His eyes are red, his hair mussed by the hands he cannot keep still. A few nights ago, up until nearly dawn, he watched Kirk Douglas and John Wayne ride horses across the terrain of his television set. Now, he cannot remember the name of the movie.
"I watch these men on the late show," he says, "because they are like gods. I see their pictures in my mind. Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, John Wayne. I see them. Like I see America, I see them."
Watching pigeons roost on the bronze shoulders of Admiral Farragut across the city square, Alkis Panagoulias, coach of Team America (which will make its RFK Stadium debut Sunday against Tulsa), waits for the bellhop he sent out for a cola. His throat is parched and the room is warm, the day like summer.
Outside, there are women everywhere in new spring dresses, men in short sleeves and ties loosened at the collar. "I could walk down this street and no one would know me," he says. "All these people, and not one would say my name. Alkie, Alkie. Nobody. You don't hear that here in America."
Like the stars who fill his nights, Panagoulias, too, was a hero once. When he lived in Greece, there were days when he couldn't drive his car through the city without having small children chase behind him, shouting his name.
Once, after leading the Greek national soccer team to victory over the Soviet Union, he ran from men who wanted just to touch him. He saw them dive into the fountains of the city square, all the aficionados of soccer wrapped in Greek flags and drunk with victory.
"And I left that," he says. "I left that because this is America, the greatest country. And people over there were telling me America is a circus and soccer in America is a circus. Don't you understand? I am fighting for the survival of soccer in this country, fighting as one fights a war. Only here, of course, nobody dies. Nobody but soccer."
There were only baseball diamonds in the parks of Queens and Brooklyn when Panagoulias, 48, came to New York in 1961 from Salonika, Greece, the city on the Gulf of Thermai where he spent his childhood kicking balls between the cars jammed on the streets near his father's house.
"And I come here, look around and see nobody was kicking for soccer, nobody. All you see are little white balls thrown very fast and it is all baseball," he says. "Baseball? What is baseball and football, squash and the rest to the world? All their heroes, they are like strangers from Mars. When it comes to the games of the world, America is absent. It is embarrassing."
When it seems he cannot wait for the drink any longer, there is a knock on the door and a young man enters with the cola in a tall paper cup. After two deep swallows, Panagoulias puts the cup on the floor and runs his hands through his hair.
His hair is long in the back, cut European style, and he sweeps the best of his strands across the crown, leaving a wide, crooked part over his left ear. In Athens, where he coached Olympiakos, the winner of the Greek Professional Championship in his first year, 1982, there were young boys who combed their hair like Panagoulias, hoping maybe this would make them look like their hero, even if they couldn't be like him.
It was the same, long before, when he played out his teen years with the Aris club of Salonika. And, also, when he coached the national team after Billy Bingham, the Irishman he assisted for two years, returned to his home in Northern Ireland in 1973.
In the long, triumphant seasons between 1971 and 1981, all Greeks would watch as Panagoulias led their team in more than 75 matches across the globe. They could not help but think of him as their own. But, unlike the team, he did not belong to Greece; he was a naturalized American citizen and his home, his nation, lay "like a sleeping giant" across the sea.
"Sometimes, I prove that I am more American than many people born in America," he says. "I prove so by loving this country. I trust this country. It is my country, and I fight for it."
When he first came to the United States in 1961, Panagoulias studied social science at a junior college in Middletown, N.Y. Then he transferred to Upsala in East Orange, N.J., where he graduated with a degree in history and political science. He met and married his wife Vanna in the Greek community of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn; their two children, Despina and John, were born during the years he coached the New York Greek-Americans, the most successful semipro team in the history of the New York ethnic leagues.
While doing postgraduate work in international relations at the New School for Social Research, he realized the impact of soccer on world politics. He and his professor, a Polish Jew who had left Nazi Germany in 1938, discussed at great length the ways in which imperialistic powers extend political and social influence over countries and peoples of different ideologies.
"The Russians, now, are leaders in the movement called neocolonialism," he says. "They use the two main weapons of propaganda--sports and arts, nothing else. In the early '50s, they sent their national soccer team to eastern and western Africa, winning everything, 15-0, 14-0. And 100,000 people from Ghana and Kenya and Ethiopia were watching this. Then comes, the following week, a baseball team from the Sixth Fleet, Americans, to play baseball for the people. Baseball? Only 500 people came out to see great America chewing gum and throwing those small white balls."
He stands and runs his hands through his hair, pushing back the few distressed strands that fall across his small, dark eyes, then thrusts his hands violently in front of him, as if pushing back the memory of his frustration and embarrassment. To hear him now, one must read his lips; the effect is urgent, desperate:
"All the children were saying, 'What is this?' And they were laughing. Next week, the Bolshoi ballet was coming and performing in an open soccer field. Everybody was saying, 'These are gods, look at that!' Next week, somebody with a beard and a guitar, an American singer, he comes. Nobody goes because he is unknown. But the Bolshoi, they were untouchables. Here, we like our country singers, but who likes country music in Africa? It would be something to laugh, but I cannot. It makes me know shame like I cannot express."
When he lived in Greece, coaching the national team, all he needed do was choose the 20 players he desired to fill his roster and they were his, that afternoon in the lobby of his office building with their gear packed and with hearts reverberating through the walls of their Sunday dress clothes. They wore fine suits sewn by their mothers and, for the excess of their pride, they could not speak without fumbling their words like excited children.
"Over here, must I get on my knees and beg?" he asks himself. "I call Mark Peterson of Seattle; he refuses. 'Mr. Panagoulias,' he says. 'I want to stay here.' And I am thinking: it should be the dream of every player in the world to play only one minute for his national team. But when I call Ricky Davis, he refuses. And Steve Moyers refuses. It is like I asked Peterson. 'Mark,' I said, 'Why are you playing soccer? For $60,000? You can be a football player and make 6 million dollars.' "
Panagoulias stands and glares out the window. The sun was never brighter, his thirst never stronger. He tells the people outside the office window what he told Mark Peterson over the phone three months ago: "I am asking you to play for the national team."
But, like Peterson, they do not seem to hear.
Then, sitting back down, he whispers into his cup: "The problem is very obvious. We do not recognize our heroes anymore."