Yugoslav Star Is to the MISL What Wayne Gretzky Is to the NHL : Tacoma's Steve Zungul Proves That He Is Still 'The Lord of All Indoors'

Times Staff Writer

It was on Dec. 22, 1978, just three days before Christmas, that Slavisa Zungul made his American soccer debut.

They called it soccer, but it was not the soccer that Zungul had mastered in his native Yugoslavia. Instead, it was an Americanized version, one played indoors on a much smaller field, with plastic grass and hockey boards.

Zungul, whose Christian name already had been Americanized to Steve, had no intention of making a career of this new game. It was all right as something to pass the time, something to earn a few dollars and keep fit before returning home to the "real" soccer of his youth. But that was all.

"When I first came to New York, it (indoor soccer) was just something to do for fun," he said.

And it was in that spirit that Zungul took the field for the New York Arrows in the very first Major Indoor Soccer League game.

Yet, by the time the final whistle sounded, Zungul, without so much as a single practice session in this new sport, had scored four goals. It was not long before he was being called "The Lord of All Indoors."

Now, more than eight years later, his reign continues.

His flowing black hair, once long and thick, has thinned. His body, once youthful and resilient, after being banged frequently against the boards and scraped across the turf, is harder to lift off the floor.

But Zungul, 32, still reigns as one of the game's brightest stars.

Now a member of the Tacoma Stars, he will be playing in his eighth All-Star game on Wednesday night at the Forum--the only player to be named to the all-star team every year. Seemingly ageless in a sometimes violent game, his instincts remain sharp, his expertise still obvious.

"I think Steve can still do whatever he wants to do," Tacoma Coach Alan Hinton said. "I think he can play for several more years if he wants to."

Said Zungul: "When you get older, sure you get slower, but you find different ways of approaching the game. You can use your head more, and use other advantages you have in the game."

Last season, Zungul had scored 29 goals and assisted on 34 others in 27 games for the San Diego Sockers when he was sold to Tacoma in a $1 million deal, the richest in MISL history. The Stars gave him a $150,000 signing bonus, which they feel was well worth it.

"I was very happy about it (his moving to Tacoma) because Steve's a great player," Hinton said. "He knows how to win, and the team starts to believe it can win, and they go from ordinary to better than ordinary."

Zungul finished last season with 55 goals and 60 assists to win his seventh scoring title. Tacoma, which was 12-17 before his arrival, finished the season 23-26. It was the Stars' best-ever finish.

Going into this season, Zungul has scored an astonishing 542 goals in 267 games, an average of 2.03 per game. Nobody else comes close.

"He finished up as the scoring champion again, even when people thought he couldn't do it because he went up to Tacoma (which had been regarded as a weak team)," Hinton said.

San Diego Coach Ron Newman, whose Sockers have won five straight indoor championships, tried to view his team's loss of Zungul as something good for the league.

"It was a difficult decision, but we've helped build a franchise in Tacoma, which was struggling at the time," he said.

The Stars, at a cost of $200,000 per year, had indeed landed a superstar.

"We are ecstatic to bring to Tacoma the best player the game has ever seen," said Tacoma owner John Best at the time of the deal. "If this were hockey, we just signed (the Edmonton Oilers' Wayne) Gretzky."

To get an idea of how apt that analogy is, consider the number of MISL records that Zungul owned coming into this season:

Seven goals in one game; five goals in a half; four goals in a quarter; 108 goals in a season; 26 consecutive games scoring a goal (twice); 15 game-winning goals in a season; 64 game-winning goals in a career; three goals in 37 seconds. The list goes on.

Zungul's presence has helped to turn the Stars around, both in the standings and at the gate. Tacoma is in first place in the MISL's Western Division and, in addition to Zungul, two other Stars, Preki and Gary Heale, are in the top 10 in the league in scoring.

"I think that Zungul gives a little bit more space to the rest of our team," Hinton said.

He also sells tickets.

The Stars were averaging 6,992 fans before Zungul arrived last February. From that point on, they have averaged 9,103. In the playoffs last year, they set a MISL attendance record with a crowd of 19,476 in their final game against San Diego.

"Fans now embrace the team and they expect it to win," Hinton said. "Steve has a wonderful time here, the fans are having a love affair with him, and that's exactly what he deserves."

There is one honor, however, that has eluded the six-time MISL Most Valuable Player and seven-time scoring champion: All-Star MVP.

"I've always come up short, but I've been close," Zungul said. "Maybe some of those games I should have won (MVP honors), but it didn't go in my favor. You can't win everything, but someday maybe I'm gonna win that."

But Zungul is not coming to the All-Star game in search of individual honors. Instead, he sees it as a time to showcase the league's talent and to just have some fun.

"After fighting against everybody every week and every day, it'll be nice to get all the guys together and show the fans in L.A. our skills, and what we can do," he said.

Steve Zungul's beginnings as a soccer star date back to his teen-age years. He was just 17 when he was signed by Hajduk Split, one of the Yugoslav First Division's leading teams, and it was not long before he was also starring for the Yugoslav national team.

By the time he was 24, he was something of a folk hero in his native land, but he was having financial difficulties with Hajduk Split, which was slow in living up to its end of a contract.

In the fall of 1978, Zungul took Hajduk Split to court.

Meanwhile, in New York, Don Popovic, formerly a member of Hajduk Split and now coach of the Arrows, suggested that the club allow Zungul, who was in New York on vacation, to play indoors in the United States to make some money and return home happy.

Hajduk agreed on the condition that he return in time to begin his military service.

Zungul was issued a temporary registration permit by the United States Soccer Federation and began playing for the Arrows.

Later, the day he was supposed to return to Yugoslavia came and went and Zungul stayed on.

Hajduk Split wanted him back and contacted the Yugoslav soccer federation, which in turn contacted FIFA, world soccer's ruling body.

At Yugoslavia's request, the various international laws were set in motion and Zungul, then 24, was barred from playing outdoor soccer in the United States until he was 28, the legal age a Yugoslav could leave the country.

But the MISL was considered to be something less than "real" soccer by FIFA and was ignored by the organization. As a consequence, the fledgling MISL had control of perhaps the hottest soccer prospect in the country.

Zungul, who wanted to join the North American Soccer League and once again showcase his true skills, was therefore forced to either return home or keep playing indoor soccer. He chose the latter.

It was to be the MISL's gain.

"Steve came in as a recognized superstar as far as soccer was concerned," recalled Newman. "He was head and shoulders above anyone else."

After the Arrows won four MISL championships under Zungul's leadership, they folded due to lack of fan support.

Then, after a season and a half with the Golden Bay (formerly San Jose) Earthquakes, he signed with the Sockers for the 1984-85 season. In his first season with San Diego, Zungul scored 68 goals and had 68 assists in 48 regular-season games and in 13 playoff games he scored 13 goals and had 24 assists.

As MISL Commissioner Bill Kentling put it: "In the early days of the MISL, there was Steve Zungul and then there was everyone else."

But Zungul's expertise required a commensurate salary and the always dominant Sockers could no longer afford their collection of talent, especially with the imminent implementation of the $1.25 million salary cap, which is in effect this year.

Since Socker owner Bob Bell knew he could get the most for Zungul, he put the Yugoslav star on the block, and subsequently sold him to Tacoma.

"In the long run, this will be the best thing for the Sockers," Bell said at the time.

The Sockers are still a powerhouse, but at this point in the season they can't be found atop the Western Division of the MISL.

Instead, they are chasing the first-place Tacoma Stars.

Led by The Lord of All Indoors, Steve Zungul.

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