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When Pele and Cosmos were kings

Jun 13 2005 09:44 PM

Did anyone here on the board see Pele play for the Cosmos?,9753,1503396,00.html

Gavin Newsham
Friday June 10, 2005
The Guardian

Soccer in the United States was dying a slow, painful and largely unnoticed death in 1975. Five years since the North American Soccer League (NASL) began, the game had barely registered on the public's radar. "Soccer," said one writer, "was just a game played by Commies and fairies in short pants". Even in New York, the most ethnically diverse metropolis on the planet, there was little appetite for the game and the city's own franchise, the New York Cosmos, were, according to their American goalkeeper Shep Messing, "drawing less than the skin flicks on Eighth Avenue".

Owned by Warner Communications, the New York Cosmos were, like many other franchises, a team going nowhere fast. A ragbag assembly of students, foreigners and part-timers, they played their football at a high school athletics ground in front of row after row of empty seats. Nobody knew about them, let alone cared.
Thirty years ago today, all that changed, thanks to the indomitable spirit of one man, the financial muscle of another and, of course, the global reputation of Pele, the world's greatest player. At a chaotic press conference at the Big Apple's famous presidential hang-out, the 21 Club, the Cosmos announced the transfer coup of the century when they unveiled the three-times World Cup winner as their latest recruit. "We had superstars in the United States but nothing at the level of Pele," says John O'Reilly, the club's media spokesman. "Everyone wanted to touch him, shake his hand, get a photo with him."

Five days later, Pele made his Cosmos debut at the crumbling Downing Stadium at Randall's Island (the locals called it "Vandal's Island"). Situated under the Triborough Bridge, Downing was a dump. Broken bottles littered the field, there was no running water (apart from the overflow from the toilets above the locker rooms) and there was more grass on the road into Manhattan than on the pitch. For Pele's debut against the Dallas Tornado, the groundsman Stan Cunningham even spray-painted the pitch green when he heard CBS would be covering the game. "Pele had this sort of green fungus on his leg," recalls Clive Toye, general manager and later president of the Cosmos. "He thought he had caught a disease in his first 45 minutes playing in New York but all it was the green paint coming off."

Before Pele came to town, soccer games had only ever really been covered by junior reporters, often as some kind of punishment. Now, though, there were over 300 journalists at Downing, including David Hirshey, Cosmos correspondent for the New York Daily News. "Pele was a diamond in a rhinestone setting," he says. "It was inconceivable that he would play his first game in a place that was essentially a bunch of dirt and rocks left over from the Palaeolithic era."

The impact of Pele's signing was seismic. Before, they had given away tickets with Burger King vouchers and bumper stickers. Now, they had to lock the gates when the ground reached its 22,500 capacity. "There must have been another 50,000 turned away," remembers the Cosmos coach Gordon Bradley.

Like Toye, Bradley was an Englishman who had been with the Cosmos from their inception in 1970. After an unspectacular playing career that had taken him from Sunderland to Bradford Park Avenue and on to Carlisle United, he now found himself coaching the greatest player in the history of the game. "It was a joy ride," he recalls. "I remember the first practice. A cross went behind Pele's head and he was running toward the goal. He jumped up in the air and did a bicycle kick, and scored. The press couldn't believe it. I ended the practice right then."

The Cosmos squad also had trouble adjusting to the fact they were now sharing a pitch with Pele. "The biggest challenge for us," explains Werner Roth, then captain, "was not stopping and watching him play."

Pele's signing marked the end of a four-year odyssey for Toye, a former chief football writer for the Daily Express. He, together with the NASL's Welsh commissioner Phil Woosnam, had traversed the globe in pursuit of the Brazilian, stealing meetings with him in hotel rooms and taxi cabs and doing their utmost to persuade him his future lay not in a comfortable retirement. "I told him that he had to come to America because he would have the chance to do something no one else could do - make soccer a major sport in the USA," recalls Toye. "He later admitted he had no idea what the hell I was talking about."

Though the missionary role certainly appealed to Pele, so too did the financial rewards, not least as they would help extricate him from some serious financial problems back in Brazil. Bankrolled by Warner and their charismatic chairman Steve Ross, Pele earned more in his three years in New York than he had in his entire career with Santos. And to ensure he paid as little tax as possible, Warner prepared a succession of contracts for him, with only one having any mention of soccer in it. One even had his position in the corporation as "recording artist" with the Warner subsidiary Atlantic Records. "We owned him lock, stock and barrel," says Toye.

Pele's arrival not only signalled a wholesale reversal in the fortunes of the team but in the perception of the NASL as a viable alternative to the mainstays of baseball, basketball and American football. As well as publicising a league in dire need of a fillip, he brought instant credibility to the standard of the game in the States, even if the quality overall did not justify the inflated salaries of some imports.

Suddenly, a club run by five people out of an inadequate office on Park Avenue transformed into an organisation struggling to cope with countless media requests and ticket orders every week. Every last facet of the club needed overhauling. In days, the Cosmos had more than 50 support staff to help capitalise on Pele's arrival. Where once the press conferences would take place in the locker room with a handful of hacks passing the time before the bars opened, now they were held in the 21 Club or the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel, with scores of journalists enjoying the trappings of a club heading for the big time.

Even the buffet improved, as Jamie Trecker, the Cosmos' PR director, recalls. "Before Pele got to the Cosmos, you'd only have five or six journalists at a press conference and you'd serve finger sandwiches and maybe you'd open a couple of bottles of soda if it was really high end. After Pele signed, the basic food was caviar and smoked salmon and champagne."

By 1977, the Cosmos had dropped the New York prefix and moved to Giants Stadium in New Jersey, where more stellar recruits (including Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, Giorgio Chinaglia and Johan Neeskens) would join what had become the most glamorous team in world football. Though the front pages of New York's papers were hogged by the city's battle against bankruptcy or by another Son of Sam murder, the back pages were now reserved for the Cosmos. "We transcended everything, every culture, every socio-economic boundary," maintains Messing. "We were international, we were European, we were cool, we were Americans from the Bronx. We were everything to everybody."

On the road the Cosmos sold out every game ("like travelling with the Rolling Stones," says the club's travelling secretary Steve Marshall). In New York they were media darlings, idols of 77,000 fans (including Mick Jagger, Henry Kissinger, Robert Redford and Steven Spielberg) and virtual residents at Studio 54. In two years, they became an organisation with the cultural visibility no other arm of the Warner portfolio could boast. It mattered not that the club did not make a single cent in their 15-year history. The Cosmos had become the hottest ticket in town; Ross even had a seat belt installed in his spot in the upper tier, just in case he got overexcited and toppled over the edge.

When Pele played his last game at Giants Stadium on October 1 1977 it marked the beginning of the end, not just of an era but of the Cosmos and the NASL. Without anyone of Pele's stature to take it on, soccer's popularity nosedived and within a year crowds fell, the all-important television deal with ABC was lost and players headed back to Europe as salary caps were enforced. By 1985, the NASL was dead.

Pele's final game for the Cosmos was a friendly against Santos. Having played the first half for the New Yorkers (scoring from 30 yards), he switched sides at the interval. As the game progressed, the heavens opened, drenching all the 75,000 congregation. The next day a Brazilian newspaper ran the headline: "Even the Sky Was Crying."

·Once in a Lifetime The Incredible Story of the New York Cosmos was written by Gavin Newsham and is published by Atlantic Books on July 4, priced £8.99

Edgy DC
Jun 13 2005 10:46 PM

I saw him. The thing is that most of the big name imports -- Pele, Beckenbauer, Neeskins -- had little left when they came to the Cosmos, and probably would have retired had they been in Europe. The ones who truly carried the team were guys whocame from Europe unknown, like Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto, and Vladislav Bogicevic, as well as American (I think) Steve Wegerle. Chinaglia was a humped-back force, hunching down and playing the kind of back-to-the-net pivot-striker that usually you associate with shorter men. He once scored eight goals in a 9-1 playoff victory.

After Chinaglia left, the team had two latins in their prime, Roberto Cabanas and J.C. Romero. They were thinner and didn't dominate, but they were still the best team in their league. Nonetheless lacking the draws that made a big international name for themselves and coming to the NASL as a retirement job, the Cosmos mystique fizzled, and that was pretty much what was carrying the league. They had been drawing 45,000 at home while other teams rarely drew 10,000 and were more likely to see 3,000-5,000. They went from 28 teams to eight, it seemed, overnight.

The league tried to save itself by having an indoor season to compete with dawning all-indoor league ("Steve Zungul, The Lord of Indoors"!) but that just watered the product down further.

Jun 14 2005 05:14 AM

I saw him. You could feel the electricity when he came near the ball. Alas, soccer was still soccer. Many of the fans who showed up were like the celebrities who show up at NBA Finals and World Series games. They were there for the experience, but many had no appreciation for the game. When there was no more glitz after he left, they began to stay away in droves.

I have a long time friend who used to be a sportswriter in the Midwest. He has a theory about soccer. He feels it is a "Third World Conspitacy" (his words) designed to draw good young American athletes away from the sports in which they used to excel, so those other countries could begin to win Olympic Gold Medals in the sports in which America used to win the medals.

Many Americans say they won't watch it because of the lack of scoring. An often quoted line about that was written by Dick Young, when he said in a story, "It ended in a 0-0 tie - the score that made soccer famous."

I have played, coached and watched soccer for many years. I still will watch it on occasion. I have my own theory about why American sports fans haven't taken to the game. I feel they perceive what the rest of the world loves about the game - contunuous, non-stop action - as the game's major weakness.

Think of it. The second most widespread activity surrounding a game (betting is first) is a bunch of guys sitting in a bar watching the game on tv and second guessing the manager or coach. But the non-stop play of soccer doesn't allow the minute-by-minute or play-by-play managerial decisions or strategy that permits second guessing. Any decisions made by the coach aren't obvious even if some are made. And that is why I feel the sport hasn't had the popularity here that it has around the world.


Edgy DC
Jun 14 2005 05:46 AM
Edited 2 time(s), most recently on Jun 14 2005 06:06 AM

I remember them still drawing well in the years immediately after he left.

Jun 14 2005 06:05 AM

There was a blip in attendance when Beckenbauer joined the Cosmos. Star power in New York more than a love for the game.


Edgy DC
Jun 14 2005 06:07 AM

Here are their average attendances by season.


Their true golden era was the three years after Pele left.

Jun 14 2005 06:26 AM

Wasn't Beckenbauer there for those high attendance years? When he left, the fans suddenly realized they were watching soccer. The fans saw that 16 year olds from around the world could outperform the best trained American soccer players and lost interest. Maybe a NIH syndrome kicked (no pun intended) in. Who knows?
For whatever the reason, the sport doesn't evoke a visceral reaction among American sports fans. The people who originally attended the games were (reportedly) mostly first generation Americans. They came to see the sport they grew up with. And even though the sport is played almost everywhere now, once the kids stop playing it, they apparently lose interest in the game.


Jun 14 2005 06:28 AM

I missed it completely. Moved to California in '72, came back in late '83. There was no comparable pro soccer frenzy in the Bay Area in those years.

Edgy DC
Jun 14 2005 06:49 AM

What happened during those years is that the Cosmos were a wonderful team playing excellent ball. They hosted some great foreign teams during his period and held their own.

But the league's teams were by and large mismanaged, and the Cosmos spent them into irrelevancy. It was like many industries, where the boom comes so powerfully that you're too busy making money to think in terms of sustainability.

Jun 14 2005 07:08 AM

How were the Cosmos related to the Arrows? I don't remember the Cosmos at all, but I definitely went to see the Arrows play at Nassau Coliseum a couple of times. I remember a guy named Messing, I think.

Willets Point
Jun 14 2005 07:13 AM

My father took me to what I remember being a very crowded Giants Stadium for Cosmos games when I was a kid. Almost certainly post-Pele, but most likely in the era Edgy defines as the golden era.

Jun 14 2005 07:24 AM

Good stuff guys, I guessed we would have a few here that went to Cosmos games, in related news the woeful MetroStars have named American soccer legend Alexi Lalas the team's new president.

Edgy DC
Jun 14 2005 08:01 AM
Edited 4 time(s), most recently on Jun 14 2005 08:25 AM

The Arrows and their supastar Steve Zungul played in the Major Indoor Soccer League. Cosmos veteran Messing was, in a small way, what Pele had been to the Cosmos and NASL, a veteran in the twilight of his career lending his star power to an upstart franchise and league, as well as the crediibility of the more established league he came from. In reailty, he only tended goal in half or less of the teams games, as goaltending on a surface of astroturf bonded onto ice was brutal business. He gradually yielded the lion's share of time to his tandem partner, an Iron Curtain refugee with the cool handle of Zoltan Toth.

The Arrows had won the first four championships of the MISL, were dominating their league at the same level the Cosmos had been dominating the NASL, and were bringing their banners home to the same Nassau Colliseum rafters the Islanders were decorating. It was good times, and the team tried to drum up a rivalry with the Cosmos. They tried to schedule exhibitions, but a format (half indoors, half outdoors?) could never be agreed upon.

But the Arrows also were mismanaged, drawing 5-7,000 per game despite their dominance. They sold off their stars and disbanded shortly after Davey Johnson took over the Mets and gave people a better story to follow. The Cosmos, at this time, were still marketable and star-studded, but were unable to generate revenue with the NASL size, schedule, and viability rapidly shrinking (going from like 28 to about eight teams almost overninight). They decided to join the MISL as well, pretty much taking the Arrows' place as the area franchise. They adapted, but it primarily left the team too tired for the outdoor season, and tarnished their image as a "real" soccer team. To the remaining fans the team had, it was like Joe Louis in the wrestling ring.

In a small way.

Getting back to Messing, his popularity was largely due to a sex-symbol status that could have only appeared in the seventies. He had posed for Playgirl in the seventies, but his look was of the curly-mane, curly-moustache, curly-chest-hair sort that had originally been a staple of gay iconography (and the source for the Marlboro man), but had somehow become a winning hetero look in the disco decade. Ladies and gentlemen, Shep Messing.

Jun 14 2005 08:20 AM

Looks like Shep hasn't changed that much..

Jun 14 2005 08:41 AM

Didn't Alexi Lalas have weird hair?


Frayed Knot
Jun 14 2005 08:48 AM

Lalas had a big mane of red hair and and a shaggy goatee to match.

My memories of the NASL is that they let those first few 65,000+ attendance days at Giants stadium go to their heads. They were convinced their sport "had arrived" in America and went about expanding and assuming that the out-of-nowhere growth that the Cosmos (briefly) experienced were going to be the norm all over. They had no patience for the slow & steady 'up-from-the-grassroots' kind of growth that every other sport had to endure at one point or another. I think there was a notion that the TV age had rendered that model obsolete.

Edgy DC
Jun 14 2005 08:58 AM

Personally, I think that almost every upstart league has made the same mistake since.

Jun 14 2005 09:07 AM

Joining in late here -

I do remember going to Randall's Island to see the Cosmos play once when Pele was on the team. But that's the extent of my memory of the event.

Johnny Dickshot
Jun 14 2005 09:28 AM

I saw the Arrows ca. 1983 with Gia Cerone* . Don't recall much of the game. Do seem to remember a team logo that looked like it was designed by a Jr. High Schooler.

"Pele is king of the soccer field. To be king of your kitchen, use Crestfield wax paper." (walks off field with bag full of cash)

*Web photo unavailable, but 5-star Guided By Voices album review at amazon. She dug Sprinsteen A LOT more than normal chicks in the pre-River era. I think she runs a restaurant now.

Edgy DC
Jun 14 2005 09:39 AM

I went to my first Arrows game after playing an all-star game on the surface at the Colliseum. I still owe Kenny Wolf a whack for knocking me into the boards.

Johnny Dickshot
Jun 14 2005 09:46 AM

Inspired by the PAC-Man logo

Jun 14 2005 09:48 AM

Don't forget Val Tuksa, Zoltan Toth, and Fred Grgurev.

And this is the Arrows logo I remember:

Edgy DC
Jun 14 2005 09:49 AM

Another MISL team was called the Cleveland Force, and they introduced their players to Star Wars music while Darth Vader swung a light saber.

This worked for a year or two until a half dozen lawyers from 20th Century Fox paid a visit.

Jun 14 2005 09:57 AM

Did George Best play in MISL or NASL, I know it was of a team in San Jose and on a George Best video I had when I was a kid it had an amazing goal he scored where he beat just about every player on the other team before scoring.

Edgy DC
Jun 14 2005 10:04 AM

George Best's remains played in the NASL for the Los Angeles Aztecs, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and San Jose Earthquakes.

"George, where did it all go wrong?"

Willets Point
Jun 14 2005 10:10 AM

Don't forget the proposal for Pele Stadium.

Source: Bring Back the Cosmos Campaign

Jun 14 2005 11:03 AM

Best got arrested just last week for domestic violence,.he showed up at his Ex's place drunk and apparently hit a friend of hers...

remember any of these games?, and is #9 the greatest game ever played in NASL?

Jun 14 2005 01:31 PM

I saw Pele's farewell game.

And I saw a game in which he scored on a bicycle kick. For real. The one that they manufactured for Stallone in "Victory." He said after the game he had only done that three times in his life.

Pele and Jackie Robinson were the two most exciting athletes I ever saw.

Jun 14 2005 09:33 PM

"George where did it all go wrong?"

Well more bad news to report on George Best from earlier today...he wasted his talent and then wasted his life..pissed it against a wall...

]Sam Jones
Tuesday June 14, 2005
The Guardian

George Best has been arrested on suspicion of indecently assaulting a young girl, it emerged last night.
The former Northern Ireland and Manchester United footballer is alleged to have attacked the girl, aged under 13, in Surrey last month.

A spokesman for Surrey police said last night: "We have received an allegation of indecent assault against a 59-year-old man who was arrested at an address in Surrey on June 9. "The allegations concern a girl under the age of 13, and the incident is said to have taken place in May."

He added: "We're not prepared to discuss details."
Police questioned Best for more than nine hours last week about an incident in which he allegedly punched a 34-year-old woman outside the home of his ex-lover, Gina Devivo, in Ewell, Surrey.

The interview was delayed because Best had received a facial injury the previous week during an encounter with his then lover Ros Hollidge, who was cautioned by police over the incident.

Best's agent, Phil Hughes, said he "categorically" denied the allegation.

Best received a liver transplant in 2002 and vowed to give up alcohol, but started drinking again after a few months.

It was reported last night that Best was staying with his ex-wife, Alex, at Lower Kingswood, Surrey.

Jul 08 2005 09:21 PM

To follow up on the great Pele..,14546,-5128470,00.html

]Pele shoots (film), scores (publicity for museum)!
By Steve James
NEW YORK, July 8 (Reuters) - Soccer legend Pele, who joined the New York Cosmos 30 years ago, was back in the city on Friday, not as a missionary for the world's most popular sport but presenting a documentary film of his life.
"This is the bible of Pele's life," said the still lithe 64-year-old Brazilian star, who is considered a soccer god to millions of fans worldwide.
Appropriately for a man who was an artist on the soccer field, the movie was being screened at New York's Museum of Modern Art. It's a bit different from the last time Pele was seen on the big screen, in the 1981 Hollywood movie "Escape to Victory,' alongside Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone, about a group of Allied PoWs who take on their Nazi captors.
Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or Pele, as he is simply known, was at the Manhattan museum among the Picassos, Matisses and Dalis, to introduce "Pele Eterno" (Pele Forever), which was being shown at the museum on Saturday and Sunday as part of MoMA's exhibition of Brazilian cinema.
Directed by Anibal Massaini, it tells the life of the player through the eyes of his family and former teammates. It includes historic footage, some of it 50 years old, of a few of Pele's 1,281 goals in a 22-year career, including tallies in Brazil's 1958 and 1970 World Cup final victories.
"The first goal I scored at Maracana (stadium in Rio), I was 16 and I only just saw it on film for the first time," he told Reuters in an interview in the museum's screening room.
That, he said, is what prompted him to approach Massaini to make the film, to document his achievements.
"I feel very happy because this is the bible of Pele's life. Because the young generation now have proof," he said.
However, as he pointed out, when he was breaking into the Santos team in Rio as a shy teenager with outrageous ball skills, TV was in its infancy, there was no videotape and matches were only filmed for newsreels.
"Everything you heard about movie stars and sports stars, we didn't have tape," he said, regretting that his father, a professional player named Dondinho, once scored five goals with his head in one game, but had no documentary evidence.
"My goal was for the new generation to compare, so they can say 'Oh, this is the legend.'"
When Pele came to the United States in 1975 to play for the Cosmos in the now defunct North American Soccer League, it was partly to promote soccer in the land of baseball and American football.
"I did a lot of clinics, but the young kids, they didn't know. They just knew my name."
But with the film, which took five years to make, Pele's feats will live forever. "I now have proof for the new generation and my grandsons, when they grow. I will have something of my life to show them."
But it's not just a highlights reel, he said. "This message for the new generation is about winning and self-confidence." (PEOPLE-PELE, Reporting by Steve James, editing by David Storey; Reuters Messaging; 646-223-6000))