By Michael Lewis
A few days before the New York Cosmos took on the Chicago Sting in the 1981 Soccer Bowl, Giorgio Chinaglia held court with the media at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto.
A couple of bees tried to interrupt the interview, but the striker swatted them away.
It turned out to be an omen.
Two days later, Chinaglia tried to cope with another swarm at Exhibition Stadium.
This time the soccer team associated with bees gave the favored Cosmos a stinging defeat as the Chicago Sting prevailed over the defending North American Soccer League champions in a shootout.
In those "ancient days" of American pro soccer, the shootout was the required way to decided deadlocked games, instead of penalty kicks.
That certainly did not matter to Chicago coach Willy Roy.
"The year before, we actually had a good team already, but we ended up losing to San Diego [in the playoffs]," Roy said by telephone from Chicago earlier this week. "We had one of our players ejected because he was getting a drink of water on the sideline by an official. I felt at that time we were going absolutely in the right direction."
Roy added that " '81 obviously was special. And what was really kind of nice about it, even though we beat the Cosmos during the regular season, we were still considered the underdogs going into the championship game in Toronto. I thought it was the best thing that happened to us, being the underdog. We proved that we were the best team in the NASL at that time."
The Cosmos had an all-star team of world stars. The Sting had stars, but not at every position.
"They were the richest team in the league," Roy said. "They spent most of the money in the league. We were just an average salary and everything concerned."
Despite that, the Sting more than held its own. During the regular season, Chicago won both encounters between the teams. The first was a 3-2 victory at Giants Stadium on May 17, the second was a wild, 6-5 shootout triumph before 35,501 at Wrigley Field in Chicago on June 28.
"We had a wonderful game in Chicago that we won 6-5 in a shootout," Roy said. "Our team was totally focused. I think the major thing is that we started four American players. I think probably I had the best eight American players, so if somebody was injured, one of the American players was injured, it was not a big deal."
Indeed, it wasn't, especially with some of the players the Sting put out onto the field, game in and game out.
You could start with the incomparable Karl-Heinz Granitza (19 goals, 17 assists), whose educated left foot made him lethal on free kicks.
"At the time, by far, you talk about a lot of players like [David] Beckham, no one could shine Karl-Heinz's shoes as far as kicking free kicks," Roy said. "He was absolutely deadly, bending the ball. It didn't matter which side. Outstanding."
Continue with midfielder Arno Steffenhagen (17 goals, 10 assists), who could create or score goals from the midfield, and Pato Margetic (eight goals, 17), another scoring threat.
Add a steady goalkeeper in Dieter Ferner and an NASL all-star defender in Frantz Mathieu, a Haitian international at the time, sweeper Paul Hahn, and several Americans and you had the ingredients of a championship side. The Sting, incidentally, was made up of several nationalities -- England, Scotland, Haiti, West Germany, Argentina, Yugoslavia, Canada, U.S. and even the Channel Islands, which is British Crown dependency.
"The whole team was totally focused," Roy said. "You talk about the Cosmos. I think we stayed at the Hilton Hotel and they stayed at the Sheraton Hotel. They brought their own chef, made sure they had the proper meals, the whole thing. They had their own people make their own uniforms for them. Everybody looked up to the Cosmos. They were the flagship organization, without any question. You talk about the Ertegun brothers, Steve Ross, Warner Communications. They had a selection of total all-stars on their team. The best players in the world at that time. Obviously, we couldn't afford to buy those players but the chemistry on our team was really good."
And it certainly did not hurt that Roy picked the best players to play within his system.
"Throughout my coaching career, I was blessed that Lee Stern [Sting owner] actually gave me total control as far as the team was concerned, getting everything together," he said. "There were a lot of no names, the Dave Husons, the Brett Halls, players that people don't even know of. Throughout my whole tenure we were probably the only team that had a winning record against the Cosmos. When they saw our black and yellow uniforms, it was definitely the end of the Cosmos."
Roy was correct. From 1979 through 1984, the Sting, under Roy's direction post an 8-6 record against its New York rivals.
The Soccer Bowl, which was held on Sept. 26, pitted the two best teams in the league. Both teams recorded 23-9 regular season marks, with the Cosmos registered 200 points to the Sting's 195 because it had totaled more goals. In those days, the NASL awarded six points for a win and a point for every goal scored up until three in a game.
The championship game was the Sting's 10th playoff game in 34 days, quite a grueling schedule.
While Pele and Franz Beckenbauer had left the team, the Cosmos still were a difficult side to contend with, with the likes of goalkeeper Hubert Birkenmeier, defenders Andranik Eskandarian, Wim Rijsbergen and Robert Iarusci, midfielder Vladislva Bogiecevic and forwards Roberto Cabanas (16 goals) and of course, Chinaglia.
During Soccer Bowl, it was Mathieu's charge and challenge to cover and slow down the great Chinaglia, who had scored 29 goals that year and was the league MVP.
"He was actually too quick for Chinaglia. and Bogie their main offensive midfielder, Rudy Glenn, an American kid, did just an outstanding job, closing him down and that pretty much did the Cosmos i," Roy said.
The teams battled through regulation and extratime -- it was called overtime in those days -- before the shootout decided matters.
"The way I kind of handled the shootout, I looked at the players coming to the bench," Roy said. "One of my really good players, Arno Steffenhagen he started taking his shoes off. I knew I wasn't going to use him, for instance. He was such a good player. Other players such, as Rudy Glenn ... they were raring to go and take their chance with the shootout. And we kind of prevailed in it."
The tie-breaker did not start well for either team. Margetic and Derek Spalding failed in their attempts for Chicago, ditto for Seninho and Chinaglia for New York.
After Ingo Peter was denied by Birkenmeier in round three as Bogecevic converted his chance for the Cosmos, who enjoyed a 1-0 lead.
But Granitza put his away -- low to the left of the keeper and Ivan Bulian tried a chip shot over Ferner, who managed to save the shot as things were knotted up at 1-1 after four rounds.
Leading off the fifth round Glenn beat Birkenmeier to his left before Ferner denied Iarusci for a 2-1 shootout win.
Then pandemonium broke loose at Exhibition Stadium.
"I almost got choked," Roy said. "The fans running onto the field. It was an outstanding feeling. The reception we got at the airport. We had to delay our plane from Toronto. They had thousands of fans showing up at the airport at O'Hare. It was a wonderful feeling, but it was also a scary feeling."
They even had a ticker-tape parade for the Sting in Chicago.
As it turned out, three years later Roy and the Sting had another opportunity to experience that "wonderful feeling" as they won their second and Soccer Bowl in the original incarnation of the NASL's final season.
But that is another story for another time.
Michael Lewis is Editor of www.bigapplesoccer.com