Steve Zungul Knows the Score in San Diego

Times Staff Writer

New Year's Eve is a night to celebrate, except when The Boss is a soccer coach named Don Popovic.

His New York Arrows were in Phoenix on just such an occasion a few years ago, and Popovic was not impressed by the frivolity of the holiday. Since the Arrows had a game the next night, the coach established a midnight curfew.

Popovic's star player, Steve Zungul, was not impressed either--by the curfew.

Shep Messing, then the Arrow goalie, recently retold the story: "At quarter till midnight, Steve came down in leather pants and a velvet blazer with a bottle of champagne. Pop started yelling at him, and they were fighting and shouting. Steve finally said 'Happy New Year' and jumped in a taxi. He came back the next morning at 11. That night, he scored three goals and we won the game."

Zungul is now the leading scorer for the Sockers, whom he joined this season. Messing is now the backup goalie for the Cosmos, who play at San Diego tonight.

But no matter where Zungul has played in the United States, he has been known as The Lord of All Indoors. The nickname was intended to reflect feats which have made him indoor soccer's all-time leading scorer and recently earned him a place on the Major Indoor Soccer League's All-Star team.

But Zungul's indoor exploits have taken him beyond arenas and into a disco or two.

It seems soccer and night life co-exist quite nicely for Zungul. He hasn't been one to let a curfew interfere with a party, but he hasn't been one to let a party interfere with his soccer, either.

Life is more tranquil these days for Zungul, whose career has shifted him from New York's Broadway to San Diego's Sports Arena Boulevard.

"There is no night life here," he said. "New York was the place to go out. When I was younger, I could practice, play games and go out. Now, I'm a little older and I've been through all that."

Zungul, 30, may have been awed by New York when he came there in 1978 from his native Yugoslavia. But Slavisa Zungul, who Anglicized his first name to Steve, adapted rather quickly.

"Coming to New York was a big thing," Zungul said. "The way I was, I liked to feel the different life style. I like to learn."

How quickly did he adapt?

Right away, according to Messing.

"Do you know what his first words to me were?" Messing asked. " 'Show me Studio 54.' "

Studio 54 is a nightclub in Manhattan, a place for celebrities to see and be seen. Zungul made himself at home.

Said Messing: "He lived there for three years."

While Zungul was becoming acclimated to America, he was fascinated by Broadway plays, musicals and restaurants. Some New Yorkers referred to him as Broadway Stevie.

Zungul also was adapting to the Americanized game of indoor soccer. He is now the all-time leading indoor scorer, 356 points ahead of a Las Vegas player whose name is not Juli Veee. Fred Grgurev is second on the scoring list, and Veee--a rather fabled character in these parts--is 381 points behind Zungul, his successor on the Sockers' front line.

However, Zungul has not always been one to score points with his coaches.

"He's maybe a little bull-headed," Socker Coach Ron Newman said. "He won't admit when he's wrong at times. If he is, it has to be ironed out some way. When he had that spell of not putting the ball away, he wanted to blame the system."

Popovic also had his moments with Zungul, but most of them, he said, had more to do with soccer than curfews.

"I argued with him, maybe on a daily basis," Popovic said. "But we always argued on how to win games. We won four championships in a row with a team built around Zungul."

While leading the Arrows to four straight MISL championships, Zungul played by his own rules on and off the field.

"Pop was fanatical about curfews, training and not drinking," Messing said. "Steve didn't like curfew or training, and he liked to drink."

Zoltan Toth, the Sockers' All-Star goalie, was also with the Arrows during the days when Popovic was the coach-disciplinarian and Zungul was the tempestuous star.

"I remember once when we were in Phoenix five days," Toth said. "The weather was beautiful, but Pop wouldn't let anybody go swimming. Everybody was going down to the pool and putting their legs in. Zungul went down and jumped in. Pop came out and asked what he was doing."

Zungul's answer?

"Swimming," Toth recollected.

