Well, there's no easy way to ask a guy if he has a drinking problem. So what you do is wait until he's leaving the room full of people drinking up the North American Soccer League's free booze. Than you say, "Cor, about that story in the Miami Heald last month. . . "
Cor van der 'art is at the top of his art in America. He is the coach of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, here this week to play in the NASL's Soccer Bowl at RFK Stadium, here this week at the end of his first season in the United States to play a game for the league championship against the mighty Cosmos.
Van der Hart is 52 years old, a Dutchman who played on eight Championship teams and coached three more in Europe. In 1974, as assistant coach to Rinus Michels with the Holland national team, he gained some of the credit for the "total soccer" concept introduced on the field by the inimitable Johan Cruyff.
Last month, with three games to go in a regular season that the team captain later would describe as "the most eventful, spectacular season," there appeared in the Miami Herald, a class newspaper, a story by reporter Greg Cote in which van der Hart was characterized as a drinker with a problem.
The heart of the story was furnished by Rinus Michels, van der Hart's old teammate and boss. Michels said van der Hart "had a big problem with alcohol. . . . don't know if he still does. But he built up a bad reputation. aIt is why his career is not as good as it might have been."
Strong stuff. Especially when the gossip monger is an old buddy. Michels had "melancholy in his voice," Cote wrote. But in a season of turmoil at Fort Lauderdale -- the coach openly feuded with his general manager, Bob Lemieux, over player personnel decisions, and the team never played consistently after an early-season seven-game winning streak -- a touch of melancholy was of little consolation when an old buddy resurrected a story that has long been part of the freight van der Hart has carried through his soccer career.
The drinking, Michels said, cost van der Hart his job with the Holland national team.The Dutch press says it has cost him three other jobs. Reports in Florida, repeated around the NASL, say the Strikers in midseason decided to get rid of van der Hart.
But then, the strangest thing.
The Strikers are in the Soccer Bowl.
And so you wait until the coach leaves the room where bartender Roger Price, 22, has set up shop with nine bottles of booze. "Got some George Dickel, Jack Daniel's, Johnny Walker Red, Old Grand-Dad, VO, Smirnoff, Beefeater," Price said.
"Cor, about that story in the Miami Herald last month," you say.
Strangest thing. Cor van der Hart begins to smile.
He puts his arm around you. He offers his cup to you.
"You want a Coke?" he says.
"The fans we hear from," said Tim Robbie, the Strikers' assistant general manager and son of the owner, "thought the story was a cheap shot.The fans drink beer in the stadium all during the game, the players go out and drink beer after the game, and nobody makes a big deal out of it. As long as it doesn't interfere with Cor's work, it's none of our business. And as far as we're concerned, he has had no drinking problem this year."
Robbie said van der Hart's personnel decisions upset some fans, "but Cor is responsible for getting us into the Soccer Bowl."
Ray Hudson, the team captain and second-leading scorer, said the Strikers heard all season about van der Hart's supposed drinking problem. By the time the Miami Herald carried its story, Hudson said, it was no big deal. "Like water off a duck's back," he said.
"There was a lot of turmoil," Hudson said, "and Cor's 'drinking' was one of the reasons put forward for it. We players thought it was just a piece of press coverage, nothing more. I means, it never got to the point of us thinking, 'Cor, that bastard.'"
If anything, Hudson said, the episode helped the team, which, when the story appeared, was struggling with a 16-13 record. The story appeared as the Strikers prepared to play Michels' team, the Aztecs.
"Cor would never deny the stories going around," Hudson said, "but everytime he was caught with two drinks in his hand, it was blown out of proportion. So when we went to Los Angeles, if we ever went to battle for Cor, it was in that one."
The Strikers beat the Aztecs, 3-2, and now have won their way through a six-game (plus three minigames) tournament to reach the Soccer bowl.
"I don't like to talk about it," vad der Hart said. "Some people, they have to play games. It is between me and my general manager and the reporter. If they want to cut my throat, there is nothing you can do about it."
Sportswriters knew for years that Muhammad Ali sparred with several women at once. Political reporters knew Wilbur Mills was intimate with Jack Daniel's. But when do you write about it?
Well, when Ali's second wife hit him with a chair in Manila and went screaming through the hotel lobby, it was time. It was no longer behind closed doors. Fanne Foxe's leap into the Tidal Basin made it appropriate to wonder how this fellow was spending our tax dollars. And if Tom Landry's appearance in the Super Bowl was accompanied by a story in which an old buddy said Tom missed Sunday school once in 1938, then you wrote the sordid story.
"My private life has nothing to do with soccer," Cor van Der Hart said yesterday. "At soccer, I work very hard."
And he raised his cup of Coca-Cola in a farewell salulte.
One thing more. Roger Price, the bartender, said he had to send for a second bottle of vodka. "The cute girls drank it all," he said.