Cosmos still the great New York story

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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)

 

The official guide to being a GAA snob

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We’ve all met the GAA snob on our travels. An insufferable character at the best of times, here is your eight-point guide to the cardinal rules of being a GAA snob.

One: You’ve always seen a better game. No matter how pulsating the clash you’ve just witnessed has been, no matter how epic the thrilling encounter, you must always be able to play your trump card by mentioning a match you witnessed that was superior in some way. If you have to go as far down the food chain as an Under-14 B league game to find something to reference, so be it. The idea is to make sure that everybody else sitting around the table basking in the glory of what they’ve just witnessed in person should lose a little of their after-glow when they hear you wax lyrical about an obscure fixture. “If you thought this was special, wait til I tell you about…”

Two: You knew he was good before anyone else. This is the card to play on days when a new star announces himself on the national stage. While everybody else is purring about his wondrous performance, you must establish your credentials by pointing out that you first glimpsed his potential years before most people had even heard of him. Again, the farther back you can go to find this evidence the better. A street league match in which the guy scored four goals is obviously the perfect play here but any off-Broadway game in which you saw him before he hit the mainstream also works. “There weren’t ten people there to see him play that dirty, wet morning I can tell you…”

Three: You make sure to get at least one away league game involving your county every year. This is an absolutely vital part of being snobbish and looking down your nose at your fellow travellers. It will allow you to exert moral superiority over all others during the championship. The farther away you travelled for that particular game and the worse the winter weather you endured getting there the better. Never mind how insignificant the league encounter was, the important thing is that you can name-drop a couple of the nearly men who played that day. This will make the casual fans at your table on a balmy summer afternoon get all sheepish and easily impressed. “It was the weekend of the bad ice but sure I drove anyway….”

Four: You must exaggerate your own playing prowess. You can go one of two ways with this. You can claim you were very good. Don’t go too far and say you were a county minor or anything. That’s too easy to disprove in the Internet age. You can mention the county medal you won at U-16 without bringing up the fact you were number 25 on a panel of 25, a small boast to separate you from the non-playing arrivistes. Alternatively, you can exaggerate how bad you were. Tell them you couldn’t hurl snow off a rope despite all the years training you put in. This makes you sound like a purist, a devotee of the game that broke your heart. “I loved the sport much more than it ever loved me…”

Five: You must take the contrarian position in every argument. Whatever the consensus view is, you voice the opposite opinion. Always and loudly. If the rest are saying before the match your team will win handy, you’ll vouchsafe it’ll be much harder than everybody expects. If they are saying after the match that your county will come through the qualifiers easily enough, you adopt your gloomiest face and announce, “We’ll be down for years yet.” If somebody claims a player looked unfit out there, you testify that you have it on good authority he’s the fittest man on the panel and his Yo-Yo test scores are off the chart. “I’m not saying you’re wrong but let me tell you…”

Six: You had to go to greater lengths than anybody else to get to this game. And you spend hours telling everybody you meet about the incredible odyssey you embarked upon to make it to the pub two hours before throw-in to sip pints and pontificate. Feel free to bore everybody to death with tales of the planes, boats and trains you had to take to get there. If you can pepper your yarn with travel near-misses and the anger of the missus, that should do the trick too. “I said to the wife, ‘you think I’m missing a championship match for our tenth anniversary holiday’…”

Seven: You look down on whichever code your county is weaker at. To sound convincing, you must denounce it at every opportunity. By all means, feel free to blame all the county’s problems in your favoured code on the board giving too much time and money to the other. If you are a hurling snob, make sure to trot out Christy Ring’s line about football being a game for bad hurlers. If you are a football snob (they do exist, I swear), point out that hurling isn’t even a national game, it’s more of a regional delicacy. “I’ve said it for years that game has this county ruined…”

Eight: You must claim a close association with a member of the panel or the backroom team. It doesn’t matter if the closest you come to knowing an actual player is that you work in the same building as the sub goalkeeper and nod at him in the corridor occasionally. The important thing is to give off the air of somebody with genuine inside knowledge of goings-on in the camp. Who’s in? Who’s out?  Nobody will know that your “knowledge” is really just a few Internet rumours you’ve cobbled together from the more hardcore message boards, at least not if you deliver them in a convincing enough tone. “Come ‘ere til I tell you what I heard from somebody who shouldn’t have even been speaking to me about this…”