Slaviša ‘Steve’ Žungul, Sports Illustrated, February 2nd, 1981
Here’s a perfectly geeky question for your pub quiz night: which player was the top goalscorer for two different teams within the same season, both champions of their respective countries? Help: it was on two different continents. And in two different sports.
Of course, posing that question would only make sense if you’re somewhere in what was once Yugoslavia. Maybe also in certain places in the US, such as Long Island and Manhattan’s Upper East Side – the old stomping grounds of Steve Zungul. The rest of the football World has forgotten about the player who had variously been nicknamed the ‘Yugoslav Gerd Müller’, ‘The Nureyev of soccer’ and, perhaps most famously, ‘The Lord of all Indoors’. The forward whom the legendary Giorgio Chinaglia, famous for his bad-mouthing of Beckenbauer, Cruyff and even Pelé, once described as ‘almost perfect’.
Zungul was a young football superstar for Hajduk Split in Yugoslavia, but defected to America in 1978, before he could reach the height of his fame. Banned from playing in any FIFA-affiliated league in the world, he turned to indoor soccer, the six-a-side arena game which was popular in the USA at the time, and bossed it for years. He set many goalscoring records, but was one of those players whose charisma transcended their stats, and even abilities. An icon, if you will.
Always cheeky and and confident, he scored like a machine and lived like a rock star, surrounding himself with women and fast cars, regularly clubbing and hanging out with celebrities – first in Yugoslavia, then in the US. And fans loved him for it. But now, more than two decades after his playing days ended, he shines away from the limelight. The only recent photo of him you can find on the internet is a mugshot from last year, when he was arrested for DUI in Florida: still woozy-eyed and with a scant grin on his face, his long, mischievous locks falling freely from his bald scalp.
Zungul is not an easy man to track down. He lives in Escondido, California – also known as the ‘Hidden Valley’ – and has hardly ever given interviews in the last twenty years. When Hajduk Split were celebrating their centennial in February 2011, a small army of Croatian journalists tried to reach him. I was among them and managed to get hold of his email address (which, of course, contains the 7 – number he insisted on wearing throughout his playing career), but he never replied to me.
Born Slaviša Žungul in Požarevac, Serbia (also the birthplace of the late Balkan warlord Slobodan Milošević and the early golden-age Ajax libero Velibor Vasovic), his family settled down in Kaštela, just outside of Split. There he honed his skills on local miniature dirt pitches in the 1960s. Legend has it he became so good by the time he was 11 that they forged his documents so he could play in youth tournaments for 15-year-olds. He came to Hajduk at 17 and soon established himself in the team, topping the club’s goalscoring sheet for six years in a row, as Hajduk won three league titles and five cups with him on board.
He also became a regular for the national team and was repeatedly compared to Gerd Müller. ‘He was the king of goalscorers,’ says Vladimir Beara, one of the best keepers in the world in the 1950s, later a coach. ‘Everything Müller could do for Bayern, Žungul could do for Hajduk. He just knew where the ball was going to go and could always see a few moves ahead of everyone else. That’s something you can’t be taught, you need to be born with it.’
Back then, Hajduk were also a force to be reckoned with in Europe, but they were a different team at home and away. They would beat Saint-Étienne 4-1, then lose 1-5 in the return leg; win 2-0 against PSV in Split, then lose 0-3 in Eindhoven. The 1978-79 season saw the return of Tomislav Ivić, the hard-working tactician who trained Zungul early in his career. Ivić, who died last year, was the most successful coach Croatia ever produced – he won an astonishing 15 major trophies in six different countries (Yugoslavia, Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, Portugal, Spain). But the systematic Ivić and his free-spirited forward never saw eye-to-eye. ‘He always made us play too defensively,’ Zungul has said. ‘I was required to run up and down the pitch and open up spaces, whereas I should have been saving my strengths for finishing.’
It’s not that Zungul couldn’t run – he scored many of his goals for Hajduk coming from behind in full speed to smash the return pass from the wingers into the near corner. It became his signature move, as Ivić made the team endlessly practice that particular pattern. But Zungul was a natural-born predator, a ‘fox in the box’, and he came to resent the coach for not playing him in a more Gerd Müller-role. He wanted to score more, as if goals were some kind of an addiction he developed. Goals, goals, goals… He could never get enough of them. Oddly enough, he never scored any for Yugoslavia in his 14 caps. ‘That’s because I was always the youngest,’ he said. ‘My role wasn’t to score, but to cover the space for the likes of Džajić, veterans who couldn’t run.’
