Nick WellsComment


Nick WellsComment

Every player remembers their first. 

It’s been 20 years but Hector Marinaro can remember the way the ball left his foot. His weaker foot. He saw the ball hit the back of the net and began sprinting around the field. In video footage you can see him screaming in sheer joy with flowing mullet, arms aloft and confetti raining down. He just kept running.

Marinaro made it one and a half times around the field before his teammates caught up and embraced him. Minutes later he was lifting the Cleveland Crunch’s first National Professional Soccer League championship in front of a crowd of roughly 11,000.  It was the first championship for a Cleveland professional sports team in 30 years.

"At that point, I had been playing over 10 years and had never won a championship. That really was a special goal and it kind of catapulted us to two more (championships)," he said in a recent interview with In Bed With Maradona. 

It was 1994, the year America embraced soccer and the carnival of its World Cup. Oprah Winfrey missed a cue and took a tumble. Diana Ross belted out the anthem and shanked a penalty. 

But for years, a different and wholly North American form of the beautiful game lurked just out of sight of the rest of the world: professional indoor soccer. 

As interest, and money, began withdrawing from the doomed North American Soccer League (NASL), fans turned to the indoor game.

In its various incarnations, it merged aspects of professional basketball and hockey. At various times, officials adopted a three-point line for goal scoring, powerplays and penalty kills. Substitutions were made on the fly a la hockey. 

Simply put: it was a six-a-side game with North American presentation, an antidote to football’s American naysayers who derided the low-scoring sport as boring when in comparison to the continent’s traditional sports. 

During its original incarnation, from 1977-1990, teams were allowed a squad of 16 players, with 12 homegrown players required. The emphasis, therefore, was on North American players.

The money soon started flowing. The likes of the Buss family, owners of the Los Angeles Lakers, owned the LA team and Joe Robbie— the first owner of the Miami Dolphins—owned the Minnesota franchise. Players across the league could easily command salaries of hundreds of thousands of dollars a season. 

The possibility for financial security attracted Europeans whose own domestic leagues were hesitant to award the big money that is now associated with them. The demise of the NASL only increased the number of players making the move to the indoor league.

Arsenal youngster Andy Chapman, for example, was handed a guaranteed contract of $500,000 for the Wichita Wings during the late 1980s. Everton cult hero Preki, a player Marinaro called the best he's ever played against, graced the astroturf arenas dotted around the American Midwest, while Tatu, a nimble-footed Brazilian who came to garner a paycheque to pay for a house in Brazil, ended up staying more than a decade and flourished.

The emphasis was on finesse. It was fine to be able to outmuscle the defender but, like the modern game of futsal, players were encouraged to play it up for the crowds.

The indoor league proved particularly attractive to Canadians. With limited leagues in the great white north, many turned to the U.S. for a chance to make a steady living that wouldn't require a series of second jobs to support a family. Internationals like Dale Mitchell, Bobby Lenarduzzi and Branko Šegota all had stints in the indoor league.

"Guys all played indoor because that was the best place to make money," said Marinaro. "We were all soccer players and at the time there was no viable outdoor league in North America to make money. The indoor game was paying the most money, so everyone was like 'alright, we're playing indoor.'"

Marinaro was on another level. By the time he retired, he had headed and kicked his way to the top of the all-time points and goals lists for the professional indoor game. In total, he scored 1,457 goals and recorded 2,255 points in 627 games. The National Professional Soccer League would eventually rename its Most Valuable Player Award after him.

"When he ran, he wasn’t churning," says Gary Hindley, who coached Marinaro when the Crunch won their first championship. "He was gliding. Hector was the single most natural goal scorer I've ever had."

Hindley remembers one moment during practice that particularly demonstrated Marinaro's unerring accuracy.

He placed a Styrofoam coffee cup on the edge of the boards and walked to the end of the field. With one swing of his boot, the ball made its way across the entire field to knock the cup off.

"It was pretty amazing what he could do," said Hindley.

The young Marinaro started out in Toronto as a defender, coached by his father—an Argentinian émigré who had played for Racing Club. He made the transition to playing forward after moving to Cleveland but his first stint there was over before it really started. 

Featuring in just five games and one season, he was sent packing after the team cut him.
He returned home to Toronto but suiting up for an outdoor professional league team wasn't enough to cut it. He was forced into supporting himself with a series of jobs—including working for Pascal's Furniture, a major furniture company based in Ontario, as well as working a series of odd jobs to stay afloat.

The taste of a normal life fuelled the desire to return south of the border to the indoor game. 
"It really made me want to get back to the States and get back to the indoor game," he said. "Everything I was doing was trying to get back there."

He made his return to the indoor circuit with the Minnesota Strikers, notching 75 goals in 45 matches for the club. That was followed by a stint in the colours of Los Angeles, playing for the Buss family’s Lazers club.

But by 1988, the Cleveland Crunch came calling, asking him to return to the club that had discarded him.

Cleveland was long overdue sporting success of any kind. The NFL’s Cleveland Browns were mediocre—which would actually be considered an improvement on the team’s recent struggles—and the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers were struggling to get fans to watch their insipid performances.

