The 1982 FIFA All-Star Game at Giants Stadium in New Jersey could have been a magnificent event for American soccer. It featured what may have been the greatest collection of talent ever to play in a single game in the United States.
Instead, it ended up being a rather bittersweet occasion. The reason is that by the time it was held, on Aug. 2, 1982, the handwriting was beginning to appear on the wall for the North American Soccer League, and FIFA’s mission in bringing this game to the Meadowlands was to try to rescue American soccer rather than to celebrate it.
The Giants Stadium crowd of 76,891 was about the same size as the biggest New York Cosmos crowds in that stadium. It was dominated by fans of Italian soccer, and they went away happy after Giancarlo Antognoni’s goal in the 88th minute gave a team of European stars a 3-2 victory over a Rest of the World team. The Rest of the World had led by 2-0 at halftime, after goals by Zico of Brazil and Lakhdar Belloumi of Algeria. Kevin Keegan of England got a goal back for the Europeans in the 58th minute. Bruno Pezzey of Austria tied it in the 79th minute following a free kick by Antognoni. The Italian star’s gamewinner came on a shot from just outside the penalty area. Antognoni was one of the biggest stars of the Italian team that had won the World Cup a month before in Spain, but he had been unable to play in the final because of injury, so his contribution to this victory was particularly pleasing to his fans.
In addition to Antognoni, Zico, Belloumi, Keegan and Pezzey, the galaxy of international stars in this game included Zbigniew Boniek of Poland; Socrates, Oscar and Falcao of Brazil; Paolo Rossi and Dino Zoff of Italy; Franz Beckenbauer of West Germany, Ruud Krol of Holland, Oleg Blokhine of the Soviet Union, Michel Platini of France and Hugo Sanchez of Mexico. The FIFA all-star game has been held in the United States on two subsequent occasions, in 1986 and 1996, but the names assembled in 1982 are hard to top. These were, of course, not the first impressive group of foreign stars to play on this field, since it was the same one where the Cosmos’ glittering lineup played their home games.
Several of those involved termed this game the most important in the history of American soccer, seemingly more than a bit of hyperbole. It certainly was a festive atmosphere, however, worthy of a European or South American stadium, one that FIFA officials probably remembered a decade later when they approved the use of Giants Stadium for the 1994 World Cup. Unfortunately, it was only one day. The rejection of the United States’ bid to host the 1986 World Cup was less than a year away. The demise of the NASL and the elimination of the United States from qualifying for the 1986 World Cup both were less than three years away. Festive atmosphere or not, some dark years for American soccer were on the horizon.
A version of this article first appeared on Roger’s Big Soccer blog on April 3, 2011.