In October 1978, Arsenal came to the old Hajduk stadium for the second round of the UEFA Cup and parked the bus. The hosts only won 2-1 and Ivić was furious with his players for letting that one goal in – a long range effort by Liam Brady – saying it will prove crucial in the return leg. As usual, he was right: two weeks later, Willie Young scored seven minutes from time at Highbury and Arsenal won 1-0, qualifying on away goals.
But by that time, Zungul had had just about enough. The club owed him some money and he became paranoid, thinking they were about to send him to the army to further delay the payment. Football players in Yugoslavia were only allowed to sign for a foreign club in the calender year in which they were to turn 28 – but before that they had to complete the obligatory 18 months of army service. Zungul, whose father was a retired military official, didn’t want to waste his best footballing years. He was only 24 and decided to escape his fate.
A heart-throb and jet-setter that he was, Zungul was at the time involved in a romantic relationship with Moni Kovacic, a pin-up girl famous for being the first Yugoslav to pose naked for the Playboy magazine. She was travelling to New York, and Slaviša asked Hajduk for permission to go with her and play a few indoor exhibition games during the winter break in the league. Reluctant at first, they unsuspectedly complied, as the player’s manager probably did his part and greased the wheels. Unlike citizens of other communist countries, Yugoslavs were allowed to travel abroad freely and the standard of living in the 1970s wasn’t that bad, so no one at the club thought the player might not come back. He was, after all, under contract – and besides, what would a young star of his calibre, honoured as one of the six best forwards in Europe that year by France Football, possibly look for in the USA?
However, what awaited Zungul in America were no exhibitions. It was a brand new professional football league, albeit played indoors and with ice hockey-style dasher boards surrounding the field. One of the newly established teams, the New York Arrows, hired Dragan ‘Don’ Popovic to scout the European market and bring a much needed star power to their roster. Popovic had once played for Hajduk and Zungul was his first choice, so he used his connections to get him, but he never told the club what his real agenda was. ‘They thought it was a practice game you play off-season to stay in shape,’ he revealed in a later interview. ‘I knew they wouldn’t understand a whole professional league.’
On December 3rd 1978, Hajduk played their last match before the winter break. A very strong FK Sarajevo team, lead by Safet Sušić (the current Bosnia and Herzegovina manager), came to Split, but Hajduk thrashed them 5-0. Zungul scored two amazing goals and was escorted from the pitch with a standing ovation from fans who packed the Stari plac stadium. That was the last time they saw him there, only they didn’t know that.
Merely three weeks later, he was greeted by a completely different set of fans in the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. It was the Arrows’ opening night in the inaugural season of the Major Indoor Soccer League, and many in the crowd didn’t even know the rules of this strange, new sport. And how could they, when even some of the players weren’t sure? The Arrows signed almost the entire roster of Rochester Lancers, a team that participated in the North American Soccer League – these were all ‘regular’soccer players who were getting used to playing the game which in many aspects, including the shape and size of the field, as well as typical match results, bared more resemblence to ice hockey than association football.
Writes J. D. Reed in his 1981 Sports Illustrated story: ‘Back in 1978, when MISL began, indoor soccer resembled human pinball, a game of buzzers, flashing lights, disco music, galloping players and the ball rebounding haphazardly off the walls and around the turf’, adding that after a couple of years ‘…the sport has lost its penny-arcade look. Indoor soccer has developed its own tactics, strategies, set plays and theory.’
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Zungul was the key figure in establishing indoor soccer in America. Still confused by the new surroundings and probably also jet-lagged, he bagged four goals in that first match and proceeded to lead the team to the 1978-79 MISL title. He repeated that for another three seasons: as the league grew in popularity and attendance figures, the Don Popovic-coached Arrows dominated and Zungul was regularly winning goalscoring and MVP awards. The touch and feel for the ball he acquired as a kid in Kaštela, where over the summer they would play three-a-side on small goals, really helped him. He was simply head and shoulders above everyone else – so much so that in the 1980-81 he piled 108 goals in 40 matches, 58 more than the next guy in the league. Next season he banged 103. It was ridiculous. Goals, goals, goals… Now it seemed he could have as many as he wanted, but was Zungul happy?
