Soccer: Fadeaway of the '80s

March 24, 1985|JERRY TRECKER | Hartford Courant

For soccer lovers, these are harsh times.

The news is increasingly depressing, making it ever harder to be hopeful about the future of the sport.

The vaunted Cosmos is thrown out of the North American Soccer League, but there doesn't seem to be any league left, anyway.

The NCAA imposes restrictive limits on the development of the sport at the Division I level.

English fans run riot at Chelsea and Luton, the specter of wanton violence at the center of the professional game in the land of its birth.

At the same time, the quest for World Cup places continues, but the glory of Mexico 1986 seems ever more remote for North American advocates of the sport. They have seen the miracle of the '70s replaced by the fadeaway of the '80s, the first-class professional level now almost a memory. What is difficult to comprehend is how that transpired.

The news that the Cosmos is no longer in good standing in the NASL cannot help but stun the soccer world. Here was once the golden hope of American soccer, a team that attracted 70,000-plus crowds to Giants Stadium. The team of Pele, Beckenbauer, Neeskens and Chinaglia was known around the globe.

But by the early '80s, the golden days were gone. Where once the fans flocked to the Meadowlands, by 1983 even top attractions played to half-empty houses. Ordinary NASL games were often contested in cavernous conditions, the players surrounded by empty seats.

Why did the fans go? I have long suspected they disappeared for two reasons, the native Americans unenthusiastic about a sport they didn't understand, the foreign-born quickly recognizing the NASL product lacked artistic purity. The combination was lethal and an entire league began a slow death. It seems only a matter of days before the formal announcement that there will be no NASL in 1985. Perhaps Clive Toye can recreate a circuit for 1986, but such hope seems ill-founded.

The Cosmos organization talks of soldiering on, playing against international teams this spring and summer at Giants Stadium. But how much interest will there be in a team without a league title to chase?

Coupled with the dramatic erosion of professional franchises comes the second blow to American soccer, that NCAA vote to limit offseason competition. It cannot help but further complicate American players' development. Already lacking in experience in the crucial late teen years, U.S. collegians at the top level will now see even less action unless the restrictions are modified this spring.

When you combine the loss of a professional incentive with fewer college competition opportunities, you have a dismal picture. How can the United States hope to produce worthy Olympic or World Cup challenges under such a framework? Indeed, what talented athlete will even consider a soccer future if there is no eventual hope of a professional living from his skills?

Bleak as the American future is, the game in Britain may be in equally deep trouble. At least here there is little great to be lost, but the English professional sport must now be perilously close to becoming a luxury the country cannot afford. It is a situation comparable to baseball games become uncontrollable flashpoints in our own society.

For years now, "hooliganism" has plagued England's Saturday matches, but it has usually not spilled onto the playing field. Evil and destructive as the violence was, it seemed that the criminals at least respected the action between the white lines. No more. First a Milk Cup semifinal, then a Football Association Cup quarterfinal were disrupted by fans engaging in battle with their opposite numbers.

It is scary, even from this distance. What Europeans have long called the British disease now seems to be taking on self-consuming proportions. How much more violence can be tolerated before the game is crushed beneath the senseless fury of youths who more than ever resemble the gangsters of Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange?"

In such times it is difficult to muster enthusiasm for the Mexico show. Perhaps when we start seeing live qualifying matches next month on the Spanish International Network, the action will allow us to concentrate upon the game, to think of the excitement of June 1986.

But such seems a mere footnote at the moment.

For the many people who are deeply committed to the game, whether because it is part of their national heritage or because they have become part of the burgeoning youth-league revolution in the United States, current world and national soccer events can hardly produce much joy.

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