A wandering sportswriter comes back from 10 days in England to learn that the Washington Diplomats are in trouble again. No playoffs, no fans, no money and no prospect of fulfilling the fantasy of so many sincere soccer supporters -- that their game is the sport of the 1980s in America.
I have heard all of it before. In the early 1970s, I sat in the press box at mostly deserted Catholic University stadium and listened to the owners of the old Washington Darts say the same thing. Just look at all those kids playing in the suburbs, they argued. Just wait until they get older and go to the stadium themselves, they insisted. They are the future of the game, they preached.
I wanted to believe. But not until I attended a game eight days ago at the shrine of soccer, Wembley Stadium on the outskirts of London, did I finally realize the solution to the problem that plagues so many North American Soccer League franchises.
It's really quite simple. For years, NASL teams have spent a fortune importing talent from around the world. They would be better off spending the money to bring over an English soccer crowd (minus a small minority of punk brawlers), for that is what makes a day at Wembley a sporting experience of a lifetime.
The game was held last Saturday, matching last year's Football Association (FA) Cup winner, Tottenham Hotspur, against the regular-season league champion, Aston Villa. The occasion was the Charity Shield game, an exhibition, for all intents and purposes, that precedes the start of the FA regular season this week.
Exhibition or not, more than 92,000 fans trooped out to Wembley on a glorious afternoon, including a wandering sportswriter who showed up four hours early to buy his tickets -- at seven pounds, 50 pence ($15) each.
Even then, the 30-minute train ride was an adventure. It was standing room only on every car, but that still did not prevent three young men from performing a semi-snake dance through the train, all the while singing "Wembley, Wembley here we come."
None of the three felt very much pain, and the same could be said for many of the early arrivals. And the late ones, for that matter. That has come to be a major problem in English soccer: too many inebriated and rowdy hooligans who use the game as just another excuse to booze it up and skirmish with each other and the large number of police on duty in and around the stadium.
I witnessed three small pitched battles in the stadium concession areas, each matching several young toughs wearing the colors of Spurs or Aston Villa. It was no wonder, then, that the lush green playing field itself was surrounded by a 10-foot fence studded with iron spikes, the better to prevent the masses from spilling onto the pitch before, during or after games.
The match itself was a joy. Fortunately, most fans from both teams sit at opposite ends of the stadium, and the almost nonstop noise they produce is several decibels louder than an RFK Stadium reaction to a Redskin touchdown against the Cowboys. They sing, they wave team flags and scarves, they applaud lustily for crisp passes and deft dribbling and they roar in a sonic boom of sound for a spectacular save or any goal.
There were several intriguing subplots to the game, as well. Tottenham started Ray Clemence in goal, a player who had transferred the week before from his long-time team in Liverpool for $600,000. A veteran of the English national squad, Clemence had a tough day, dropping one crossing pass that led to a goal and getting knocked cold in a midair collision that led to another.
The next day, the English sporting press was not at all pleased. "Ray Drops a Real Wembley Clanger" was the headline in the Sunday Mirror. A writer for the same paper described it as "a disaster day for poor Ray Clemence . . . The big England goalkeeper . . . took charity to the extreme in this lively launching of the new season." Said the man in the Sunday Telegraph: "It was an astonishingly poor performance."
And this was only an exhibition game.
The writers did find a hero in Mark Falco, the Spurs' 20-year-old "novice" striker who started because of an injury to one of England's finest players, Garth Crooks. He scored both Tottenham goals, described by three different London newspapers as delicious, splendid or stunning.
Still, these are supposed to be trouble times for soccer in the country that wrote the rules for the most popular sport in the world. Aside from the problem of punks, there is a growing national debate on the style of play being presented on the fields of England.
"The harsh truth is that for a footballing nation, England's players are just not skillful enough any more," wrote Paul Ward-Smith in the Sunday Telegraph last week. "Of course there are players who can 'stop'; those who can 'create', even players who can 'strike', but are there the players who can actually 'play'?
One coach quoted in the same article said "what they (school children) should be doing is playing far less 11-a-side competitive matches to win trophies and practicing skills in five or six-a-side games instead, where there is nothing at stake."
Nevertheless, I left Wembley last week convinced that I had never quite seen anything like the spectacle of an English football game. And wouldn't it be delicious, splendid or stunning to make that happen in the troubled North American Soccer League?
When the kids get older, of course.