By J Hutcherson - In 1978 FIFA Secretary Dr. Helmut Kaser spoke for the established soccer world when he dismissed the North American Soccer League as existing only for profit, ignoring the beauty and the laws of the world’s game in an attempt to build a profitable American audience.
FIFA’s main objections were technical. The NASL had changed the offside mark from midfield to the thirty-five yard line, allowed three substitutes rather than the mandatory two, had an elaborate points system for wins and losses, and allowed overtime and the dreaded shootout. Attempts by FIFA to bring the NASL into line with the rest of the world were ignored by the North Americans, who felt that tinkering with the world’s game was yet another American inalienable right.
Unfortunately FIFA had something that the NASL and the United States Soccer Federation wanted, namely the 1986 World Cup. Originally awarded to Colombia, FIFA stripped the South American country of the event after determining the country did not have the infrastructure or stadiums to stage the world’s premier sporting contest.
With no host nation, FIFA accepted bids for the homeless Cup, with Canada, Mexico, and the United States emerging as front-runners. Canada lacked the necessary stadia and Mexico had held the Cup in 1970, clearing the way for a strong American bid. The U.S. delegation was led by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and featured Franz Beckenbauer and Johann Cruyff, but the NASL’s problems with FIFA continued.
On October 21, 1980, the NASL adopted a new points system that awarded goals scored as well as actually winning the match. The result was the possibility of a side earning fifteen points for a league victory, nine for the win, one for the first goal, two for the second, and three points for the third. But the NASL didn’t stop there.
In a move to curry favor with FIFA and further the United States’ chances to host the 1986 World Cup, the league submitted a list of four proposed rule changes for official adoption by the football world’s governing body. The rules were typically American, including widening the goal to promote scoring, outlawing the backpass to the keeper, assessing penalty time for yellow cards, and shortening the match to 70 minutes with time outs when the ball was out of play.
NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam’s rationale for the changes was simple. “The owners felt this was a way of cutting down on the number of shootouts, ties, and low scoring games. This is a way of improving the overall image and quality of the sport in North America.”
As was to be expected, FIFA was not impressed and ordered the NASL to conform to the laws of the game or both the league and the U.S. Soccer Federation would be thrown out of FIFA. Faced with not only being denied the 1986 World Cup, but being banned from world football all-together, the NASL made a predictable move -- they stalled.
By March 1981 FIFA had reached their limit. FIFA Spokesman Rene Courte accused the league of “taking us for fools” and warned that the league “can’t fool around like this.” And he was right. Being branded an outlaw league would put a stop to all international competitions, including club friendlies, as well as banning all individual league players from competing with their national sides.
It was time for the NASL to blink, but instead they antagonized, summed up by NASL spokesman Vince Casey’s assertion that “we’re not running around holding our heads in anguish.”
Literally hours before kicking off the 1981 regular season, the NASL relented and adopted FIFA’s rules. Thirteen days later, the league reverted to their original rules citing tacit approval in a letter from FIFA President Joao Havelenge. The NASL claimed the letter allowed them provisionary approval to play with their rules while FIFA decided on their applicability for the rest of the world. U.S. Soccer accused FIFA of “deliberately misinterpreting” FIFA’s position and Havelenge agreed.
The league then accused U.S. Soccer of misleading them, an allegation denied by U.S. Soccer President Gene Edwards. “The statements coming from the league offices are irresponsible and are not an accurate account of the facts. We have done everything in our power to get them the concessions they are asking for.”
On July 1, 1981 the NASL received official notification that their rule changes were not going to be considered, and the league must immediately adopt FIFA’s rules. This time the league relented, but they weren’t happy about it. San Diego Sockers Chairman Bob Bell summed up the league’s position.
“We need major changes in the structure of the game but we can’t make them because of FIFA…. Every sport makes changes to improve its product. We can’t do it, and that’s a serious problem.”
Not surprisingly, FIFA never considered the U.S. bid for the ’86 World Cup, not even bothering to send an inspection committee. Their official reason was the travel time between East and West Coast venues, but the real reason was the unabashed arrogance of the NASL and the inability of the U.S. Federation to bring the league into line. Instead the 1986 World Cup was awarded to Mexico for the second time in 16 years.
For the NASL, losing the ’86 World Cup would be one in a series of disastrous decisions that would