"Pop was so mad he put Steve's head under water," Toth said. "Steve was under so long I had to call time out. When Steve came out, Pop realized he had almost killed his leading scorer."

Messing said some players were jealous of Zungul because he lived by his own rules. However, Messing added, Zungul's life style should not have mattered as long as he performed well on the field.

Said Zungul: "Pop didn't want me to show that I didn't want a curfew in front of everybody. He liked me to come aside and ask him. If I can do it, it doesn't mean someone else can do it. Some guys go out and spend their energy foolishly. If I go out, I think of my team, my energy and my body."

For years, Branko Segota has been Zungul's companion. Segota, now a Socker midfielder, rooms with Zungul on the road.

According to Segota, players have come to accept Zungul's life style.

"You have to realize that's him," Segota said. "A lot of players can't stay out at night, then play. Steve has been doing that for I don't know how long. Maybe it makes him a better player."

Zungul said he is a better--and more mature--player than he used to be. Since joining the Sockers, his life style has changed somewhat.

He often spends time fishing and sailing. Nightclubs are not a thing of the past, but he does not frequent them as much as he did when he was younger--and in New York.

"We haven't had any curfew problems at all with him," Newman said. "I trust players. Maybe Popovic didn't trust them. I'm disciplined. Players know about the wrath of me if they're not in bed. Steve is one of the lads who wants to win so bad that he looks after himself."

Zungul's desire to win is not limited to the playing field.

"We were running late for practice on the freeway one day," Toth said. "I was going the speed limit--55. Steve passed me by, and I saw a policeman behind us. Steve thought I was trying to race him, but I was trying to tell him to slow down.

"He drives a Mercedes and I drive a Ford. Guess which one of us the policeman pulled over? Steve was upset about what it would do to his insurance. He didn't talk to me for two days after that."

The same competitive instinct has helped him in soccer.

"He is more competitive than any player I have ever seen," Popovic said. "That's the reason he accomplishes what he does. When you see him in practice, he doesn't want to lose even a 10-on-10 game."

In game situations, Zungul is extremely intense. He does not have what might be called a trigger temper, but he loathes repeated mistakes by teammates.

"When someone makes a mistake, it's not the end of the world," Zungul said. "If you do it once, fine. Don't do it from game to game. I'll become frustrated and scream."

Opposing fans and players appear frustrated by what some call Zungul's garbage goals. Those are scored when an opposing team has pulled its goalie to gain a player-advantage because it is behind late in a game.

When Buffalo had a team, some of its fans referred to Zungul as the Commissioner of Sanitation.

"People say he scores garbage goals," Popovic said. "Why don't others score around the goal the same way? You need to have a nose to be at the right place at the right time like Steve does."

Zungul began to develop that nose for goals at age 11, when he had documents forged so that he could play on an amateur soccer team for 15-year-olds. By the time Zungul was 17, he was playing for the first-division Hadjuk Split team. He led the team to three national championships in six years, scoring 350 goals in 250 games.

But in 1978, at 24, Zungul was supposed to report for 18 months of compulsory military service. About the same time, Popovic asked him to play a few indoor exhibitions in New York.

Zungul decided it was time to leave Yugoslavia.

He did well in those exhibitions with the Arrows and signed a four-year contract with the team.

In six professional indoor seasons, Zungul has led the league in scoring five times. His career totals are 518 goals and 312 assists.

In 137 of his last 141 games, he has scored a point. He has 93 hat tricks in 230 career games.

"Give him all the credit in the world," Messing said. "He has been spit at and kicked at. People say he is selfish and egotistical. All I know is he put money in the bank for me with four championships."

In fact, during the 1983 outdoor season with San Jose, Zungul wanted so much to beat Toronto in the playoffs he offered--out of his pocket--every teammate a $300 reward if his team won. He even brought the cash to the game.

San Jose lost, 2-0. Unlike New Year's Eve in Phoenix, Zungul had no reason to celebrate.

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