During the most famous season in its history, the New York Cosmos was owned by Steve Ross, the ebullient and controversial chief executive of Warner Brothers. He didn’t know much about soccer but he knew the realities of the box-office. When he saw FranzBeckenbauer playing at the back on his debut that memorable summer of 1977, he phoned down to the dug-out to bawl out the manager with the immortal advice: “Get the Kraut into midfield! We’re not paying him all that money to play deefence!”
Ross was a hands-on owner who had to be strapped into his seat in the upper deck of Giants Stadium during matches for fear he’d fall over the side with excitement. After one run of poor performances that year, he took the corporate helicopter from Manhattan out to New Jersey one morning, landed on the field in the middle of a training session and warned every player, including Beckenbauer and Pele, that their jobs were on the line.
At Hofstra University Stadium on Long Island next Saturday night, the reborn New York Cosmos take on the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in their first competitive game in 29 years. Anecdotes like those above explain why the passage of almost three decades without playing has done little to diminish the legend of the club. They remain one of the most storied outfits in American sports and if their return to the North American Soccer League (a level below Major League Soccer) has prompted an outbreak of unashamed nostalgia, it’s also been a rather protracted affair.
When an English consortium including Terry Byrne, best-known as David Beckham’s business manager bought the Cosmos name back in 2009, it was presumed a move to MLS was imminent, perhaps even with the then Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder on board in some on or off-field capacity. In a blaze of publicity, Eric Cantona was hired as director of football, Umbro began marketing a range of retro shirts from the club’s 1970s’ pomp that were sold in men’s clothes shops, and Pele was made honorary president. Although Cantona remains involved in a rather tangential capacity as a loosely-defined ambassador, the presence of Pele in the ground next Saturday will remind everybody once more of the club’s unique heritage.
During the Cosmos’ lengthy courtship of Pele in the mid-1970s, it became apparent that the Brazilian government might actually refuse to allow the country’s most prized national asset to leave. Knowing that sort of political intransigence had prevented the biggest clubs in Italy, Spain and Portugal from signing the player from Santos before, the Cosmos decided to try a different tack. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (a soccer nut) accompanied one of the club’s delegations to Brazil where the central thrust of his rather blunt contribution to the debate was as follows: “Listen, America has done so much for Brazil that we’d now like you to loan us Pele.”
The biggest signing of the new edition arrived in a rather more straightforward fashion. Although the club has largely eschewed the old-time route of importing expensive past-it marquee names from other countries, an exception was made for Marcos Senna, the Brazilian midfielder who played such a pivotal role in Spain’s 2008 European Championship win. He’ll anchor a squad featuring half a dozen players from the surrounding area that will be managed by Giovanni Savarese, a New Yorker and a former MLS stalwart.
“We know that we must earn every bit of respect and credibility that is afforded to us in the highly competitive sporting landscape that operates across this city,” said Seamus O’Brien, the Cosmos chairman who has driven what he calls this “reboot” since buying out the English consortium in 2011. “I am happy for us to be judged, not by words but by our actions and deeds. Step by step, we have begun that journey, building a foundation which I hope will ensure that when we reach the top again, and we will, we’ll be able to stay there long past my lifetime.”
With Saudi Arabia’s Sela Sport as co-owners, the Cosmos has more than just money going for it. Firstly, the kids who lived through the glory years of Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia and Beckenbauer (when for they drew an average of 40,000 plus several seasons), are all parents now. They were the first generation in America to grow up with pro soccer on the menu and, lately, they’ve been dusting off the Pele lunchboxes from their schooldays to prove their credentials. Secondly, opting to base themselves on Long Island, where they hope to build a bespoke 25,000 seater stadium at Belmont Park racecourse, gives them a population of 8m and the largest schoolboys’ league in the world to tap into.
While the previous owners opted to garner international headlines by putting together a team of all-stars, including Robbie Keane, to play at Paul Scholes’ testimonial in 2011, the new bosses are all about tending the grassroots and building for the long-term, with moving into MLS the eventual goal. Cosmos’ players and officials have been visible at events in the island’s soccer community for the best part of a year. A much more organic approach, it’s befitting an outfit that in its previous incarnation went from desperately giving away tickets free with Burger King Whoppers to having Mick Jagger, Barbara Streisand and Muhammad Ali turning up to watch them play.
“The beautiful and the near-beautiful dropped out of the skies in corporate helicopters, while down below Jersey housewives in pink polyester suits found themselves in traffic jams getting to the games,” wrote Shep Messing, the Cosmos’ Harvard-educated goalkeeper during the glory years. ‘So did pin-striped stockbrokers, large Ukrainian families, college students, bored baseball fans, the Governor of New York and the President’s son. Those of us who were there in the beginning, the mud-caked crazies who played for food-stamps and the sheer fun of it, call it a miracle.”
Messing is back in the Cosmos fold as a television announcer today, hoping to see the water turned into wine all over again.
(first published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, July 28th 2013)