In the 1970s, the great Pelé made the New York Cosmos the most famous club in the world, but the soccer project quickly faded. Since the re-establishment in 2010, the Cosmos now want to join the MLS, but are repeatedly thrown back – most recently in league three.
If you drive over the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge on Randall’s Island in New York and look down, nothing today reminds you that one of the most colorful episodes in football history began right here. Not even the last vestiges of green paint.
Roughly where Icahn Stadium stands today, where Usain Bolt first set a world record over 100 meters in 2008, on June 15, 1975, 21,278 spectators allegedly crowded the shabby Downing Stadium to see the “king” of football. Pelé.
They paint the earth at night
Five years after his third World Cup triumph in the legendary Aztec Stadium in Mexico City, the football retiree should lace his shoes again – and play against the Dallas Tornado under a highway bridge. Against who? And more on earth than on grass, which had been meticulously painted green the night before the game, so that the semi-professional framework of this unbelievable opening game into a new future made a better impression on the TV screens of 22 broadcasting countries .
The green is deceptive: Pelé’s debut under the bridge on June 15, 1975.
Color had played a key role in the founding of the North American Soccer League (NASL). This was the first time that the 1966 World Cup final between England and Germany was broadcast – and had called a few football fans who were few and far between in the United States onto the scene.
Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegün, for example, two Turkish brothers and owners of Atlantic Records. They brought Steve Ross on board, the President of Warner Communications, who had absolutely no idea about football and had never heard of Pelé, but was just as enthusiastic about sport in general as he was about the Brazilian being the figurehead of a planned football boom in the US – after Clive Toye, an English journalist hired as Cosmos manager, assured Ross that Pele’s popularity was comparable to that of the Pope.
1.4 million per year vote the “king” around
Five long years after the triumph of Mexico they had tried in vain to guide “O Rei” into the soccer developing country. The king always refused. Finally, Ross set up a gigantic contract that the then 34-year-old could not refuse. Even more than the roughly 1.4 million dollars a year – at that time an insane salary – Pelé had attracted the palatable role of football ambassador, who should make his sport popular in the world’s largest consumer nation.
Ross and the Ertegün brothers always thought bigger, that started with the naming. While the Turks proposed the “New York Blues” because of their musical background, Toye stuck in between and called a competition. Based on the baseball team of the New York Mets, the Metropolitans, the Cosmopolitans prevailed – to top it off again. In short: the New York Cosmos.
Pelé, the singer?
With Pelé, the greatest footballer in the world, the sky-strikers hit the jackpot. In order to set the necessary financial masses and thus also the Brazilian in motion, Warner and Co. had to do a lot of trickery. In order to save taxes, “O Rei” was registered as an artist on Ross’ label. And even if other Cosmos players used their fame to try out very different things – goalkeeper Shep Messing, for example, as a nude model – unfortunately there was never a song by Pelé.
The Cosmos are in town: Beckenbauer and Co. filled the stadiums across the country, Bugs Bunny (in the background) is also there.
Thanks to their figurehead, exactly what they had hoped for came true for the Cosmos: a real football boom flooded the USA. Franchises just sprout from the ground, wealthy owners shipped aging grandees like Johan Cruyff, George Best, Eusebio, Gerd Müller – as well as several other reasonably well-known Europeans who weren’t up to three – across the pond into the glittering league NASL, who actually managed to Americanize football.
From commercial breaks on TV – missed goals just had to be shown – to, above all, the highly stylized stadium experience. “Tailgating”, that means camping, barbecuing and drinking in the parking lots with other fans hours before kick-off; “Cheerleading”, once even actor Robin Williams mingled with the scantily clad dancers; and celebrating the players as superstars, who were announced with a lot of “Razzmatazz” before kick-off. Football these days was more American football than soccer.
The Cosmos were the best and the worst that could happen to the NASL.
Rodney Marsh (Tampa Bay Rowdies)
But the Cosmos, which had long since moved to the oversized Giants Stadium, outshone the sobering facts. They were “the best and the worst that could have happened to the NASL,” Rodney Marsh of the Tampa Bay Rowdies once said. The quality, spectacle and glamor of the dazzling team from New York could not be duplicated elsewhere.
The Cosmos had Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and the Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia, who switched to the NASL at his performance peak and shot everything short and sweet; they were even briefly trained by Hennes Weisweiler – and cheered on by Mick Jagger, Barbra Streisand and Muhammad Ali.
Even America’s biggest stars, such as boxing icon Muhammad Ali (right), are adorning themselves with the cosmos these days.
“In our cabin I thought I was in Hollywood,” said Beckenbauer once about his time in New York, when the parties started right after the games under the Cosmos shower before they were relocated to the legendary “Studio 54”. “I’m with the Cosmos” was the key phrase for anyone to get into anything in New York in the late ’70s.
The success of the Cosmos distorts the truth
The super team from the east coast – Europe’s top clubs fought for friendly matches against the Cosmos – was the center of the football world in these years, some stars traveled especially to play at least one guest appearance in the famous white and green jersey. But while Chinaglia, Beckenbauer and Co. lived in booze even after Pelé’s final resignation in 1977, were cheered, played in front of tens of thousands of fans and won the championship almost every year, the unequal league had long since collapsed.
Teams, of which there were at some point more than good players, sometimes only existed for a year or two before they – because anything but lucrative – were sold again by their unattached owners and finally dropped. Pelé could only have one team – and in addition to more or less well-known players from Europe, mainly amateurs from Latin America filled the teams. A school system common in US sports to promote local talent, which would also have created local interest and more identification, was not installed.
After a few glamorous years, the NASL burned up and imploded again. Even the Cosmos slipped more and more into insignificance in 1980 after the departure of Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto – and with the hobbyhorse of a doomed league also their TV contract. The Soccer Bowl 1981 was only broadcast as a recording with a time delay, three years later the NASL and with it the Soccer project were finally crushed. The end of the New York Cosmos.
New start with Pelé, Cantona and Raul
They then disappeared from the scene for 25 years, the cosmos became really quiet – several attempts at “rebirth” were forced – but never. It wasn’t until 2009 that rights holder G. Peppe Pinton let himself be softened and sold the franchise name, which should definitely be brought into the Major League Soccer (MLS), which started in 1996. A year later, the Cosmos were re-established – not only because of old ties, the new owners installed none other than Pelé as honorary president.
Faces of the new cosmos – if not for long: Raul (left) and Eric Cantona.
Getty Images (2)
The big names should fix it again: The celebrated comeback of the cult club took place in 2011 as part of Paul Scholes’ farewell game, arranged by the new, but only short-term football director – Eric Cantona. The top priority was still the entry into the MLS, but the then CEO Seamus O’Brien withdrew the project in view of the cost of joining in the amount of 100 million dollars and the transfer of its own trademark rights to the league.
In 2013, the Cosmos finally started operating again in the league – in the also newly founded, but now second-rate NASL. In the first year, as well as in 2015 and 2016 – the stars were now about Juan Arango, Marcos Senna and above all Raul Gonzalez Blanco – New York celebrated the (small) championship. The US league system does not provide for promotions and relegations.
In 2014, New York City FC prevailed – crashed into fourth class
Inconsistencies in the management team – which had long since affected Cantona and ensured that not Cosmos, but New York City FC was accepted into the MLS as early as 2014 – repeatedly put the existence of the franchise at risk. In addition, the NASL was also discontinued in 2018. For a short time, chaotic cosmos slipped into the non-professional fourth class as a listed B-Team.
In 2020 everything should finally be different, the next restart was on the agenda. New York signed up for the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA), one – but not the only – third division. One step back, two steps forward, the usual. But Corona thwarted the season and the cosmos.
Gave his money, but also advice, passion and football a face in America: Steve Ross (r., 1927-1992).
Desired destination MLS: further away than ever?
43 years after Pelé was carried to the championship celebration, the New York Cosmos are once again on the sidelines. The Mitchel Athletic Complex in the New York suburb of Uniondale, which only holds 5000 spectators and was last specified as the current venue, remains empty for the time being. Perhaps the Cosmos have never been further from the MLS than on this December 2020, when the future of what was once the world’s most famous football team appears more uncertain than ever.
Of course, she lacks a Pelé or a Raul. But even more is she missing a passionate visionary like Steve Ross, who even fulfilled his greatest dream under far more adverse conditions by bringing the soccer World Cup in 1994 to the USA. He could enjoy Brazil’s triumph at the gates of Hollywood, the first since Pelé in 1970 in the Aztec Stadium, but no longer. Two years earlier, Ross had succumbed to cancer.