. "It was a good game for the fans, but it wasn't good game technically."
Menotti, who kept his locker room door shut tight for 40 minutes after the game, wasn't about to hand out any kudos to the NASL champions.
He blamed the artificial turf for his team's play and refused to say the Cosmos were a world-class team.
"We had to change our shoes at half-time because of the field," he said. "It gave us serious problems. I don't think you can say the Cosmos have a very good team until they learn to play in other places besides here, on this field."
Menotti said he would not like to see a rematch - because of the field.
The warm, breezy night might turn out to be a milestone for American soccer, in spite of Menotti's protestations. In addition to the overall play by the Cosmos, it was significant that they play a large part of the game with three Americans on the field - including Gary Etherington, a 20-year-old from Northern Virginia, who came within inches of putting the Cosmos ahead with 25 minutes left.
"The first five minutes I was really nervous," Etherington said. "I mean, the world champions. But once I got over that it was a lot of fun. I knew if I made a mistake they would kill us so I just tried to concentrate hard."
Of his near goal, Etherington said, "Giorgio got it over to me and I went up and so did Fillol. I whacked at it with my head and then I lost it. I heard a scream and I thought it was in. But Giorgio told me it went just over the net."
The Cosmos would have been delighted to go on from there and settle for a tie, but it was not to be. Goalkeeper Jack Brand made a number of superb saves before Passarella took a perfect cross from Daniel Valencia and beat Brand to his right before he could move.
Always pretentious, the Cosmos had billed this exhibition game as "an historic occasion." Thanks to their spirited, hustling play, they at least made it a memorable one. CAPTION: Picture, Argentina's Americo Gallego, left, heads ball away from Marinho of Cosmos to retain possession in midfield.UPI