The Founding Fathers Of American Soccer

It’s the Fourth of July, a wonderful holiday.  Heck, even if you aren’t American, and I’m not, what’s isn’t there to enjoy about spreading a blanket in a nice grassy field, sipping wine with some friends and watching the night sky explode into bright colours as a symphony busts out some John Phillip Sousa?  Case in point:

Unfortunately, the Weather Man is in a pouty mood.  Which is why I’m sitting in a bookstore a few hours before dark, surfing the internet and bemoaning the sudden dearth of World Cup matches after nearly three weeks of daily football injections.  Maybe FA should stand for Footballer’s Anonymous.

The hottest soccer story online today features Cristiano Ronaldo descending into the same madness that took Michael Jackson.  He has proudly announced to the world that he’s just become the father of a bouncing baby boy.  Furthermore, the mother wishes to retain her anonymity and has, in order to avoid a life in the spotlight, ceded sole custody of the newborn to the Real Madrid heart-throb.  So Ronaldo is, in effect, an unwed father, looking forward to the challenges of raising his son and defeating those pesky Catalans, both apparently singlehandedly.  I think the word I’m looking for is bizarre.

Desperate for something a little less tabloidish to pass the time, I went to Surf The Channel, hoping a film might just cure my ennui.  STC is a very handy site for catching up on the latest episodes of whatever television shows you might like, as well as watching movies that may have seemed interesting but not worth $20 to catch in the theatre.  They’re basically a clearing house, linking you to (mostly) free content on several other sites.  Free is good.

At any rate, when I went to their film and movie catalogue, one newly available item caught my eye.  Once In A LIfetime:  The Story Of The New York Cosmos* is a 2006 documentary that covers the intriguing history of the original Galacticos, assembled over two decades before Florentino Perez brought Luis Figo, Roberto Carlos, Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham to Madrid.  I might add that the Cosmos were an even headier collection of star power than their Spanish descendants, though similarly flawed.

Beckenbauer, Pele, Chinaglia. A true power trio

Can you imagine a side that featured the aged but still skilled Brazilians, Pele and Carlos Alberto, along with Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia, both still in their prime?   Hold on, because that was just the beginning.  There was Hubert Birkenmeier in goal, Vladislav Bogicevic in midfield, Roberto Cabanas, Johan Neeskins, Julio Cesar Romero, Jomo Sono and even a brief cameo from Johann Cruyff.  It was the ‘Pitch of Dreams’ before W.P. Kinsella wrote the words, “If you build it he will come.”  For those of you more cinematic than literary, the line would later be immortalised in the Kevin Costner, Academy Award nominated, baseball film, Field Of Dreams.  In fact, given that Kinsella wrote the book, Shoeless Joe, in 1982, when the Cosmos were at the height of their dizzying popularity, it’s possible they may have given him some small inspiration.

The team was born of the dreams of Steve Ross, the founder of Warner Communications, and Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun of Atlantic Records.  Steve Ross wanted Atlantic Records as part of Warner Brothers and Nesuhi Ertegun wanted to own a football club.  The Cosmos started out as a semi-professional side in the North American Soccer League, a merging of the surviving clubs from the two floundering professional leagues in the US.  The players on the various clubs played in empty, backwater stadiums, doing so out of love for the game.  There certainly was no money in it and they all had day jobs.

Randy Hunt, the Cosmos’ original striker worked in a safari park, which was fitting.  At the time, organised soccer in America was akin to a kangaroo wandering around Times Square.  If people saw you kicking a round ball on a field, instead of picking it up and running with it, their first thought was that you’d likely escaped from a zoo somewhere.

Despite being the American minnow swimming with European sharks, Shep was anything but modest.

Shep Messing, the keeper, was willing to do almost anything for a buck, including posing in the nude for a magazine.  Since, according to our demographics, almost ninety per cent of our readers are male, I should warn you.  The documentary goes into some detail on this, sharing some of the photos in the layout.

When they showed the first one and began to pan down slowly, I remember thinking, “Okay, they’re going to cut to another shot any second now.”  I waited patiently but it didn’t happen.  Will I ever learn?  Never, ever assume.  I can tell you that, on this occasion, more than an ass was made of me.

So, when the time comes, look away or squeeze your eyes shut and count to ten.  Slowly.  The filmmakers were very interested in this sequence.  Did I mention it’s a BBC production?   To be fair, they do make up for the exposing a little too much of the goalkeeper by providing some excellent footage from the 1966 World Cup final.

Moving on, though, you really couldn’t call the Cosmos a large outfit in the early days, despite Shep Messing’s personal bait and tackle.

Steve Ross, however, was the embodiment of the American entrepreneur.   Everything he did, including dream, was done in one way — big.  As huge as football was in the rest of the world, it was virtually unheard of in the US.  Most people would view that as a sign that soccer was a losing proposition;  Ross saw it as an untapped market.  He put the resources of Warner Communications and the US State Department to work and signed the greatest player in the world to transform a beer league into ‘champagne wishes and caviar dreams.’

With Pele on board, Ross sent his headhunters out to get another big name.  That turned out to be Lazio talisman Giorgio Chinaglia.  The Italian was a narcissistic sycophant.  He quickly attached himself to Ross and sought to usurp Pele’s position in the locker room hierarchy.  He wasn’t a great teammate but he could definitely finish.

One of the most refreshing features of the film is the frankness of the various subjects in presenting their versions of events.  There is no political correctness, professional courtesy or attempts to present events in the best possible light.  Everyone shoots from the hip, fast and hard.

In 1978 and 1980, I was lucky enough to see the Cosmos a handful of times.  Like many other kids in North America, it was my first exposure to professional soccer.  As you can see, I was hooked.  At the time, I didn’t understand how such a great team could be as erratic as the Cosmos were.  They would rip apart the league for a while and then play horribly for prolonged stretches.

At the time, the papers put it down to the gap in talent between the stars, Chinaglia, Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto, and the rest of the roster, mostly American amateurs and journeymen from the English league like Godfrey Ingram and Dennis Tueart.  As it turns out, it was more likely due to all the infighting and the incessant partying.

Steve Ross, the original Abramovich

Still, Ross kept going out and spending large amounts of money to bring in more big names.

The Cosmos were the dominant force in the league and did quite well touring Europe to play friendlies against major clubs.  At home, they were selling out Giants Stadium in New Jersey before the primary tenant, the New York Football Giants.  Other NASL teams went after big names, Tampa had Randy Marsh and the Los Angeles Aztecs welcomed Brand Best before Beckham was even a twinkle in the soccer gods’ eyes.

No one had the money to keep up with Ross and the Cosmos, however and doesn’t that sound familiar, with Chelsea, Madrid and Man City keeping the torch of the almighty dollar ablaze?  Sadly, the Warner war chest wasn’t bottomless and with the lack of television ratings to back them up, even the Cosmos went belly up.  They were the first big club to go out of existence.  With the situations ongoing at Pompey, especially, but Liverpool, Newcastle and Manchester United, as well, they may not be the last.

It’s a rare occasion when English fans would be well advised to heed a lesson from the American game but this may be one of those times. I give you one of my favourite quotes, from the philosopher George Santayana:

“Those who cannot not remember their past are condemned to repeat it.”

–The Life of Reason

What legacy have the Cosmos left in their wake?  Since the demise of the club and the NASL in the mid eighties, youth soccer has grown in leaps and bounds.  The US men’s team has qualified for six consecutive World Cups and expectations are increasing each time.  The women’s team is already a world power.  Without the Cosmos, none of this was likely to have occurred, nor would we have ever heard the expression, ‘soccer mom.’

Major League Soccer hasn’t forgotten the failure of their predecessor.  They’ve taken a slower path towards the same goal.  Adhering to a strict financial discipline, the growth has been steady.  They are happy to endure the teasing of bigger leagues who deride their lack of quality.  The market for soccer is still here in the US and the new league is slowly but surely tapping into it.

The goal of MLS is to be a strong, steady flame rather than an exploding supernova.  Fireworks are breathtaking but they are over very quickly.

The link provided is to Mega Video’s archive of the documentary.  If you’re not familiar with them, Mega Video allows you to make use of their catalogue for free or with the purchase of a membership.  Without the membership, the film will be interrupted after 72 minutes.  You will have to wait 54 minutes to resume viewing the final 20 minutes or so.  Free is good but paying has its perks, too.  To begin viewing, click on the red button in the middle of the window and then the green one which follows.

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