No. And it wasn’t supposed to be like that in the first place. Zungul thought he would only play indoor soccer for a while and then switch back to ‘real’ football as soon as he’s allowed. ‘Inside is good game,’ he told reporters after he mastered basic English. ‘Faster, with more shots, more goals. Is good game. Is O.K. But outdoors, outdoors is game I love to play.’
When Hajduk Split realized their golden boy wasn’t coming back, they started a smear campaign against him. He was branded a deserter, a traitor, a drunk. The Yugoslav FA intervened with FIFA to uphold the ban which effectively prevented the player from signing for any football club in the world. Staying in the MISL, a league not affiliated with FIFA, remained his only choice.
So he did what he could to blend in. He changed his name to Steve Zungul, he entertained the audiences with his special dance moves after scoring. While all of his Arrows team mates retained a low-profile family life in suburban Long Island, Zungul found home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he frequented top restaurants and night clubs, hanging out with the stars of Broadway and Hollywood. Everyone there knew ‘Disco Steve’ who drove a Rolls Royce, wore a cowboy hat and boots, spent big. He was no stranger to the newspapers, either – they followed his exploits both on and off the field. In one interview he confessed his boyish crush with Olivia Newton-John, saying he met her at a party but was too shy to talk to her.
Still, the glamorous life of a New York socialite wasn’t enough to distract Zungul from his dream of returning to the outdoor game. He took his case to the Supreme Court of the United States and finally managed to procure a licence to play on the big pitch. In January 1983, he asked the Arrows to increase his $150,000 annual paycheck, knowing that the financially-strapped management can’t afford that (they folded only a year later). So Zungul was traded to the Golden Bay Earthquakes of the NASL, where his earnings doubled.
What he did then was incredible. ‘After four years of playing only indoors, I felt I had something to prove,’ Zungul said in an interview. ‘People said, ‘He’s a great indoor player, but can he play outdoors?’ To me that is like asking, ‘Can he play real soccer?’ I show them.’ After a short period of adaptation, Zungul proved he still very much could run and move channels like he did in Hajduk Split. And score, of course: he made the NASL All-Star team in both 1983 and 1984, while in that second season he also became the NASL MVP, as well as top scorer, bagging 20 goals and 10 assists in 24 games.
After he outclassed the 36-year-old Giorgio Chinaglia in a match his Earthquakes won against the Cosmos, the veteran striker branded Zungul the man to succeed him in New York. Of course that Disco Steve was eager to return to the Big Apple, but Earthquakes owner Carl Berg said: ‘No way. Steve’s under contract here until 1987. I wouldn’t sell him if they offered me Warner Communications.’
However, it turned out NASL was a castle in the sand and it collapsed at the end of the 1984 season. Zungul was its last MVP and top goalscorer. After that he went back to MISL, where he played for San Diego Sockers and Tacoma Stars, winning four more titles and countless invidiual awards. He retired in 1990 as the MISL’s all-time leader in goals, assists and overall points (goals + assists). His points record in the leauge stands at 1,123 – almost 300 more than anyone else could manage. Goals, goals, goals.
Back in Split, they eventually forgave him for deserting the team. They won the 1978-79 title without him, but Zungul remained the club’s top goalscorer in that season with the 12 he recorded before leaving half way into the campaign. He never got to experience the roar of Torcida on the Poljud Stadium, opened only a few months after his departure, nor he could help Hajduk in what many consider their greatest ever match: the return leg of the 1979-80 European Cup quarterfinals, when the great Hamburger SV side of Keegan, Hrubesch and Magath was beaten 3-2, but it wasn’t enough because Hajduk was once again eliminated on away goals.
In a way, Steve Zungul scored all of his goals away after he left Split. But even though two generations of football fans have since grown up without seeing him play, the legend went on. Even nowadays, he’s still frequently referred to as ‘The King’ there: not the best player who ever wore Hajduk shirt, but one of a kind. After him, there never was another Zungul nor could there ever be.
And no one described his style of play and approach better than Zungul himself. ‘The goal-getter must be a con man, a thief, a clown, a magician,’ he said in that Sports Illustrated story. ‘And you must think hard about what you’re doing. When the game is over, it’s not your body that should be tired, but your brain.’
By Aleksander Holiga
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona