Skip to main content
Original Issue

Ambassador of ill will

Washington's Paul Cannell may be a Diplomat but he's not very tactful on the field and has been sat down once by the league for piling up too many penalty points

Paul Cannell, the high-scoring center forward of the NASL's Washington Diplomats, strode into the locker room before a recent game against Vancouver with a monstrous black cowboy hat over his dark locks. "This is so you can tell the good guys from the bad guys even if you don't speak English," he shouted gleefully at his multinational, polyglot teammates.

For the 24-year-old Englishman, wearing a black hat is like carrying coals to Newcastle, where, in fact, he grew up, the son of a butcher, and where he played First Division soccer before coming to Washington. Cannell is recognized by teammates and opponents alike as the roughest player in the league. He also ranks seventh in scoring in the NASL and is one of the game's more outspoken characters.

Cannell made a forcible impression early in 1976, his first season with the Dips, by colliding so violently with Cosmos Goalie Bob Rigby that Rigby was sidelined for the season with a broken collarbone. Cannell also scored 13 goals and two assists that year.

Contract troubles kept him at Newcastle United last season, but Cannell came back this year, having been purchased outright by the Dips. He picked up where he left off, reinstalling himself as the darling of the Washington fans and unnerving keepers with elbows, hips, head and body. Cannell is the first player this season to be suspended by the league for a game, a result of acquiring 20 penalty points. Depending on the severity of the infraction, one to five points are assessed for each yellow warning card given a player. It seems certain that Cannell will amass 30 points before long and thus be set down for two more games; he might even reach 40, meaning he would miss three additional contests.

The Dips' coach, fellow Englishman Gordon Bradley, is concerned about this prospect. "Paul missed three games with a bad shin, then the penalty game," he says. "With a possible five more games he could be out, we'll hurt. He's the key of our attack. I hope he stops it."

After opening the season with an 8-2 record, the Dips lost six straight before beating New England 2-1 last Wednesday night in a game in which Cannell had a goal and an assist. Even with their slump, which is attributable in part to the four games Cannell missed, the Dips are still in second in the Eastern Division of the National Conference, behind the 14-2 Cosmos.

Cannell, who is a well-mannered, jovial man off the field, recently stood at the sideline during practice, balancing a cup of Gatorade on his head. "I love a rough game, that's me game all the way," he said. "That an' scorin' goals. I like to stir up the broth, make things happen."

Team president Stephen Danzansky, who was watching Cannell's balancing act, tried to explain what made Cannell one of the biggest flakes outside of Battle Creek. "Paul's not an evil flake—he's, uhm, an exuberant flake," he said. "He's not a media flake either, he's a real one. He's not a great flake yet like Rodney Marsh [Tampa Bay] or George Best [Los Angeles]. But I'm sure he'll get there."

Whatever brand of flake he is, Cannell is a tough competitor. His card-drawing fouls are not cheap shots—cutting down blind-sided defenders or stepping on downed players. It is his excellence around the goal that gets Cannell into trouble. When his team is on the attack, he lurks in the penalty area in front of the goalkeeper, pacing and trotting, drawing a defender or two with him—he's often double marked—poised to run in and leap high in the air to head in a goal from a centering pass or a corner kick. This leads to collisions with goalkeepers coming out to grab the ball.

"He's just amazing in the air," marvels Bradley. "He can even deflect a shot with his head to the foot of a waiting teammate."

The trouble is that Cannell's "timing" is often far enough off to make referees wonder why he's doing a Jose Greco on the keeper while play has gone else-where—and out come the yellow cards.

After scoring two solid goals in the Dips' season opener with the Fury in Philadelphia, Cannell was ejected from the game for pile-driving Fury Keeper Jim Miller all the way to the back of the net while the ball was somewhere up-field. As he walked off, Cannell gave the Philly fans a "Why me?" gesture with outspread arms, like an old-time TV wrestling villain. It sent the crowd into a howling rage. "I like to work the out-of-town crowds," says Cannell. "There's too many heroes in the game. The fans deserve someone to hate, don't you know?"

Cannell often draws fouls from defenders because they get irritated at his antics. When he's awarded a penalty shot out of town, he runs along the sidelines like a berserk cheerleader, whipping the fans into a frenzy of hatred, and beaming all the while like a spoiled child.

Protesting a yellow card in a home game against Tulsa, Cannell walked disgustedly away from the referee and then almost shyly slipped down his shorts, revealing black underpants and getting an ovation for his dark-side-of-the-moon shot.

"I sort of decided to do it before the game, that's why I wore me knickers," he says. "Otherwise you'd just wear a jock underneath."

European soccer pundits, who criticize the American game, claim it's staffed by foreign stars who are relaxing on their summer vacations and reserve their talents for the winter season, the real season in Europe. Cannell, who gets more than $35,000 a year from the Dips—far above English standards—doesn't entirely disagree. "When I came in '76 it was a lark," he says. "I wanted to see the States, drink it up and see the girls, and get the money. The game was bloody awful. But it's improving here, and I found that, like in England, I wanted to win. I care a great deal about that. That's why I get so many penalties. I work!"

"He's my kind of player," says Bradley. "He's got a big heart and total devotion to the game. And he's got a very high work rate. But on the field he becomes someone else. It's something he doesn't understand, and I don't either."

At times Cannell reminds one of a boy brought up in a strict, religious family who goes away to school and discovers atheism. "In England soccer is a religion," he says. "People live and die by their football sides and the pools. There's photographers crawling into your bedroom, people making speeches. It's serious public business.

"I could never pull down me pants in the F.A. Cup at Wembley. There'd be a bloody riot, and I'd never play again, probably. And besides, it wouldn't be fair to those working people who live for the game, would it?

"But here, ah—soccer is entertainment. It's Hollywood and the telly. It's, like, I can indulge me fantasies. I can do all the wild things I've dreamed of, and the crowds eat it up.

"I like it both ways, though. I like the serious game in England, all perfect in the rain and the cold. And then I like to come over here and just go nuts in the sunshine."

When he was first approached to play professionally in Newcastle, Cannell was studying law. "I'll have to finish it," he says with a laugh. "I've a disco in England, the Magpie, an' I'm always being sued for something, paying barristers a bloody fortune."

And Cannell still enjoys the night life. "My apartment is a straight drive from Tramps [a glittery Georgetown disco]," he says, "no curves or turns to confuse me after an evening with Mr. Johnnie Walker." One of the few times the fast-quipping Cannell has been speechless in America occurred when he tried to date a pretty blonde in Tramps. "There were these two great hulking lads in sunglasses with her," he says, "and it was a challenge. I got her address and phone number. It was Susan Ford, the President's daughter. Like the bloody Princess or somethin'."

Cannell meets challenges in a different manner on the pitch. After a recent game against him, Phil Parkes, an English keeper with Vancouver who was dramatically decked by Cannell, nursed a swollen ankle with an ice bag and said, "Paul's not unusual back in England. Forwards are supposed to be rough. And with him, you know he's going to hit you early on. He never fails. You just wait for your chance and get him back."

"I like to say hello to a keeper early in the game," says Cannell. "Then their eyes are moving around, and maybe they'll miss a shot. The English keepers know how to care for themselves, they come up with the knee, or their head in your chin, but the Americans are still shaky. They need toughening."

One reason for Cannell's unflagging aggressiveness is hypnosis. Not watered-down Zen or Positive Thinking, but the real item. "Four years ago I met a Swedish hypnotist in Spain on holiday," he says. "Believe it or not, I was having problems with self-confidence." Cannell does a half-hour routine before games, curling up in a corner of the locker room with his arms over his head. "When I come out on the field, I can run through a brick wall," he says. "Most goalkeepers aren't that tough."

Perhaps hypnosis works too well sometimes. In a game against Fort Lauderdale, in which the Dips were leading 4-1, Cannell took the ball at midfield and began running toward his own goal. Opponents chased him, thinking he was running for room to turn and maneuver. But he kept on going, galloping triumphantly, madly toward his own goal. Dips Keeper Bill Irwin smiled uncertainly. And the fans hushed when Cannell broke in one-on-one against his own goal.

"I don't know what I was thinking," he says. "We were up three and I just did it." Perhaps it was the final fantasy of self-confidence, of pulling off the unthinkable by scoring for one's opponent. Or maybe the ultimate rule to break.

Whatever it was, Cannell finally couldn't do it, and he tapped the ball lightly to his openmouthed keeper. "The training runs too deep," says Cannell. "The ball simply must not go over your line."


Cannell works through New England defenders in a 2-1 Dips victory in which he scored, assisted.


With a knack for japery, Cannell shows knickers.