Dips Fan Day

Dips Fan Day

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Not Soccer's Finest Hour-Pele's Farewell

     There is an old adage in sports. Don't say anything that will motivate or antagonize an upcoming opponent. Perhaps Steve Hunt of the Cosmos did not put much stock in adages. Perhaps the match which took place on Wednesday, July 27, 1977, at the Meadowlands, was a wake up call for the lads in red. Whatever the reason, Hunt's assessment of the Dips would provide a rallying cry for the Washingtonians ten days later.

     "They're the worst team we've come across so far," Hunt told reporters after the Cosmos had defeated the Dips, 8-2. New York had scored five goals in 43:54, the fastest five goals in league history. Hunt's blunt statement would earn him extra, unwanted attention on the evening of August 6, when the teams were scheduled to play in both's regular season finale.

     Not only was the contest to be both club's season finale, it would be Pele's last appearance in a regular season match. Pregame estimates put the attendance figure at 40,000. Sentimentally, the game would be important for the Cosmos. Realistically, it had little significance as they had already clinched the second seed in the upcoming playoffs.

     Thanks to Hunt's words, and the lopsided outcome in the Meadowlands, the match was a chance at redemption for the Diplomats. Forward Mike Lester recently recalled, "the 8-2 defeat did spur us on. It's a blow to your professional pride when you suffer a loss like that, so you have to give a performance, and I think we did that night."

     In the press, the team feigned resignation. The morning of the contest, Dips captain Jim Steele, who sat out the match 10 days previous, was quoted as saying, "There isn't much confidence left anymore. It's going to be really hard for us against the Cosmos. We just don't have their ability. Most of the lads are flying home Sunday and they're thinking about that. I can't be optimistic." 

     He did guarantee one thing. "I'm going to take care of (Steve) Hunt. I'm going to fix him. We'll see how well he can run when he's horizontal."

     There was a hint of tension in the air at RFK Stadium as game time approached. Hunt's contemptible appraisal was still stinging players and fans alike. Would Jim Steele make good on his promise to "take care" of Hunt? How would this sideshow affect the larger spectacle of Pele's last regular season match?

     As each club took the field to warm up, the tension would become palpable. Two thirds of the Cosmos triumvirate of international stars were in street clothes. Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia would watch from the press box, along with usual starting goalkeeper Shep Messing. Boos rained down from the 31,000 who turned out. Dips president Steve Danzansky, as genial a man anyone could hope to meet, was incredulous. "I'm surprised and disappointed at the Cosmos' lack of respect for the fans in the league and for the fans in  Washington. I have no regard at all for the Cosmos organization if this is their attitude."

Willner & Hunt in the
July 27 match.
     Donald Huff of the Washington Post noted, "The Dips came out aggressively and the Cosmos, playing a 'meaningless game,' took a few cheap shots of their own." Washington, lead by Jim Redfern's two goals, jumped to an early 2-0 lead before Pele cut the deficit in half with a penalty kick 35 minutes into the game. The match's physical nature turned to physical confrontation in the final two minutes of the first half.

     Nearly 40 years later, Roy Willner explains the details of the incident as if it happened yesterday. "I can tell you exactly what happened! The ball went over my head and Steve Hunt and I went after it and Hunt fell face down. Alex Pringle came by and stepped on his back. I thought, 'what the hell was he (Pringle) doing that for.'  Hunt started running after Pringle. I grabbed Hunt around the waist, trying to slow him down...protect a teammate, and all hell broke loose."

     Players from both clubs raced toward the fracas. Mike Lester recalls, "I went in to try and help Alex Pringle and calm things down. Pele thought I was coming after him." A left hook from Pele knocked Lester to the turf. "I suppose if you are going to get hit by anyone it might as well be the most famous player of all time!"

     In his post-game interview, Pele explained, "I saw the scuffle and came over. I don't know what happened exactly. I don't know what he (Lester) thought, but he was swinging. I had to defend myself."

     Willner still finds Pele's account dubious. "Mike never raised his arms to punch. Pele saw what was going on and raced over and clocked Mike Lester. Then the ref came over and Pele pointed at me and and told him I started the whole thing."

Left photo: Pele still holds a boxing stance after punching Mike Lester as Steve Hunt (11) appears to be held by the back of his collar . Right: Dips Eric Martin (1), Roy Willner and Alan Spavin (6) converge on the only man to throw a punch, Pele. 

Diplomats Alan Spavin, Roy Willner,
Jim Redfern and Eric Martin react to
Peter Johnson's verdict.
     Shannon Fears, covering the match for Soccer America, which featured it as the cover story for their August 9, 1977, issue, professed, "There can no doubt that referee Johnson never knew who had done what. That much was obvious from a statement he released at halftime, plus the fact that he had Willner and  Pringle mixed up at first. With Pele's guidance, Willner was the first to be shown a red card."

     Willner was dumbfounded. "Pele accused me and got me thrown out. The only guys who should have been thrown out were Pringle and Pele for throwing a punch." Instead, Johnson gave red cards to Pringle and Steve Hunt.                                

Willner and Pele were not strangers. The Baltimore native had marked Pele as far back as 1973. Yet when Willner tried to reach
out to Pele after the game, he was snubbed. "I went to the Cosmos
locker room after the game and he treated me like dirt," Willner
recalls. He blamed me for the whole thing." Note the photo on the left, in which Pele is all smiles and goodwill, which was taken the previous season.

The remainder of the match would feature 10 Cosmos versus nine Diplomats.

    It was billed as Pele's night, but Dips goalkeeper Eric Martin ended up in the spotlight. "The Cosmos were good all night; the Dips were just better, especially Eric Martin, who may have turned in the finest performance of his career." wrote Fears. "Diving, lurching, sprawling, Martin covered the goal during the second half like a man possessed."

     Donald Huff was no less glowing in describing the goaltender's heroics. "On more than one occasion, Martin dived and knocked away seemingly sure Cosmo goals. The native of Scotland resembled a praying mantis with several unbelievable saves in the waning moments of the game."

     The humble Martin took it all in stride. "You have good games and you have bad ones. The only thing I knew for sure was that the Cosmos would not score eight goals again."

     In a bizarre twist of fate, Martin's career would end just six months later. On the evening of February 12, 1978, during an indoor match against the Dallas Tornado, he broke both his tibia and fibula in his right leg just above the ankle.

     There had been enough drama for an entire season centered around this one match. Steve Hunt's ill advised comments, Jim Steele's promise of retribution, the spectacle of Pele's last game, the benching of Beckenbauer and Chinaglia, the first half fisticuffs, and Eric Martin's heroics in goal for the Diplomats. Yet, there was more to come.

     After the match, a 2-1 victory for the Dips, Cosmos coach Eddie Firmani stated that Dips coach Alan Spavin had told him "to take Pele off (the field) because I can't control my boys." Firmani didn't, insisting "I'm not going to let anyone tell me what to do or how to run my team."

     Spavin was flabbergasted. He told the Post that Firmani was "full of sh*t, and you can quote me exactly. I can't believe Eddie would say a thing like that. It's just not true at all."

     The names of coaches and players would change over the years, but the intensity of the Cosmos-Diplomats rivalry would remain unwavering.