For the owners of the Crunch, the timing of the team’s resurgence couldn’t have come at a better time. 

"We used to go to the Cavs games and pretty much sit wherever we wanted," said Marinaro. "It was crazy. Indoor soccer, at the time, was more popular than the NBA in Cleveland."

Marinaro formed a formidable partnership with Yugoslavian striker Zoran Karic, collectively scoring 1,544 goals in their time together.

"I had Zoran Karic and Hector Marinaro, so I didn't need a third forward," said Hindley, the former Crunch coach. "I just needed someone to get them the ball."

That man was Tommy Tanner, a midfielder who was able to pick out his two strikers with incredible ease. Playing a 2-1-2 formation, with Tanner operating behind the front two, Hindley says the focus was on quickly recycling the ball for attackers.

Scoring the game-winning goal for the team's first championship ensured a degree of fame for Hector. A local company created a chocolate bar dubbed the "Hector Marinaro Crunch Bar" and fans began to recognise him outside of Cleveland.

"We'd go to malls and people would recognise us, we'd go out to dinner and people would come over for autographs…we were mini-celebrities at the time," he said.

He remembers a holiday to Las Vegas being interrupted by a couple staring at him by the hotel pool. Slightly unnerved, he kept an eye on them as they followed his every move. Eventually, they approached him to ask: "Are you Hector?"

It turned out that the couple, vacationing in sunny Las Vegas, were season ticket holders in San Diego. They had seen Marinaro and the Crunch lose in the championship series to their team.

Fame also had its drawbacks. Marinaro's son was born prematurely, forcing a 10-week extended stay in hospital. During his time there, an unknown individual called the hospital and threatened to kidnap the newborn.

"They locked down the whole hospital," said Marinaro."Somebody had called in saying they were going to kidnap my baby. But the fact that someone knew I was having a baby was crazy."

There is one small regret for the Canadian. The Columbus Crew came calling in 1996, wondering if the then 32-year-old Marinaro would be interested in a transfer to their newly established MLS club.  However, with two kids, a mortgage, car payments and a reduced salary on the table, Marinaro says he couldn't in good conscience accept the offer.

"I wish I had played in the MLS, but I couldn't take half the money to play outdoor anymore," he said. "I was just starting a family and it was not the time to take a 50 percent pay cut. If you're 21, 22 with no wife, no kids, [and] no mortgage then go for it."

Marinaro’s career at international level was limited due to a scandal involving several Canadian players and unproven match-fixing allegations at a tournament in Singapore in 1986. He was able to receive six caps for the Maple Leafs, though, with his final three coming in 1995.

Hector stayed in Cleveland for the rest of his career, hanging up his boots as the indoor leagues withered and died. He believes that ownerships financially overextending themselves, as well as a TV contract standoff, helped usher in the demise of the indoor game.

Attendances had peaked in 1996-1997, with 1,695,014 people turning up to watch regular season games but the return of an outdoor league, in the shape of MLS, was one of the final nails in the coffin. Players who had come for the money of the indoor league left for a chance to play the game they had learned growing up. 

Coaching would come next. An offer to coach the John Carroll University in the NCAA Division Three was accepted and Marinaro has replicated the success he that saw on the field as a player. He has led the Blue Streaks to two OAC Division championships and two appearances in the NCAA tournament. This past season, he won his second championship with a team led by his son Jesse.

"To win the championship with him on the team was really special," he said. "It's something I'll cherish for a long, long time."

He says his focus has changed as he's transitioned to life off the field. Before, there was an emphasis on the professional game and how playing would help that goal. Now, with the university, he says his focus is on the education a player is receiving.

For him, the idea of another indoor league receiving the same support and financial backing as the one he played in is a fading dream.

The Major Indoor Soccer League was restarted in 2001 and lasted seven years, a league of the same name ran from 2008-2014, the Xtreme Soccer League lasted a single season and the only one still standing is the Major Arena Soccer League.

Seventeen clubs take part, with an average attendance of 2, 347. A far cry from the numbers seen even in the late 1990s as the indoor league was dying.

"The old North American Soccer league was big and that died, then the indoor game kind of took over, and the indoor game really started dying around '96 when the MLS started. With the MLS now, there's no way the indoor game gets back to where it was," he said.

Coach Hindley laments the end of the prominence of the league. He was recently part of a Mississippi indoor franchise and firmly believes if they had last another season, it could have worked.

“It’s such a great game for American sports fans,” he said. “I’m so disappointed that it’s seen its ups and downs.”

There remains a section of supporters and football lovers that brush off the indoor game as a flight of fancy, or a bastardised version of the game. That doesn’t concern Marinaro. Their criticism can’t take away the goals or the points, he scored. Nor can it take away what he experienced. The thrill of a championship, being recognised outside of the arena and the chance to fulfil the dream of being a professional footballer.

The game he made his name at may have been far from a purist’s dream, but no one can take away that swing of a boot and the championship that Hector Marinaro won.

By IBWM Senior Writer Nick Wells. Full image credit goes to Canada Soccer